Another face in the crowd
One of my favourite things to do when travelling abroad is to spend time in public spaces like shopping streets and town squares, watching the world go by. Spaces where people gather to make the most of the good weather and the great outdoors. Where children skate, adults read a book or chat, and music from a busker’s guitar fills the air.
I’ve enjoyed doing this in Zermatt, the alpine town in Switzerland that draws the rich and famous with its panoramic ski pistes. After a long day of sightseeing, I rested on a bench at Bahnhofstrasse, the main street, with a view of the famous Matterhorn peak looming above the town. The Wednesday street market was on, and food stalls lined the car-free stretch. Children dashed about, finding gaps between adults clustered around the various stalls, tasting Gruyère cheese, fresh-brewed beer, and handmade chocolates. Often, shoppers bought a snack and beer, and settled down in an empty spot—a park’s low boundary wall, the steps outside a shop—laughing, talking, making new memories. Though I sipped my beer alone, the merriment in the air made me feel safe and happy.
Another time, late on a Saturday night in crazy, colourful Rio de Janeiro, my husband and I strolled through Lapa, a neighbourhood that comes alive on weekend nights. Lively samba tunes poured out from clubs so filled to the brim that people danced on the pavements. A smiling, wrinkled lady in a makeshift stall poured us generous caipirinhas for just 15 reais (Rs290). At other stalls, we got skewers of freshly barbecued meats and veggies. It was a veritable street party, with people of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities dressed up and having a good time. We didn’t know the dance or speak the language, but we swayed along to the music as well.
In such places, whether I’m alone or with someone else, I feel part of a larger whole, of a group of people making the most of the space, each in their own way. A collective energy fills the air, imbuing everybody present with the pleasure of being alive and enjoying that moment.
I’ve been part of such anonymous crowds in various spots around the world, often gaining my best insights into local culture. Sitting at a table outside a restaurant along a cobblestoned street in Bratislava’s old town once, I saw a small parade of teenagers asking for money. From a young man on the next table, who generously thrust a few notes into their collection tin, I learnt that these were about-to-graduate college students, collecting party money. “It’s a popular tradition. I did this when I graduated, and now I’m giving money to others who are. It’s good fun,” he told me.
In Vienna, I discovered a city that nurtures community creativity. Youngsters swarmed the bright-coloured benches outside MUMOK, the museum of modern art. Many carried musical instruments and jammed together to create new tunes. On one side, an artist sketched the scene. Vendors walked up and down selling water and snacks, and I sat there with my friend till the wee hours, thrilled to be in the outdoors where I could enjoy the warm breeze after a cold, rainy week. When the good weather continued into the following afternoon, we walked to the Danube canal. We took along a bottle of white wine and soda to make spritzers like the Viennese and sipped them among the relaxing, chattering, skateboarding, sunbathing hordes.
These moments are precious to me. Each time I visit a bustling square or a lively promenade, I feel a twinge of envy, making me wish our Indian cities had more such spaces. I marvel at this ability to spend time with friends and family without having to shell out money at a restaurant where lingering without ordering would be risking a stink-eye from the maître d’. To me it is an indicator of the safety and openness of the place that I can even have a drink while watching the world go by, knowing that nobody will look askance at me. In fact, passers-by might raise their own glass in a toast to a beautiful day and an open space that belongs to no one, and to everyone.
One For The Road is a monthly column on personal takeaways from travel.