A pink rabbit stares at two green lovers

I spend a lot of time crossing the road in foreign countries. It’s part of my job, crossing roads. Normally, that’s a metaphor for bringing together ideologically divided parties, such as traditional media and technology. I’m supposed to take them by the hand, and lead them across the information highway to meet each other in the middle. That sounds dangerous, but you know what I mean.

Often, though, crossing the road isn’t a bad metaphor: I’m really just trying to get to the other side. And on one of these pedestrian peregrinations, in Vienna, I noticed a very weird thing.

Squatting across the road, malevolently perhaps, was a giant pink rabbit. That’s not the weird thing — this was Austria, after all, the birthplace of Red Bull. So why not pink rabbits? The weird thing was the pedestrian crossing light the rabbit was staring at, which featured two green lovers, holding hands under a green heart and walking happily into the void.

Where I come from, we use the shape of a green man walking to indicate a man walking, and the shape of a red man standing to indicate a man standing. Call us essentialist, if you will, but that seems to make a kind of sense. But it’s one of those cultural blind spots that you forget to interrogate: I’ve never really thought about it, or wondered where the road was for green women to cross.

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A Viennese bunny and a couple of friends. (Bottom two closeups from the Guardian)

And that’s when it occurred to me: leaving aside annoying peccadilloes like academic rigour, political correctness and journalistic truth, it’s possible to deduce fundamental truths about a city by its choice of iconography for pedestrian crossings. Traditional travel folklore would have it that the way to understand a city is to talk to its inhabitants. The new world traveller, though, reads from a palimpsest of signs and portents (or emojis and tweets, to give them their modern appellation), where TripAdvisor is the truculentlocal in the village pub, and Instagram the carnival barker touting his gaudywares on the street corner. The insistent iconography of electronic infrastructure is an equally justifiable way to seek knowledge.

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Alien crossing, La Rochelle, France

I photographed the LGBTi-friendly Viennese characters, and then found myself a few days later in La Rochelle, a small French port on the Bay of Biscay. There, the pedestrian icons are tall, mournful-looking aliens with stars shining through their skin ( I guess, since this is France, they could be representations of starving, sexless models. But I’m going with aliens). It’s all very elegant and French, and for some reason reminded me of the desert storm opening for the Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Of course, I had been alone on the road for a week already, and one tends toward flights of fancy in those circumstances.

Matters were exacerbated when I discovered the fabulous and dusty Les Têtes Brulées bar fifty metres from my hotel entrance.

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La Tetes Brulees, La Rochelle, France
It’s a shrine to French aviation, crowded with quixotic memorabilia and quirky customers. Faded photographs of 80s aircraft carrier landings and famous aviators bump up against colourful and crude squadron shoulder patches, and the overall design aesthetic could probably be summed up as parachute silk meets testosterone. In this context, an angular red alien blinking at you as you cross the road to the station’s Arrivée entrance takes on a spooky resonance.

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It made even more sense when I learnt that the Plongeur, the first mechanically powered submarine in the world, had its first dive in La Rochelle in 1864, and that Jules Verne (popularly, if erroneously, called the Father of Science Fiction) was inspired to write 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea after seeing the sub at an exhibition. Of course they’d use Grey aliens on their pedestrian traffic lights, albeit in green and red mufti.

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Some weeks later, I was in Buenos Aires, city of bravado and beef. There appeared to be at least two types of icons on the streets. The first, a purposeful, sharply delineated man in bright white, served as both walk and don’t walk, in the first case striding with elbow-accented vigour in bright white, the latter, planted aggressively, outlined in red, hands on hips.

The second type seemed more carefree. The same person, perhaps, but now outlined in happy dots, and — I don’t think I’m imagining this — walking with more passion, more zest, with a slightly forward-leaning demeanour. Was it a coincidence that upright man was in the soulless business district, and bouncy man outside the Museum of Modern Art? I’d like to think not.

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Later that night, at a dinner party, a guest walked in wearing a t-shirt sporting the famous image of Patti Smith that serves as the cover of her 1975 album Horses. In an effort at bonhomie, I said: “Hey, I’m a big fan too. I saw Patti Smith live last year, amazing gig.” He looked down at his chest: “What? I thought this was an Argentinian model?”

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I was staying a block from Jorge Luis Borges Avenue, fittingly. Born in Buenos Aires, Borges wrote one of my favourite short stories, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, which purports to be a review of a 20th century writer’s version of Don Quixote. The modern version is an exact, word for word copy, but Borges insists that it’s a much more modern retelling because of the way 20th century readers understand it. When I saw Patti Smith live in Barcelona, she did a song-for-song cover of her own album, Horses, to an audience of over a thousand beer-fuelled 20-somethings.

What did they understand by lyrics like, “And he saw the lights of traffic beckoning like the hands of Blake”? They probably weren’t thinking of the remorseless stop and go logic of pedestrian lights, and I doubt they were thinking of any other kind of fearful symmetry. And if Patti Smith is now an Argentinian model — well, it’s all part of the same quest for personal meaning, just like my pedestrian icons.

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In San Francisco, they’ve put their little pedestrian icons in a cage. ‘Walk’ is a man walking head down, seemingly depressed. We see him from the side, tucked into a corner of the light box, unlike other pedestrian figures, most of whom seem to be more directly engaged with the road they stride. ‘Don’t walk’ is an imperative, aggressive red right hand — the body reduced to a part of its whole. Okay, this is a week before they elect Donald Trump as their president, so the atmosphere is febrile, and the security cameras proclaim the panopticon to come. I might be a little over-sensitive. But still, you have to ask yourself: if even the symbols of the great American open road have become about restrictions rather than freedom, where will the journey end?

I know, I know. This is all very fanciful. I’m not sure we really can read the tenor of cities by the way they mark the control of the flow of foot traffic on their roads. Of course, San Francisco was the home of Philip K. Dick, the writer who has perhaps done the most to produce a lexicon of electronica, a toolset for thinking about the way our infrastructure has evolved into our vocabulary. In the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (filmed as Blade Runner), there’s a technology-inspired religion called Mercerism, and its adherents use electronic simulacra of animals to foster empathy with an increasingly alienating world.

I’d like to think that when Mercerism does eventually arrive, the little blinking people of our pedestrian traffic lights will become its metronomic prophets and priests, and Mercer himself, instead of his endless Sysiphean task of climbing a hill while being pelted with stones, will rather be stuck on the eternal pedestrian crossing of life, forever trying to cross with the lights always against him.

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