Monday, January 9, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Traffic Rules in Lisbon

In ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, one of those colour-rich and visually stunning films that Hollywood keeps churning out about the south, Frances, the American protagonist of the film, fazed by the seeming absence of any traffic  rules in Italy, asks her Italian lover Marcello ‘Do traffic lights mean anything around here?’ Yeah, sure.’ Marcello answers cavalierly; ‘Green Light - avanti! avanti!, yellow light - decoration.’ ‘And what about red light?’ asks Frances, given that Marcello has just cut one. ‘Just a suggestion’ Marcello shrugs.

The scene is based on one of those myths that govern our understanding of the world.  The myth suggests to us that real development involves our serious commitment to certain rules.  A system of traffic lights is one of those systems of rules. Thus we are told about the glories of Germany, where you can blindly cross the road the moment the light has turned green for a pedestrian, and if there is a zebra crossing, you don’t really need to look left or right, you just plunge in, and the traffic will just come screeching to a stop. In Germany, and in other parts of the developed North, it is, among other things, simply great to be a pedestrian. 

In the south on the other hand, this woefully indisciplined part of the world, traffic rules are apparently seemingly absent. Might is right, and the person with the larger vehicle, with greater presence of mind wins, the pedestrian be damned.  In any case in most of the world traffic lights directed toward the pedestrian are something that exists only in story books about the fabled cities of the North.

In Portugal’s capital, traffic is ostensibly supposed to operate according to ‘European values’; that is to say according to the rules one generally recognizes as proper. The situation on the ground however is not quite ‘European’ as one would expect. Personal experience has indicated that one does not cross the road even after the lamp has turned green for the pedestrian. One waits a couple of seconds longer until one is sure that there is a line of traffic  at the pedestrian crossing holding the rest of the traffic back. To attempt otherwise is to risk being mowed down by those vehicles that were going ‘avanti, avanti’ trying to catch the last of the yellow light. Then there are those champions who steer their chariots at a standard 60 km/h, around bends even, while they are intensely discuss the latest business deals or share the latest gossip on one of their many cell-phones.

The Portuguese often call themselves a people of gentle manner (um povo dos brandos costumes), and indeed one could get away with thinking this of the Portuguese in the course of daily interaction. Like in other parts of the world however, the universe of the road unleashes a different sort of a beast within the Portuguese. In this universe, the vehicle with the largest power is the beast of the jungle. If you aren’t moving fast enough they will viciously overtake you and thus swear at you as they drive past. Fortunately, given that this exchange takes place between two hermetically sealed capsules travelling at incredible speeds, unless one develops a skill at lip-reading, one does not know just what expletive they have thrown your way.  Discussing this strange transformation with a bunch of other expatriates, the conclusion we came to was that perhaps given the anonymity that speed provides, the road was the one place where the normally protocol and relationship bound Portuguese person could throw off the burdens of tradition and simply vent otherwise pent up frustrations.

The flip side of this entire ‘failing’ however, is that you can also play rules by the same game. Thus, you don’t have to fear a German-style grandmother, scolding you when you skip across the road, instead of waiting for the pedestrian lamp to turn green. You just shrug, think ‘avanti avanti’ and skip across the road! Viva a differencia!

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 27 Nov 2011)

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