An honest question.
What do you think of when you see this photo? Do you admire the composition? Do you identify the landscape at once as Eastern European? Do you think about bears and sectarianism? Maybe. Only later, though. The first thing you think is “That man seems to be very asleep in what seems to be a public place.” Your observations are spot-on. This man was thoroughly fast asleep, doing deep and regular breathing. Our bus stopped at a restaurant near Gospic in Croatia and everyone piled out to smoke and there he was, sleeping in red. When we came out of the restaurant he was gone — probably back to his bus or his truck or his pile of wood. But you are right — he was definitely there sleeping at first. We are all on the same page so far.
After your initial observation, your mind goes to one of two places.
1. What happened to him that he is doing that?
2. Why can’t I do that? I’m not talking about having a small nap on a train, although even that is frowned upon in many places. I’m talking about having a rest. A full-on proper sleep in the day on the side of the road, where you make a pillow under your head and have some dreams. Why can’t I do that? Why don’t I? I’m not saying I want to do that — I am too restless and jittery for naps. I just want to know why I can’t or won’t. I have a naturally curious mind.
If you think a third thing, then I would be glad to hear what it was, but I would say that most of us fall into the two categories outlined above. You either wonder what this man thought he was up to, or you wonder why it is that you yourself are forbidden from getting up to the same sort of thing.
The first question is easy to answer. He was sleeping because he was tired. Life is fucking exhausting.
The second question is harder. If you Google “Why can’t I sleep in public,” you just get a whole lot of vague assertions about how it is one of Western society’s abiding taboos. No one can really give any kind of a good reason for it. According to a Guardian article I read (which called for the removal of the stigma around “urban napping”), sleeping in public signals a loss of self-control “and therefore weakness.” Hmm. This is sort of plausible, on paper, I suppose, until we recall that there is nothing that Western society loves more than complete loss of self-control on all fronts. See: stag parties. Turning over tables in meetings. Drugs. Losing our tempers at the bank. A man I saw once on a ferry in Mexico who felt that someone had jumped the queue in front of him and he just went beside himself, literally hopped from foot to foot, turned purple and screamed that this would never happen in Australia, and we all just stood there, frightened and silent.
Western society is also relatively tolerant as regards weakness. See: the above anecdote. See: complaining in restaurants about nothing, because it is the only means you have of asserting dominance over those around you. Pretending to like someone you do not like, because they are socially useful to you. See prizing your own tedious concerns about personal comfort above the happiness of the group. We love all that stuff. So. What other reasons? How are we to account for ourselves, staying awake all the time like this?
We can say that we don’t sleep in public because it seems dangerous and we will be robbed, and this is sometimes true, but not always. We can say that we don’t do it because it doesn’t seem fun or nice, but I have recently seen more than my fair share of people putting everything they had into being publicly asleep, and they all looked very happy and well-rested.
We can say that people don’t tend to sleep in public because quite a lot of us are women, and there are just all sorts of things that women can’t do without being told to stop. But even this is not the full answer. Not all of us are women. Quite a lot of us are men, and how often is it that you see a man having a hardcore rest in public. Not that often. Not where there isn’t some other compelling reason why he is doing that, like he doesn’t have anywhere else to sleep, or he is wasted. Not where he is a man who seems like he has his own bed, but here he is, stretched out with his hands kind of above his head, doing deep and regular breathing, confident the he will remain undisturbed. It’s just not really an activity that many people participate in. In Croatia it is, though. In Croatia people think nothing of it.
This is what travel is supposed to do, no? It’s meant to broaden the mind and make us question the fictions that constitute our day-to-day. We’re not meant to come home after a trip and tear up the social contract, exactly. More just examine the fine print. What I am saying is that I am only asking these questions because I went on holiday to Croatia and saw people sleeping all over the show, in all weathers and circumstances. They were not doing it because they had to, because they had nowhere else to go. They were doing it because it felt right, because sleeping is amazing and no one would think they were losers if they went for it right then and there. It’s enviable, and it is something the rest of us can learn from. I’m not saying we have to sleep in public. No one can force it upon us. I’m just saying that it’s not out of the question. I’m just saying that you see enough people in public abandoning themselves to the god Morpheus, sleeping like it’s their job, and you start to wonder what the big deal is. You start to wonder what other rules you are doggedly abiding by for no reason other than avoiding the judgment of your idiot peers. What is it that you are not doing even though you would very much like to do it? What are you so scared of? What freedoms are you denying yourself? Why do you care so much about what other people think? Well? It doesn’t have to be this way. Be brave. Go to sleep.