Abandoned Wig
Hi, I'm Martin.
I work on the Web Platform at Igalia.

Small Things

01 November 2017

Even between two highly-developed western countries, there are a lot of cultural differences. After moving, I experienced the sort of culture shock that the Internet warns you about. Thankfully, the passage of time means that grumbling noon-time stomachs gradually give way to curiously peckish 2:30pm lunches. Instead of sitting in dread, willing your useless, polite American hands to flag a waiter, you manage to order a tiny beer using only your eyeballs. Big differences fade into the background so much that maybe you start to keep a list of them, just to avoid the feeling that you are forgetting some original piece of yourself.

This new familiarity begins to expose the incredibly long tail of subtle differences that have been hanging out quietly in the background. Unnamed onomatopoeias have a completely different sound. People are making gestures with their hands while they speak, and those gestures actually mean something very clear. Your brain calmly catalogs these curiosities as they become too trivial to comment on.

If you are like me, you stare at the street, the stoplights, and the sidewalks. Suddenly, the endless, small scale war being waged in the space between the double (and triple) parkers and the buildings becomes apparent. You see the rows of bollards silently holding back a tide of cars and delivery vans. Unspoken rules from your home country no longer apply here, after having taken them for granted for years

I don’t want to blab on too long about mundane things, so I will just point to the example of curb cuts. In the US we use curb cuts to connect the roadway to private garages, driveways, and parking lots. Thousands of dollars are spent lovingly crafting each of these small cement altars to the passage of automobiles. The sidewalk itself kneels to the pavement, so that cars can smoothly and comfortably climb into pedestrian space. This is all, of course, at the expense of people walking and in wheelchairs who often have to travel across an uneven sidewalk and wait for cars as they appear and (hopefully) leave. A curb cut is a signal that at any moment a car may enter the sidewalk and that it has a right to be there.

Spanish cities sometimes use little ramps instead. They look cheap and their metal surface is usually painted a bright and gaudy yellow. Their angle is decidedly steeper compared to modern curb cuts in the US, which means it is not easy to drive onto the sidewalk quickly or comfortably. Additionally, they look like they can also be added and removed cheaply and without modifying the sidewalk at all. Even more bizarrely, they are installed on the sacred roadway itself, so the sidewalk remains level for the all people who might happen to be using it. Sometimes, they even extend so far out into the roadway that parallel parking would be difficult or impossible, which prevents the space from becoming a private parking spot.

These little ramps are a small detail of the city, but for me they send a clear message. They announce to cars that they are entering a segregated pedestrian space. This invitation is conditional on moving slowly and carefully and can be revoked at any time with a hydraulic wrench. Maybe they are common simply because they are a cheap leftover from a period when this was a poorer country. I have a feeling that as time goes on, they will slowly be replaced by compact curb cuts descending from nice, new sidewalks. Despite all this, I feel a little bit of sadness, because their economy and their imperfection made the sidewalk just that much nicer.