While watching a video clip from Cuba Feliz (a film of Cuban street musician Miguel Del Morales – known as El Gallo > The Rooster in English) I had a revelation. One of the reasons I absolutely adore countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia (or cities like Paris, Florence and, Montreal) is that people there live in the streets – almost literally. They spend much of their time in public spaces rather than inside their homes. They socialize, play, walk, eat, and drink together on the streets despite the hubbub of automobiles, bicycles, scooters, and other vehicles. The street is where it all happens!
In places like Vietnam and Cambodia, not only are dwelling spaces small, but the kitchens are particularly cramped and often poorly equipped. Additionally, everyday meals are inexpensive and readily available at any number of street vendors, cafes, and small semi-permanent food stalls. So, even though there are those who do have modern conveniences like stove-tops, washing machines, or televisions the tradition remains to gather with friends outside of the home. Western cities like Paris and Florence do not have the same street culture as Southeast Asia but, there too, just about everyone walks along the crowded streets, shops at outdoor markets, and rests or plays in public parks. Food vendors/hawkers are not as a common a sight there but open-air cafes, trattoria, tapas bars, etc. definitely are.
Streets are meant for people. This is eroding worldwide because of the ubiquitous car and streets that are getting wider to make room for these automobiles. Because of car traffic one rarely sees, in North American cities for example, children playing ball hockey, or hide and seek, jumping rope, or simply making up their own games on the street. Stoop or porch sitting is not a common site either. Spending time on our streets is no longer integrated into our daily lives and is rapidly becoming a thing of the past – so it seems to me. The social lives of city dwellers appear to be increasingly isolated. If I did not live directly next door to a community garden and park, or sit on the stoop of my house (which is facing our dead-end street), I would not know the people in my neighbourhood or have impromptu chats with complete strangers who walk by.
My neighbourhood is changing for the better. When I moved here 13 years ago there wasn’t much to do nearby. Today, there are a growing number of shops, restaurants, cultural centres, and parks which are within walking distance. There are even two farmers’ markets. The quality of life is better, street life is beginning to thrive, and there is little need to drive because this community has almost everything I need within walking distance or on the subway lines right nearby. It is a livable locale where neighbours run into each other on the street as they go about their daily business.
As I have mentioned multiple times in this blog, I am from Montreal. Despite it being a Northern city known for its very cold winters it somehow balances the frigid months with a French/Southern European mentality. Street life is substantial during the summer; people sit on their front stoops or balconies and are thus able to see and catch up with their neighbours. They eat in parks with omnipresent wine or beer so that public spaces become an extension of the private. Life, overall, takes to the streets and parks; the city pulsates with energy and activity.
Vibrant streets call to me. Who wants to be cooped up indoors when there’s food, drink, fun, and people to meet or just watch? Healthy street culture abounds with respect for the other. In many quarters in Montreal or Paris, for instance, children come home from school and almost immediately go outdoors, on their own or with their parents, to play on the streets or on the playgrounds. In Italy, piazzas (squares) are the main gathering areas. During La Passeggiata, which is the time before dinner (around 5:30-8:30), people stroll about the central piazza or main drag of a town (in fact, La Passeggiata comes from the verb ‘to walk’). This traditional daily ritual is more common in small towns but can also be seen in cities; it is a way for Italians to connect. During passeggiata many people hang-out in the piazzas or surrounding outdoor bars to have an aperitivo. It is a time when you see a mix of age and class. Children flock together yet are within shouting distance of their parents. Likewise, many Asian countries’ city and town residents still work within a block or two of their homes (often, in fact, the front of the home is the place of business). Thus, city blocks are like little villages.
Street life gives one the opportunity for chance encounters. Life outside our boxes and on the street is like being in an outdoor living room where everyone congregates and the community is the pulse of it all. The bottom line, it is good for the heart and soul.
Apologies for no photos of the streets of Italy. Our camera was lost…