Autumn is beautiful across the European continent, with October being a particularly good month for city breaks and business trips. The ever-changing European capitals have a lot to offer in all seasons, pleasant surprises and shocks alike.
After many years I found myself in London. The city of wonders, big enough for all, always ready to absorb everything and anything, looked more tiresome than ever. What has happened to it? Has it finally grown too tired of all its diversities and differences? Is it pushing too hard to accept what it should not? But, what could that be?
The old English saying “Better safe than sorry” seems to have lost its meaning. Strange as it is, it seems some things have grown more important over the years. Conveying certain messages, no matter the cost, is one of them.
To an average tourist, who may have come to London from across the Atlantic, from Europe, or the other side of the world, crossing a street might prove a bit of a challenge. The “Look Right” warnings displayed on nearly each and every pedestrian crossing in the city centre are there for a reason. A good reason. Half of the world first looks left when stepping onto the street to cross it. Foreigners flock to the Trafalgar Square by the million every year, for example. They admire Nelson and even more the wonderful collection of the finest art stored in the National Gallery. However, there is a significant obstacle to an alien pedestrian trying to find their way around.
It took me a couple of minutes to understand what I was seeing. The moment of enlightenment happened when I realised that all who had been patiently waiting for the traffic lights to change to green for pedestrians, began crossing the street, except myself. I remained standing, still waiting for the light to change to green. The green light, or whatever was left of it, being unusually short, changed back to red before I knew it, so I was still standing motionless looking at the traffic lights. Then the light went green again, green with a message, which I then understood.
I wondered if it was really necessary. I also wondered if some might find the message offending. There are children crossing the street at those particular traffic lights all day, every day, and they need a clear sign of safety. There are people of all religions and beliefs who might find the message insulting. Finally, are the traffic lights a medium that should bear any kind of message or warning, apart from the one that concerns safety? Is this what the Western society has come down to? What are our priorities today? Moments later, I was at another pedestrian crossing nearby, with another traffic light which showed this:
Again, I remained still while others were crossing the street. But this time I was motionless because I could not understand what the sign meant. I searched and stretched my brains in vain – I had never seen it before. I had no idea what the message was, except that it was approved, or at least that someone wanted to approve of it, so they tried really hard to install it deep into our minds, right down to our basic modern understanding of safety and protection – see green, think safe, think accepted, sort of thing.
I felt confused, defeated, even betrayed. I wondered why it was necessary for those signs to be displayed there and then, on one of the busiest squares in one of the busiest cities in the world, despite everybody’s need to receive just one message – when it is safe to cross the street and not get run over.
From that moment on, I realised it that it no longer mattered what the traffic lights in central London were showing, since neither the safety nor well-being of all participants in traffic were a priority. So, I responded to the green lights the best I could. I did not cross a street at the traffic lights again, green or not. Instead, I tried to look at the faces of the drivers whose paths I was crossing. Their faces were usually red and their hands up in the air in disbelief, I think, but I made sure I waved to them and always smiled. And we all got the message.