Friday, June 18, 2004

Escaping the Grid

From above European cities look as different from American cities as they do from the ground. In the air even before you land you can see the respect Europeans have for space. Their towns are densley packed areas of populations, houses right up against on another, stopping abruptly directly up against the edge of a field. Americans never learned to respect space in this way. We have too much of it. When we reach our fields, we keep building, pusing the fields further out, giving ourselves more room to fill with houses and strip malls.

After owning our own homes, the second Great American Dream is to disappear from our neighbors. We long for solitude, not, of course, the crazy loner solitude of Ted Kaczinski, but the isolation of being just off the grid. Problem is, as soon as we get away from the grid, it comes to us, bringing good things like sewers and electricity and high-speed Internet, but also bad things like neighbors we can actually see. From above you can see this cat-and-mouse game acted out by millions of Americans all the time. We're so busy running away from the sight of our neighbors, we don't resalize that we're chasing down the isolationist ahead of us. This is how Best Buys and Wal-Marts get out to former corn fields. They follow the Great American Neighbor chase.

European cities look different from the ground, too. Apparently, Europeans escape the grid not by running away from it, but by refusing to implement it. They lose sight of their neighbors down winding allwys and narrow cobblestone street that meet each other at odd angles (like 63 degrees or pi over 3 radians). They hide within courtyards, away from the prying eyes of the neighborhoods. Same dream, different result.

Today I wandered the streets of Budapest for an hour, losing myself a little bit more with every turn. This is not the land where three rights make a left. Instead three rights could make a right or a straight line and doesn't that kiosk look familiar and if I stop to look at my map one more time I will draw the attention of the neighborhood pick pocket or rapist, but if I don't I will still be wandering the streets when it gets dark and the rapist or mugger will find me two blocks from my hostel and no closer than I ever was because it would take me three dozen wrong turns to get there.

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