Recently I took my first holiday in Europe for 4 years (excluding visits back to the UK – which aren’t like holidays, more whistle-stop tours of everyone I know). And though this blog usually focuses on places and customs in Hong Kong, and Asia, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on how living in the East has changed how I feel when visiting the West.
I spent three weeks travelling through Croatia, north-eastern Italy, Slovenia and Budapest and enjoyed each place immensely. The clear, sapphire waters of the Dalmatian coast, the crumbling beauty of a Venetian canal, the Alpine charm of a Slovenian lake and the faded glamour of a wrought-iron bridge over the Danube. But, after living in Hong Kong for three years, I soon realised that there were certain aspects of European life simply no longer compatible with the world I know.
For example: selfie sticks. There just weren’t enough of them. But they’re everywhere in Hong Kong! And, yes, every so often I’d see a German, or British, or French family whose youngest daughter had brought one along, self-consciously snapping themselves outside the Doge’s Palace or Bled Castle. But there was no conviction in their eyes. They looked as if they would much rather have been taking the photos themselves, pressing the buttons with their own fair fingers. Or asking, heaven forbid, someone else to take a picture for them. Not like here, where tourists of every nationality: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Filipino, photograph themselves next to everything using a selfie stick. The truth is, you haven’t really been somewhere unless you have photographic proof that you went there with twenty other people grinning at an iPhone on a pole. Fact.
Secondly, and this is a massive issue affecting, on my evidence, the whole of Europe. Service. I can’t remember the number of times that I had to wait for service in a restaurant. Obviously, there were waiting staff. Waiters standing around, waiters chatting to customers, waiters straightening their bow-ties and re-arranging the cutlery on each table. I’m sure that they thought they were contributing to the atmosphere, the ambiance, of the restaurant. But, from where I was sitting, they were just being lazy. ‘Please may I have the bill.?’ ‘Yes Sir, of course.’ …. Ten minutes pass… In Hong Kong, where time is money and money is king, negligence like this would make page five, at least, of a daily newspaper. At least they had the decency to bring us fresh bread, and cheese that didn’t cost the equivalent of a month’s rent.
And, as if wasting minutes of shopping and selfie taking time waiting for dessert wasn’t enough, I can’t count the number of times I nearly killed myself by walking off an unprotected ledge. The cliffs along the Makarska Riviera: no barriers. The canalside paths in Venice: no barriers. The embankments running along the Danube: no barriers. Hong Kong, of course, loves its barriers. But we would not stop at that, were we to somehow come in to possession of Budapest and its environs: there would be specially trained attendants to keep people away before they reached the barriers, signs announcing the barriers (and how recently they had been disinfected) and, if that still didn’t stop them, recorded warnings reminding everyone that there was a barrier ahead, and to not look ‘only at your mobile phone’.
(While we’re on the subject of Budapest, having been away from the UK for several years I had forgotten that the Hungarian capital was a favoured destination of that quintessentially British expedition: the Stag Party. Having seen the way in which the streets of this historic city were enhanced by groups of men dressed as the 118 guy, by cries of ‘You seen Steve? He’s only gone and pissed himself!’, and by something called a ‘beer bike’ I would love to see this kind of thing in our fair city. Well, there’s Wan Chai, but still… Now that Hong Kong managed to scare off 40% of it’s mainland visitors in the past year, I suggest that we start promoting our city as Stag Weekend destination du jour. ‘Beer minibuses’, anyone?)
In all seriousness now… What I’ve been trying to say, in a very trite way, is that there is sometimes a difference in culture between the East and the West. And while it is dangerous to suggest that there is such a thing as ‘Western Culture’ (try suggesting to a proud Englishman that he has anything in common with the French and see where that gets you) or ‘Eastern Culture’ (swap ‘English’ and ‘French’ for ‘Japanese’ and ‘Chinese’), Asians and Europeans do often view the world differently. Paris Syndrome is a real condition, for example, and that never fails to make me chuckle.
Visiting Europe really felt like a shift in gear for me, from the full-throttle fifth of Hong Kong to a nice, steady journey in third. You could feel it in the way people did take their time over dinner, and didn’t need to take a picture of every meal, and could look up from their phones long enough to prevent themselves falling into a river. I recently read an article in a local newspaper in which the author bemoaned the fact that Hong Kong only has Octopus Cards, the smart card that we use to pay on buses and trains, in 7-11 and McDonald’s, everywhere basically, while people in Beijing and Shanghai can pay for everything in life using their phones, or their powers of telepathy, or electronic chips implanted in their behinds. Octopus Cards are so 2005. Hong Kong needs to catch up or it’ll go the way of ancient Rome.
So I dread to think how said author would react upon his arrival in a Croatian restaurant, to find that they don’t take, and I hope you’re sitting down, credit cards! They won’t accept a little slip of plastic that’s been around since the ’60s. That’s longer than most buildings in Hong Kong. And, even worse, the Croatian populace seems to be coping. They are not marching on Zagreb, demanding more access to smart payment options.
And while I admire the can-do attitude of Hong Kong, where people refuse to wait for the bill, where people wear Bluetooth headsets at lunch to free up an extra hand, where people see a space on the MTR where a foreigner would only see a wall of bodies and wait for the next train, I do worry that we won’t stop until we’ve turned Hong Kong in to one giant, glass-domed, disinfected, interconnected, diamond-encrusted shopping-mall. So it was nice to spend a few weeks in a different continent. A continent where you still have to wait for things, and watch where you’re going, and pay in cash.