Eurotrip Day 23: We Are Very Different

Spent the day doing nothing much unless you count walking up and down North and South Bridge Street and Nicholson Street trying to find the best rate to change pounds into euros, and realising after walking across the city centre that the first place I came across offered the best rate. The remainder of the afternoon, I occupied myself for about 3hrs by reading about Spain and planning an itinerary for the Iberian peninsula (which is now junked in favour of spontaneous, go-wherever-I-feel-like-on-the-spur travel) in a corner pub, having long overstayed the duration of patronage that a 99p cup of coffee would entitle me to.

Dinner was another one of my healthy, home-cooked meals. This one was chicken and tomato macaroni, which turned out surprisingly tasty. Even Daniel, my couchsurfing host in Edinburgh, agreed, though he couldn’t resist himself from also eating slices of wholemeal bread spread with mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. I asked him if it was a Spanish thing, having seen him done the same thing the previous night, and he laughed and said it was only him that loved mayonnaise and ketchup. Well, you meet all kinds of people when you couchsurf, that’s all I’d say. As you can probably tell, mayonnaise and ketchup rank very low in my list of edible substances.

Anyway, I got a little ahead of myself. The point of this post is to recount a very long and interesting conversation Daniel and I had. First things first, a proper introduction is in order. Daniel’s a 19-year-old guy from a relatively obscure small city in Northern Spain. He’s an ex-law student, and dropped out of law school after just a year, citing lack of interest and a desire to find a direction in life. Something’s that apparently very popular in the West, because both my London and Oxford couchsurfing hosts did something like that as well. Or maybe its just a couchsurfing thing?

Anyway, Daniel’s been in Edinburgh for three and a half months now, having moved here to seek a new direction in life. It’s not as difficult to just uproot and move as you think; thanks to the European Union, all it requires is just a snap of the fingers. No visa, no paperwork, nothing. Its hard for us in Singapore, one of the most internationalised cities in the world, to even comprehend how big the European Union is. Well, it's very, very, very big. Not just in terms of population or economic power, but in terms of how profound an impact it has had on the people and society of Europe. For example, my couchsurfing host (he’s Polish) in Aberdeen studies for free in the University of Aberdeen, kudos to the European Union. As well as his Bulgarian friend, which I met in the pub that night. And of course, we have Daniel here, who just moved to Edinburgh and is currently competing with the highly-unemployed workforce in the UK in getting a job. No need for a visa at all. Can you imagine that?

And in the airports, the lack of customs checks for citizens of the EU is just amazing. They just go through as if they had just come from Glasgow, and not Krakow.

You can just imagine the kind of social tensions that are created by this huge force of internal migration, which is aided by a huge fleet of low-cost airlines. For those skeptics who still think low-cost is a myth, that after adding up taxes and baggage allowance it’d cost about the same as a full-service airline, think again. I flew from Kuala Lumpur to London for 543 ringgit on AirAsia including two meals and checked baggage. That’s just over S$200 one-way. Try finding a one-way flight on a full service carrier for below S$900. And if you fly within Europe, especially when flying with Ryanair, it’s so ridiculously cheap. There are tons of fares where Ryanair just absorbs the airport tax and fuel surcharge – Lukasz said he once got a ONE POUND flight back to Poland. One pound! One of those many flights in which Ryanair magically waives the taxes and surcharges for you and gives you a rock-bottom fare, AND flies you to your destination on time. Anyway, that’s not the point. More about that in another post.

Let’s get back to the topic from which I’ve deviated quite a bit – the conversation between Daniel, 19-year-old Spanish guy, and yours truly. It was primarily about the differences between East and West. How this highly intellectual and important discussion transpired, I have no idea. It must have been something in my chicken and tomato macaroni.

We were both astonished at the differences between East and West. Approximately 100% of the Europeans I’ve met know about Singapore’s strict drug laws, and think its a draconian state. Do you know why? Because drugs are just so, so prevalent in Europe, its actually commonplace. Commonplace! Daniel has taken cocaine, marijuana, and tried a variety of other substances before, as well as smoked tobacco. And he gets drunk four times a week, once becoming so drunk that he fell off a one-storey building (but thankfully didn’t get hurt). He told me he’s not addicted to marijuana and such but has now stopped (not enough money). And then he said that he’s “not addicted” to it, but frequently finds himself thinking how good it would be to have some marijuana available right in his pocket when he’s waiting for the train or bus, so he can have a ‘happy’ time waiting. I’ve never taken marijuana before, but he describes it with such intensity that I felt as though I know what he means. Apparently when you consume marijuana, you look at life with a whole new other perspective. You see things you’ve never seen before, and you think wild thoughts and lots of inspiration suddenly floods your brain. It’s a state of mind when you feel you can solve problems, think creatively, paint a masterpiece, blah blah. You feel good.

The thing is, Daniel is not an isolated ‘case’, for want of a better word. He’s not a member of the mafia, for goodness’ sake, he’s a law student! Almost every young person in Europe has gone through a stage similar to his, in which they drink themselves crazy and smoke kilograms of weed. In comparison, according to official statistics, more than half of Singaporean youth haven’t even smoked a cigarette before. I told him about the negative connotations smoking, drinking and taking drugs have in Singapore, and he’s honestly shocked. That’s how common it is in Europe.

Another very obvious difference between Europeans and Asians is how they deal with other people. We concluded that Europeans tend to be direct and straightforward, whereas Asians like to go in a sort of roundabout sort of way to avoid causing any damage on the surface. In Asia, society usually comes before individual. We usually are somewhat okay with suffering some sort of indignation as long as everything appears harmonious on the surface. I told him that democracy will never be invented in the East, it could only have been a product of Western culture. He asked me if I feel ‘repressed’ living in a society like this, and I honestly told him that it doesn’t really bother me. I mean, growing up in a society where face matters, where people would be more likely than Westerners to swallow their opinions than create a huge confrontation, it just feels natural to me. And then Daniel said, “I think maybe I don’t like Asia".

Well, to be fair, he hasn’t been there before, but by that statement and what I’ve just expounded on, you can see the apparent gulf in culture between the West and the East.

Yes, we have a lot in common, but we are also very different. Fascinating, huh?