Estranger in an Estranged Land

The urinals flush before you use them.

At first I thought it was coincidence, but after the third time it was clearly enemy action. There’s some clean/dirt binary that’s being asserted, as if it senses me and thinks I’m … what?

IMG_2379The academic track here at Worldcon has explored the idea of ostranenie as outlined by Viktor Shklovsky in 1917 (actually 1913), which I suspect we know in the sf field due to Darko Suvin’s appropriation of Brecht’s term alienation in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, a book I am singularly failing to review. From Simon Spiegel’s paper I learned — or was reminded — how different the two versions of estrangement are. One becomes more about the familiar becoming strange and the other is more about the strange becoming normalised. Sf is the dialectical pull of both.

But you can experience a sense of estrangement in a new city, especially one in a different country. Dublin and Melbourne are perhaps the oddest — the Anglophone street names and shop fronts could kid you that you are in Liverpool or Glasgow, but the street furniture and the police and the money remind you that you are not in Kansas any more. Bergen is less strange, because Norwegian reminds you forcefully that this is not Britain, although frankly most of the locals speak English better than what you do. There are linked root words, that help you to begin to puzzle your way through. A lot of the shops are different, although we share some chains.

But Finnish is an Uralic language — linked to Estonian and another half dozen or so languages rather than the rest of European grammars and vocabularies, with the exception of Hungarian. Sometimes the dual translation of Sweden on signs offers a clue — “gata” becomes “katu”, and “gata” is close to the “gate” used in street names in towns such as York, but that’s about as far as it goes.

But there also cultural differences that can throw you. As in Norway, the doors open outward rather than in — which you think must be difficult if someone is on your step and you want to let them in. On the other hand, perhaps it is harder to force your way in.

I keep having to remember that they drive on the wrong side of the road — although naturally that word “wrong” is itself wrong. But over the decades you learn to look in a particular direction before you cross a road — and this is especially troubling when a tram might be in the other direction. This moment of estrangement is one that reminds you that things can be otherwise — we follow a convention.

At pedestrian crossings, I find myself crossing even when the indicator is red. There is nothing coming, and cars seem to be able to turn across a green man anyway. Red light — look both ways — look at red light — look both ways — cross. Feel hard stares from the Finns who are still waiting. I am being disapproved of. Or perhaps I am projecting.

I have committed the crime of jaywalking. It seems to be against the law. I break this convention in the UK all of the time — although less so when in an unfamiliar town, as I don’t know the light sequences on junctions which can be learned when you repeatedly cross the same road. “Are you sure you aren’t breaking the law?”, an English person asked me, and unless I’m missing a vital part of the Road Traffic Acts, I don’t seem to be. We are considered mature enough to judge when to cross.

The Finns have internalised a certain kind of practice, which is a law, whilst I am subverting and breaking it. It has never occurred to me — as far as I can recall — to think that I am breaking the system of traffic indicators in the UK, but here I am violating a prohibition.

And so it seems as if I am walking around in a state of almost constant estrangement, and the interesting thing will be whether the next time I use a British toilet, I will assume it is broken because it doesn’t flush as I arrive. But tomorrow I will feel as if an object is judging me or being generous.