Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.
Where we are: Still in quarantine. Tomorrow we will have the Saturday menu for the 3rd time. Sunday we’ll venture out into the streets of Bangkok, and find something to eat that doesn’t taste like Marriott. Can’t wait!
Missed cues, or that uneasy feeling that begins on the back of your neck
Years ago, as an experiment, I downloaded an app to my phone that was designed to send me an alert if I strayed into an area that was considered ‘dangerous.’ I thought it might be useful for traveling, to help me know where the ‘bad’ neighborhoods are. The app based its alerts on arrest data, if I recall correctly.
It basically pinged me every time I left our apartment, so I deleted it after just a few days. In my city, I knew instinctively which streets felt safe or unsafe. I didn’t need an app to tell me where it might be unwise to go for a solo walk after dark. That’s because, in my own country, I understand the cues—the unspoken language. I may not always be correct, but generally, I can tell if I accidentally wander into a neighborhood where I’m not welcome.
That’s not always true in other countries; as a matter of fact, it’s rarely true. We generally have no way of knowing where the ‘no-go’ zones start and end. As a result, we mostly don’t even try to figure it out.
Occasionally, we get lucky, and the local safety cues are obvious: every time we went into a South Korean coffee shop, we saw some young woman leave her purse-cell phone-laptop on a table, and wander off to the bathroom or another table. Once we saw a group of shoppers leave their Chanel purchases on their table—outside, on a sidewalk in the middle of Seoul—and go down the street to take selfies. Street crime just isn’t a thing there. I slung my purse over the back of my chair without a second thought; I slipped easily into the habit of dropping it into a shopping cart at the grocery store, and not worrying about a thing.
But cues aren’t always so obvious, or so simple to interpret. The emphasis on safety and security (and by extension, danger) in Cape Town, South Africa, was more than a little off-putting, but it never seemed justified, at least based on our month in the city. We stayed in a somewhat-but-not-entirely gentrified neighborhood in the city center, and the security rigamarole in our airbnb was kind of epic. We were instructed never to open the ground floor windows. On the second floor, we could open the windows when we were home, but instead of using a screen door, we were meant to close and lock a security gate made of bars. The keys (each gate had a different one) were to be stored at all times in a secret box, hidden in a cabinet on the other side of the room. On the desk was a screen dedicated to the multiple security cameras that monitored all sides of the apartment, at all times. We were required to keep the security alarm on all the time, even when we were just puttering around in the apartment during the day.
As a result of all this security, we were a little paranoid, and of course, we accidentally set off the alarm twice. Another time, it went off by itself in the middle of the night, scaring the living daylights out of us (and Lane, who was visiting). If you have that kind of security in South Africa, you necessarily have to also have a safe word, so that the (armed) security guard doesn’t shoot you. There was one moment, which in hindsight was funny but at the time was just terrifying, when Lee wrenched open the front door, screaming “Kestrel, kestrel,” over and over.
But we never actually witnessed even a hint of danger, anywhere. The worst thing that happened to us in South Africa, honestly, was a surfeit of Christmas cake.
Buenos Aires was the other city where we felt like the safety warnings were excessive. Twice, standing on the street debating the little blue dot on the map, we were warned to put our phones away and be more careful. Once in a restaurant I was lectured about how to protect my purse. We nodded and smiled and promised to be more careful.
Until we witnessed a snatching ourselves, that is. We were waiting to cross the street, chatting with friends who were visiting. (Remember those days, hanging out chatting with visiting friends was just a casual thing we did, without a second thought? I miss those days. *waves to Brooke & Andy*) In a split second, so quickly it was difficult to compute, a young man jumped off a motorcycle and sprinted past us, grabbing a cellphone out of the hands of the man standing next to Lee. It happened SO FAST. We all kind of stood there, stunned. The man was unhurt, but by the time we all realized his phone had been stolen, it was long gone, on the back of that zipping motorcycle.
Buenos Aires. It has a reputation for crime. It didn’t feel scary, though. Standing on that corner, waiting for the light to change, surrounded by tourists and locals, none of my internal alarm bells were triggered, until the moment had passed. There were no cues that I could read, other than friendly warnings from strangers, which seemed—like the security systems in Cape Town—a little excessive.
And then there was London. I can’t count how many times I’ve been to London in my life. I spent about half my childhood in the UK, and we went to London on the regular, to shop and to sightsee. I spent half of a summer abroad program in Kensington when I was in college. And I’ve been back repeatedly as an adult, many times—I’ll never, ever say no to a sojourn in London. One of my all-time favorite quotes, which Lee gets sick of hearing, is Samuel Johnson, telling his friend and biographer, James Boswell, that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
You’d think we’d know how to read the cues. We even speak the language, for Pete’s sake!
Lee walked out of our hotel one morning, put on his headphones, turned right at the corner, and pulled out his phone, to turn on a podcast. A split second later, he was holding air. His phone was gone. To hear him tell the story, it was as graceful and smooth as a ballet. A motorcycle pulled up next to him and the phone was plucked from his hand—they never even made physical contact. And then it was gone.
Later that day, getting coffee from the incredibly hipster-cool takeaway window on our block, we told the barista about it (I had been chatting with him every day). He nodded wisely. “Yeah. That block. This block is fine now, but that block is still a bit unsavory.”
We had no idea. There were no cues, at least not that we could see. The entire time we were in the city, our block—on Bermondsey Street—was jammed (no exaggeration) with upscale restaurants and cafes and wine bars and bakeries. People thronged the street at all hours, every day (even in Covid time). It was truly the only busy street we saw in our three weeks in the city. The weather was gorgeous, and it felt like we had stumbled into one big block party, where the beautiful young things were enjoying one last gasp of summer.
Where was the line? Where did the street go from hipster haven to snatch-and-grab zone? And how in the world would a stranger/tourist/visitor figure that out?
Our default mode is trust; thus far (knock on wood) it has served us well. Lee’s phone was insured; he had a new one up and running the next day. Perhaps we’re oblivious, but I prefer to think of it as trust, and I wouldn’t trade it. That trust—the willingness to wander, to talk to strangers, to try new things and wade into new experiences—is what makes this peripatetic life so worthwhile.
P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to https://bookwoman.com/ to subscribe.