I had a pretty interesting but slightly infuriating conversation over the weekend.
It wasn’t really that infuriating at the time, because I had already had two vodka & cranberries and at that stage I’m content to slip easily into the role of Devil’s Advocate on any given subject. I don’t know about you, but I’m a happy drinker. After a drink, I just want to do two things: talk and dance. I don’t much mind where you want to take the conversation, I’m happy for you to take the lead as long as I have a white russian in hand.
Unfortunately at the weekend I didn’t have a white russian. Instead, I had just started on my third vodka and cranberry when this man engaged me in conversation. He began by asking me where I was from (of course), and then launched into a lyrical ode to his home county, which I won’t name here. He asked me what I knew of it, to which I replied, honestly, that absolutely nothing was coming to mind. No landmarks, no tourist hotspots, no holiday destinations. My mind was a total, freewheeling blank. He puffed out his chest and told me that actually, it was one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. I lifted a skeptical eyebrow and pulled my phone out of my pocket. Slowly and deliberately, I typed “Things To Do In _________” into my search bar, partly because I was curious as to what would come up, but mostly just to rile him. Which it did! Only not in the way I was expecting.
“THAT’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD!” He yelled over the music.
“Google?” I asked, confused.
“NO, EVERYTHING. GOOGLE. PHONES! I TELL YOU THAT _______ IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE AND THE FIRST THING YOU DO IS PULL OUT YOUR PHONE INSTEAD OF JUST BELIEVING ME!”
I bit back a laugh, because yes, I do tend to believe aggregated opinions of many different people over the sole (biased) opinion of one person. Is that bad? I opened my mouth to interject but he was off again.
“WE WERE BETTER OFF WITHOUT IT! DO YOU WATCH TV?”
“TV? Yeah, sometimes…” I mumbled, thrown off balance by the abrupt change in topic. I thought we were talking about phones?
“I BET YOU WATCH KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”
Okay. Look. As it happens, I have never actually watched Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but millions of people have. MILLIONS. I’m tired of this implication that people who watch the show are a zombified army of braindead shopaholics who speak solely in emojis and don’t understand basic grammar or syntax, particularly since it’s a disdainful accusation thrown almost exclusively at women. I know plenty of intelligent people who watch it regularly. There’s no reason to use this as an insult.
It’s not the first time I’ve had this said to me with a curled lip of disgust, as if what I watch on television somehow lowers my IQ. Not only does what I watch have no bearing on my intelligence, but it’s almost* enough to make me want to watch the show, just to spite them.
I chased ice cubes around my glass with my plastic straw and tilted my head.
“WELL ANYWAY,” he continued, “I KNEW A MAN WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY AND HE WAS HAPPIER THAN ANY OF US PROBABLY.”
I breathed deeply and looked around me, considering my options. The dance floor was bathed in deep pink and purple lights. To my right, a blonde in a short skirt ran her hand down the arm of a laughing man with dreadlocks. I stabbed at the ice cubes, then took a drink.
“He lived without electricity? Is that what you said?”
I mean, I was in it now. Might as well let myself be pulled by the conversational current.
“YES! LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY. HAPPIEST MAN I KNEW. JUST HAD A RADIO THAT HE RAN WITH BATTERIES AND A PHONE.”
I eyed the ceiling and debated whether or not to point out that a man who has a radio and a phone is not entirely without the benefits of the modern age. I decided, with drunken magnanimity, to let it go.
“What did he do at night?” I asked, instead.
“LIT A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW!”
“You can’t read by candlelight! Have you tried it? You’d ruin your eyes!”
“HE DIDN’T READ HE WOULD JUST SIT ALONE WITH HIS THOUGHTS!”
I side-eyed him.
“That’s fine in the summer when it gets dark at a reasonable time, but what happens in the winter when it gets dark at 5pm?”
“HE LIKED IT THAT WAY, HE WAS A VERY HAPPY MAN! WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING ALONE WITH OUR THOUGHTS? I THINK MORE PEOPLE SHOULD DO THAT INSTEAD OF SITTING IN FRONT OF THE TV WATCHING KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”
There he goes again, I thought, with the Kardashians. What is the deal?
“That’s well and good if your thoughts are kind ones,” I pointed out. “But what if they’re not? Thirteen hours is a long time to be left alone with unkind thoughts-“
I barely had a chance to finish the sentence.
He leaned in, cutting across me to shout, “I BET YOU NEVER KNEW ANYBODY WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY!”
My eyes narrowed. The vodka and cranberries I’d consumed were busy sketching out a pale pink outline of the sort of person this man thought I was, and it wasn’t particularly flattering. If I squinted the right way, I could see the exact stereotype this guy had pinned on me.
I took another sip of my drink and thought for a moment.
“I did actually.”
I was starting to feel like Alice down the rabbit hole. Where was this conversation leading exactly? How far down where we going to go? I told myself to relax and let myself flow into the empty spaces left by the holes in his argument.
“The people in my grandparents’ village in Spain lived without electricity.”
I paused, thinking about the pueblo. It’s a dying village. Even when I went regularly, the inhabitants all seemed as ancient and weathered as the sun-split rocks down the hill. I thought about the women I had known with deeply lined faces and no dental care, sitting outside their houses in black shapeless tunics, leaning on canes and fanning themselves.
