Europe / Travel Piece

An Odd Etiquette

On the bus from Riga to Tallinn I sat behind two French boys who, once the bus had emptied at Pärnu, sat in separate seats and slept. Some time later, one of the boys stirred and looked over at the toilet with that prolonged gaze that means someone is scoping out a situation. A lot of people do this, and especially on buses, when the final destination of the waste is unknown. It used to be that the onboard toilet was just for emergencies, and passengers were told to wait for rest stops along the way. Personally, I wait until someone else uses it first before waiting several more minutes – no matter how much I’m busting at the seams – and then go, confidently, with an air of faux spontaneity; a convincing act, until I can’t work out how to lock the door or turn on the light.

The French boy rose from his seat and stepped discretely towards the toilet door which, after an embarrassing display of pushing and pulling, didn’t open. He didn’t check beforehand if it was occupied. So he did what many people do in a situation like this: he pretended the journey wasn’t wasted and turned around to face the coffee machine and made a coffee. This action, I thought as I watched, was counter-productive (or really, over-productive) to his dilemma, but he sat down again, with a cloak of certainty and started sipping from his lidded cardboard cup.

I watched all this with interest because I needed to pee too. And I felt sorry for the guy when, as his back was turned, the person occupying the toilet exited and returned to their seat. Now, I’m sure some of you would have jumped at the opportunity of a free toilet to empty your bladder straight away. But, I felt bad for the French boy, having fumbled awkwardly like I would have. So I waited. I waited until someone else on the bus got up and went to the toilet and returned to their seat, all in view of the French guy, so he knew to go next. This reasoning is illogical, I hear you say, because “Sam, you could’ve taken on the role of ‘vacant-lavatory-liberator’, relieving yourself in the process!” And yet for some reason I couldn’t because I was so aware of what had happened. It felt too premeditated, even though it was – even though not going was just as premeditated. All I could imagine was me getting up and exclaiming loudly, “See!? Now the loo is free to use: but I will go first, even when I know you should be first in line!” (Nervous laugh, staring maniacally at the other passengers.)

Not five minutes later an older man climbed his way to the toilet, and I saw the French guy see his opportunity and leapt out of his seat. Soon they were both done, and I took the chance to go myself, reflecting on the very odd etiquette I had just performed. I hope the French guy was grateful.

I’m noticing my unobtrusive behaviour a lot, being alone. Too often I’ll not complain about irritants with the rationale that by doing that – by playing a martyr – the disturbance will go away, and karma will sort me out later on. Most of the time I get overwhelmingly shy about telling people off for their behaviour, whilst all the time judging them according to my strict rule book of behavioural “dos and don’ts”. The majority of these rules concerns being unobtrusive, and yet when I’m in a country that “battens down the hatches” in day-to-day life like that, I feel like screaming, or singing, or swearing – actually, mostly just swearing.

*

On my last day in Estonia, I had to wake up early. I hadn’t got to sleep as early as I’d hoped, either, because of the German girl (the one who had received “head” a couple of nights before). She kept coming into the dorm room, turning on the light, lining up her toiletries and running back and forth to the bathroom. As consolation I told myself that in the morning, when I knew I’d be up before her, I’d make as much noise as I wanted. And yet, when blearily and angrily, I stepped out of bed, I tiptoed and muffled the noises of zips and plastic bags, and closed the door with care. I wanted to slap myself for it, but mostly I wanted to slap the German. (It turned out she really was crazy – obsessive compulsive and a sex-addict. No other hostels would have her, apparently.)

I dragged my luggage out of the old town, and when I realised how close the port was, and how much I didn’t want to argue the taxi fare with a Russian driver, I decided to walk. Even though the weight of my bags was equal to the weight of the bags under my eyes, I bounded along because I was finally moving on; and moving on out of Europe.

But first I needed to get to Helsinki airport. The ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki takes two and a half hours, during which I ate a bland, overpriced hot breakfast and listened to my iPod, whilst trying to lie down in a space that was neither chair nor bed. The sky outside the ferry was dour: different shades of grey layered like a boarding school matron’s skirts. The water was still like a puddle, which made the crossing seem even more serious and determined. We glided into Helsinki and I dragged my luggage across the town centre, only noting the grandeur of a couple of orthodox churches and how the Finns look distinctly different to all the other peoples I’d seen so far on the trip. Elves? Or carved blancmange?

I caught the airport bus, and checked-in without a hitch, and then used the airport’s free wi-fi to pass the frustrating nothing-time before boarding. Everything went smoothly, but it was all so quiet; still, like the Baltic Sea during the crossing. People barely interacted and when they did, only a few economical words were chosen. Because everyone kept to themselves, I did the same, retreating to my thoughts, becoming a disconnected observer. Through most of Northern Europe I found an ever increasing silence: was it the weather drawing people inside? Or is there something more sinister happening to people? Are we so afraid of interacting as to never crash into one another? Some days, the only people I spoke more than a few words to were on my computer screen.

The European leg of my journey starred Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Manchester, Bath, Bristol, London, Copenhagen, Malmö, Berlin, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn, which is about 1900 kilometres over nine countries. I saw new places and revisited past lives. Some places I felt welcome, and in others I felt at home. Sometimes I felt bored, or drained; and sometimes I felt so disinterested it was like counter-travelling: though I moved through a place, I struggled to feel it have any affect on me.

I re-examined my rule book.

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One thought on “An Odd Etiquette

  1. i carry out the same kind of ‘unobtrusive’ behaviours too, most notably when i’m in a relationship. it’s hard not to be passive-aggressive sometimes….

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