Monday, October 27, 2008


So, I'm walking home from the Metro station a few minutes ago, and the street's pretty empty, and I'm walking fast 'cause I wanna get home for dinner. I hear footsteps coming up behind me, also walking fast, and getting closer. Without even thinking about it, I adjust my bag and glance over my shoulder to see who's there. And it's nobody bad, just some guy with a briefcase who probably also wants to get home for dinner, who happens to be a lot taller than me (not uncommon) and so his "walking fast" happens to be rather faster than my "walking fast," and he ended up passing me by and going on his way without saying a word or even acknowledging my presence (which is the norm here; it's rare for people on the street to greet, nod to, or even make eye contact with people they don't know).

And this started me off on a surprisingly long train of thought, given the short amount of walking I had left to do.

First I was a little peeved, as I always am, that my very first gut reaction in such a situation has to be fear, or at least suspicion. Having lived most of my life in rural and small-town environments, the danger of being victim to random stranger violence or being snatched off the street or what have you was never really forefront in my mind, but simply by virtue of my being a girl and having watched the news at some point in my life, the idea is there. And don't get me wrong, it's a good instinct to have; I'd much rather be suspicious and safe than obliviously trusting and kidnapped or worse. But it peeves me makes me pretty damn angry that such an instinct is necessary for women in our society.

Which then led to a slightly happier realization, which was that this is the first time in a long time that I've had that kind of reaction. I've been out walking by myself after dark countless times since I've been here in Barcelona, and quite often (on my street at least) there are few or no other people around. And it's not scary. Violent crime is way less common here than in the US (handguns are illegal here, can I get an AMEN?!); the worst that's likely to happen is that you get pickpocketed (which is very likely in some areas, but fairly easy to avoid if you're careful). Since arriving here, I've never felt anything less than safe.

And of course, this is something they tell us in the literature when they're trying to sell the program: it's a very safe city, you can walk home by yourself from the club at 3 AM and nothing bad will happen, blah blah blah. But, they say, be ready for catcalls and casual harassment, especially if you're of the female, blond-haired, blue-eyed, obviously foreign-looking type. Which I am, and I've traveled enough to come to expect that type of behavior (in larger US cities too, though not on account of the "foreign" aspect). It certainly happened on all of my visits to Mexico. It even happened in Japan, although there it wasn't harassment, exactly, but I certainly don't look Japanese, and people noticed. (The first time we went, I was eight, and I remember perfect strangers coming up and petting my hair on the train.) But the thing is, it hasn't happened here. I can't recall one instance of my being whistled at, catcalled, or otherwise interrupted in all of my wanderings of the city.* I suppose part of it may be that I don't look all that "foreign" here—I'm not your average weeklong-stay tourist, wandering about in Las Ramblas, hanging out in the tapas bars and drinking sangria. I know my areas of the city, I can navigate the metro without stopping to read all the signs, and if my Spanish is nothing like a native's, it's at least passable as something I'm used to using.**

But I haven't noticed any of the garden-variety, it's-because-you're-a-girl type of harassment here either, which surprises me, not only because I was told to expect it, but because I thought that was something that happened everywhere.*** And this makes me want to know, why? What's different here, and how do we make it that way elsewhere?****

I'm adding this to my list of reasons why Europe is basically the best place in the world. So far, I've got multilinguicity, socialized health care, environmental awareness, legal gay marriage, and Mediterranean cuisine. The only detractors I can come up with are the non-existence of trick-or-treating and a serious lack of ketchup, and in the end, I guess these are things one can live without. Seriously, I need to start pricing apartments.

*Well, I must qualify, there was one time at a bar when a guy came up to one of my friends and said, "Excuse me, but you are stunningly beautiful," and then walked away, which is something I would generally put in the category of harassment—being an uninvited, objectifying comment—but he was so drunk and it was so adorably funny the way he did it that I have a hard time classifying it as such. And even so, that one incident out of the whole time we've been here so far? Not much.

**And, though I haven't noticed any overt anti-American sentiment, I wonder if it makes a difference that I apparently don't look American? I've been taken for German and British, but so far nobody I've talked to has called me as a US-native on the first try. I don't know why this is, or what it means, but I'll take it as a good thing.

***Well, at least in all big cities. It's never happened to me at home, but that's because in a town that size, if the guy doesn't know you directly, he at least knows your dad, or your sister's best friend, or your cousin's roommate's brother, or what-have-you. Without the guarantee of anonymity, it all falls down.

****I really like the asterisks—can you tell?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dear UB,

I love your free, fast, working internet.