I thought of my great aunt pressing 100 pesetas into my hand with her bony fingers and shuffling next to me as we made our way to the bakery across the square, which doubled as the only place in the pueblo you could buy anything.
I thought of my great aunt’s house, where the ceiling sagged in the middle, looking like it might cave in at any moment. I thought of the way doors were always left open to cope with the heat, with a beaded curtain strung over the doorway, keeping out the burning sun but nothing else. Walking into the house was an assault on the senses. My nostrils would sting from the smell of cat urine, and I would blink furiously, my eyes taking a minute or two to adjust to the darkness. The reason for the smell was quickly apparent; stray cats would shoot out from under every piece of furniture the moment I took a step in any direction.
Yes, their lives were simple, but their lives were hard. They faced tragedies and difficulties I can barely imagine. My grandfather would tell me stories that would break your heart. They lived lives of quiet isolation and tight community not because they chose to eschew electricity and modern conveniences, but because they had no choice.
The man at the gig, meanwhile, had been surprised into a momentary silence at my assertion that I had, in fact, known someone who lived without electricity. I took the opportunity to squeeze in another sentence.
“They didn’t choose not to have electricity, though. They were very poor. They didn’t have the option.”
His eyes skated around the room as he considered what I had just said.
“BUT THEY WERE PROBABLY HAPPIER LIKE THAT!” He roared in my ear after a moment.
I felt an unfamiliar tingle of annoyance. Unlike me. I thought. It’s a Saturday night. Don’t let him harsh your mellow.
For some reason though, my thoughts flew to the woman who had lived opposite my grandparents. Alone and elderly, she had lived all her life in a tiny cottage draped in grapevines. I thought about how, after she had died, I would look through her window and see her kitchen table, still draped in an impeccably crocheted tablecloth. A small plate sat on the table that had once held a long-since disintegrated piece of toast, and a carefully balanced knife rested on the edge of the plate.
Untouched since her last meal, the room was a silent testimony of her existence. Every year I would crouch to look in through the window, and only two things ever changed; the number of stray cats using the furniture, and the thickness of the layer of dust. Over time, the colours slowly muted and the room took on a ghostly, grey air. When sunlight streamed in the dust particles glistened, making it look even more ethereal.
Had she been happy while she was alive?
As a child, I hadn’t liked her, and that’s putting it mildly. She seemed positively antediluvian, shrunken by age and circumstance. She had once engaged my parents in conversation about the stray cats that my grandmother often fed, and recounted how she had killed a great number of them by swinging them by their back legs and smashing their heads against a rock. Hearing her tell this story had the same effect on me as if she had admitted to being an axe-wielding maniac with a penchant for scalping children; after that I avoided her like the very plague.
Now, with time, I am more understanding. She was completely uneducated and lived in that same small pueblo her entire life. She had no family. The war she waged on the stray cats was ended by her death and, in a twist that shows life has a sense of humour, in her absence they took over her house and made it their own.
I thought of this wizened woman, and how different her life might have been in other circumstances. I thought of my great aunt. The more sober section of my mind struggled to steer my train of thought onto a straighter path. After all, this was a Saturday night chat at top volume with a stranger during a gig, not a cosy in-depth debate in a dark corner at a party. Not exactly the best time to argue the merits of education and how electricity contributes to a greater quality of life.
I leaned towards him so he could hear me clearly.
“I don’t think they would have chosen that life if they had had an alternative,” I said, watching his face.
“BUT YOUR GRANDPARENTS LEFT, RIGHT? BECAUSE MAYBE THEY WEREN’T HAPPY LIVING LIKE THAT. BUT THOSE PEOPLE DIDN’T LEAVE! BECAUSE IT’S A SIMPLER, HAPPIER LIFE!”
My grandparents left because they could, because my grandfather dragged them out of there through a combination of dogged hard work and compromise and connections.
My great aunt, who had been in a relationship with my grandmother’s brother, found out she was pregnant while he was away at war. Unfortunately he was killed in action, and so she had her son out of wedlock at a time when this was enough for society to shun you. The son was born with an intellectual disability. Thankfully my grandmother’s family treated them kindly and supported them despite the circumstances, but still, her life was difficult. It was complicated. She was poor and uneducated and had nobody by her side to make her life easier or more bearable. She went to mass every day and pulled wooden rosary beads between her skeletal fingers, her gaunt face a mask of peace as she prayed.
Do I think these difficult times in her life would have been greatly improved by having a light switch and a functioning fridge? Not necessarily. Some hardships can’t be softened with electric lighting and chilled goods. I do think, however, that electricity often reaches places at much the same time as other things like literacy, and education, and modern plumbing, and state aid. I think those would have made her life easier.
The pueblo had a school, and running water, and electricity in my childhood. The neihbour died. My great aunt died. My grandparents also died. The population continues to decline. In 2015 it had a population of 280 inhabitants.
Back at the gig, I threw my head back to dislodge these thoughts and tried to untangle myself from a conversation that was going nowhere fast.
“I agree that our addiction to our phones is bad but dude, I don’t agree we would be happier without electricity.” I waved an arm around me. “We wouldn’t be enjoying this without electricity!”
He nodded his head from side to side as if conceding the point, and then we were loudly (and thankfully) interrupted by a friend wandering over to say hello.