Warning #1: this post has no photos, only ruminations.
Warning #2: I re-read and re-wrote this many times, and then debated whether I’d include it in our blog. But, in the end, it is MY blog (yes, I know, Ted’s too – but the “opinions” are pretty much all me), and I’m going to want to be able to come back and revisit this sometime in the future.
Nine years ago (2013) when we were in Europe, what struck us about the big cities was how CLEAN they were: no litter anywhere. And how well-dressed the local city folk were: even in the hot July weather you could tell the tourists by their logo-ed tee shirts and running shoes, something the natives eschewed in favour of linen shirts and woven leather espadrilles. We also noted the night-life and restaurant culture, which was so different from what we had in Ontario at the time. Every city had pedestrian-only zones, almost every place that served food or drink had a lovely patio, and the city streets buzzed until about 1 a.m. (well, 2 a.m. in the centre of Munich) and then dispersed quite civilly. People smiled at each other when they passed on the street.
Six years ago (2016) when we were in Germany and Austria, those things were still the same – and we really loved it. It felt good to be walking on clean safe streets. It felt good to dress a bit neater to go out than to sit inside watching TV. And it was wonderful to spend the evenings outdoors enjoying food, drinks, and (almost always) live music. It felt good to smile at wait staff, and at complete strangers, and have them smile back.
This past winter, as we visited cities on our world cruise, Europe (like everywhere else) was just coming out of a 2-year Covid nightmare, and it seemed as if everyone was anxious for things to get back to “normal”.
Except of course, “normal” seems to have drastically changed.
We’re seeing truly shocking levels of litter, even in formerly pristine Vienna once you get out of the inner ring where things are kept clean to maintain a good impression for tourists. In Berlin, a city where street-drinking is something of a competitive sport, the alacrity with which empty bottles are simply dropped onto the pavement is almost beyond belief (except, of course, that when you’re walking through them you have to believe it). Don’t even get me started on cigarette butts. They’re everywhere: on the street, in piles on stairways, in parks, and on the ground even in places where ashtrays and butt containers are ubiquitous. Trieste’s tourist core is tidy, but outside that – despite more available trash containers than we’ve seen anywhere else – young people especially seem to be just too lazy to walk the extra few steps to dispose of their empty bottles.
And folks have become just plain sloppy. Not Walmart joke kind of sloppy – more the “only dress for the part of you people can see on a Zoom call” kind of sloppy. The notable exceptions have been the Eastern European and Spanish tourists, who seem to have remembered that there can still be style under the hot summer sun.
I thought perhaps I was alone in noticing this, but acquaintances travelling all over Europe, including in formerly fashion-conscious countries like France and Italy, tell me they’re seeing the same trends in “street wear”. (It’s a trend we’ve definitely seen in Canada too.) That said, once it hit aperitivo hour, the women in Trieste hauled out the summer glamour; sadly the men generally didn’t, making for some pretty disconnected looking couples.
The night life? It has returned with a frenetic intensity. Parties now stay loud until 3 a.m., by which time no one seems to have the time/energy/desire to clean up the remnants. The street cleaning crews, when there are enough of them, have a truly daunting (and noisy) task at 5:30 a.m. trying to give each day a fresh start.
As far as smiling at strangers goes, removing masks seem to have revealed faces suddenly unsure of themselves and wary of those around them. It’s a bit sad, really.
So what has created these shifts in behaviour? Is this just societal evolution, or did 2 years of social isolation make people forget how to show respect for each other and their surroundings? Have we become immune to mess, disorganization, understaffing, and lack of the social niceties in the way that we hoped we’d become immune to Covid?
I don’t know the answer, but I’m feeling puzzled by and a little ill at ease with the changes. I’m waiting for the return to “real” normal.
Note: We head for England today, where it will be interesting to see whether the “trends” hold. And please don’t get me wrong – I’ve loved every minute of our summer in Europe, but it has definitely changed since we were here last.