public spaces

It is difficult for me not to generalize. My mind works that way: it tends towards the abstract. Details interest me through what they indicate about larger patterns. The danger of this is making too much out of too little. The smaller the data sample, as any statistician will tell you, the less reliable the conclusions.

This by way of caveat, since I’m getting ready to generalize wildly about Europe, where I’ve been only once, and only to three cities therein, and only for two weeks. My data sample is small. Luckily, I have a theory that justifies this kind of wild generalizing, which you can read about here. If there’s one truth I hold close to my heart, it’s that anything is ok if you’ve got a theory behind it!

There were many things about Europe I found interesting, but the one that struck me most has to do with public spaces. To wit: there are some.

I recently read an essay by Jonathan Franzen about the alleged “disappearance of privacy” in the U.S. — your credit card company tracks your purchases, evil ISP’s track your internet surfing, etc. etc. His take on this, which I more or less agree with, is: bullsnot. Individuals of middle class means or higher in the U.S. have more privacy than anyone else in the history of the world, more, perhaps, than is healthy. We no longer live primarily in small towns, where everyone knows everyone’s business and extended families live in close proximity, but in suburbs, where everyone is isolated in their home-castles, intimate mostly with their televisions/computers and their immediate families (often in that order). We move in auto-bubbles from these castles to work, and back again. If we see each other in public at all, it is while we are shopping, and we shop at mega-stores and malls staffed by and populated with people we don’t know. Those public spaces not devoted to shopping — say, sports stadiums — are increasingly polluted with advertising persuading you to shop.

It is entirely possible in this day and age to live your whole life without anyone _ever_ taking note of you, and if the nightly news, with its regular stories of deranged loners coming out of the woodwork with kooky theories and chips on their shoulders, is any indication, such a state of affairs is not rare.

We are more and more accustomed to being in private bubbles, and more and more conveniences surround us there. If you watch commercials these days (perhaps the truest barometer of the zeitgeist), they portray forays into public as hectic and stressful, your kids running off, car horns honking, trying to juggle keys and credit cards, loud fat guys yelling at you for something or other… a world full of the annoyances posed by the presence of other people. Calgon take me away. The latest commercials for Amazon.com are particularly explicit in this regard: who can handle the enormous hassle of going out into public to buy things for people?

This has consequences. As Franzen argues, what’s disappearing is not privacy but _publicity_, public spaces (and modes of behavior) that are distinct from private. We no longer have public selves. We want to bring our private bubbles into public with us — we pollute all the world with our second hand cell phone chatter, but god forbid someone penetrate our bubble with their second hand smoke. A public self involves a certain tolerance and a certain reserve. We see and are seen by other people, so it also involves a certain self-consciousness; when you know you will be in public frequently, it’s more difficult to “let yourself go.” You make certain sacrifices and live up to certain implicit standards when you are in public. It is precisely this notion — this behavior — that Franzen finds rare, and getting rarer.

All this is preamble to saying: I was utterly charmed by the public spaces in Europe. European cities are full of squares and _pleins_ and _places_, surrounded by pubs and shops and cafes. Two things struck me as unusual about them, from my American perspective. For one thing, there was no advertising. No billboards, no scrolling stock tickers, nothing flashing or blaring or demanding your attention. And secondly, there were _people_ in them: talking, watching street performers, eating picnics, playing chess, just hanging out. They were together, and not shopping, and they seemed perfectly happy.

In restaurants, people talked animatedly and stayed for hours (and I know… it takes me a long time to eat), and no one ever asked anyone else to stop smoking. People did not seem in a hurry to eat and get out (three courses was the norm… I know, I ate them every meal).

As far as driving, there seemed to be far fewer explicit rules (lanes, if they existed at all, were frequently unmarked). People drove like maniacs, jostling and swerving and coming really, really close to each other, but as far as I could tell, there was no road rage. I never saw anyone pounding their wheel or getting red in the face or shouting. There was honking, plenty of it, but it always seemed sort of a clinical kind of honking — communicative honking, you might say — rather than the enraged kind.

These are some specifics among a large body of largely inchoate impressions, the sum of which was the following conclusion: Europeans — at least the ones in major cities — are more comfortable in public spaces. They are more _mature_ as urbanites, in that they are less guilty about indulging in the pleasures afforded by urban life, more tolerant of the consequences of others enjoying them, and less jealous of the personal space, and personal comforts, they have to sacrifice to make it run all run smoothly.

This is why, I think, American tourists have a bad name abroad: we think of travel as a personal experience, as though we travel in a bubble and watch out the window as sights (and people) drift past; Europeans in particular are offended by our seeming unawareness of the public spaces we inhabit.

Americans, ever worshipful of individualism, fret about the loss of privacy when they are fairly addled by it. Europeans, clinging to socialism (cultural as well as economic), fret about the loss of public benefits and public manners. The world seems to be heading our direction; it’s nice to get a glimpse of what we’re leaving behind.