Crossing Roads

No, this is not a grammatical error. It was not my intention to re-invent the concept of crossroads, but rather reflect on the simple act of crossing a road. Have you ever stood at a stoplight (regardless of the country you live in) and watched people? There are two places I love to study human behaviour – cafés and streets. These are the two places people let their guard down and go about their business as is nobody else is around them and the rest of the world doesn’t matter.

I choose to distinguish between restaurants and cafés because restaurants are more formal, ensuring that the patrons follow a certain etiquette and perhaps even dress code. In other words, to conform to social norms and lose face. We speak in hushed voices, use the right cutlery and glassware, careful not to slurp or burp out of place (or not at all). Cafés on the other hand, or pubs for that matter, are either loud or chaotic, or both. This is where people flock to let their hair down, connect with friends or neighbours, definitely not the venue for formal business discussions.

Cafés tend to be a bit more subdued, with a lot more solitary customers or smaller groups. The mood is more intimate, relaxed, but not formal. This is where I love to observe couples or senior citizens, families out and about taking a break from shopping or day trip. I love soaking in the body language, the little gestures that speak louder than words, and the way people communicate across the table with just their eyes.

Recently, however, the manner in which people cross roads has caught my attention. I have grown up and lived in countries where stoplights tend to have a more decorative purpose and zebra stripes on the street are alternative forms of mandalas. In other words, nobody gives a damn. I have come to the conclusion that the attitude of a people to stoplights pretty much mirrors the culture. In countries where you have people crossing the road anwhere execept the stoplight, like in the Philippines or India for example, the sense of law and order tends to be just as chaotic. To each his own, and it is all about ignoring regulations until you get caught or run over. In contrast, in countries like Germany or the USA, where you have throngs of people at the corner waiting for the light to turn green before even daring to set foot on the road, you notice that these are cultures so intrinsically fearful of breaking the law, that there are terms such as “jaywalking” or fines for drivers who do not give pedestrians right of way at the zebra stripes.

Then there is Portugal, where neither motorist nor pedestrian gives a damn. Crossing the road here is more of a test of determination, a race to see who will cave in the fastest. More often than not I find myself standing alone at a stoplight waiting for the light to turn green even though there isn’t a car in sight. The law is the law! How often have I caught myself wondering whether I am too German for my own good? While I am contemplating this, everyone else who arrived before or after me has long since crossed the road. Like unsaid, the green and red lights are purely decorative in nature!

If “jaywalking” is the term for crossing the road illegally, what do you call crossing the train tracks illegally? There must be a legally coined term somewhere but i bet you it wasn’t invented in Portugal. I love this country and most quirks that come with living here, but I shake my head in bewilderment when I watch people jumping down the platform and onto the tracks to run over to the other side because they are late. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first and though it was a fluke the first time. But after almost six months of living here I can safely say it is a regular thing. It is no surprise then that the mortality rate of people getting run over by trains here is astounding.

Back to crossing the road though… why did the chicken do it? To get to the other side of course, isn’t that why we all cross the road in the first place? It is a matter of necessity rather than conformity and the urgency of the need dictates our attitude. Is there somebody waiting on the other side? Are you going to miss a ride? Is the store about to close? The question is, will you go by the book and be safe, albeit boring or are you willing to risk it all and walk on the wild side?

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