A Little Perspective… What do Bosnia and Cuba have in Common?

You know that idyllic image of American life in the 1950s? You know the one I mean:  pretty little suburbs with neat yards, low white picket fences and neighbors pruning their roses while tossing friendly hellos to their neighbors?

I wasn’t alive back then so I don’t know how much of that image was the peachy-keen, wholesome advertising of the era and how much was true, but I do know it’s not a part of our culture any more. Neighbors don’t bring you a fresh apple pie to welcome you to the neighborhood and huge porch swings and late afternoon conversations with your neighbors are the exception, not the rule.

We lost that sense of community somewhere along the way and we replaced it with other forms of community. Global transportation and easy communication like Facebook means I have never given up my close friends when I moved across the country — and then left the country altogether for other continents.

Over the past years of travel I’ve been surprised to see many cultures maintaining their local communities in addition to the global connectedness the internet fosters.

Bosnia’s Sidewalk Cafe Culture

Traveling through Bosnia was my first exposure to a full sidewalk café culture. The outdoor evenings in Bosnia are suffused with a low buzz of voices; locals socialize at their nearby café, people-watching and enjoying the company of friends — it was like a warm hug when I went out for my evening meals.

Old Men Watching a chess game

Six o’clock is the social hour in Bosnia, time spent gossiping over the clink of beer glasses. By evening, I was surprised to see the sidewalks and streets of Sarajevo and Mostar overflow with tables full of chattering locals, not just those tourists forced to hunt down their nighttime food.

Cuba’s Neighborhood Communities

Cuba’s sidewalk culture is different but channels a similar essence. Instead of cafes lining the streets, the actual structure of the houses facilitates a friendly and open community. Like in Bosnia, late afternoons are prime gossiping time and I watched neighbors walk the streets, stopping at the long barred widows of their friends to share news and conversation.

Cuban men Keeping tabs on the neighborhood, Trinidad, Cuba, 2010

Throughout the day the elders sit in rocking chairs in their windows, the grandmothers quietly knitting while keeping close tabs on every single thing happening in their territory.

Social hour in the parks Window watching Park time and walking a bird

The parks are filled to the brim — and not just with children! The elderly are a part of the action too, lining the benches, sitting around games of chess, keeping tabs on the grandchildren.

The family units are still intact, and even beyond that, it’s as though the entire neighborhood is in this life together – they’re on the same team, friends. Children have more freedom to roam because the neighborhood acts almost as one organism, a unit of solidarity.

I loved Cuba for that; the sense of community is palpable even walking through as the obvious gringo (no doubt because some of the chatter was about me as I walked by!).

Friendly horse drawn carriage in Trinidad, Cuba, 2010

So, What Happened in the US?

My culture lost the togetherness somewhere along the way; our family units are smaller in the US, and communities less of, well, a community. On the other hand, we have often embraced a larger network of friends who act as our families. I’m not sure what to think of this shift — it’s certainly not inherently good or bad, but rather an observation.

What I’ve taken away from all of this though, through traveling and observation, is that I linger longer at dinner with friends, look at my watch less, and enjoy the experience of being a part of that social group. Experiencing these cultural differences over the past several years, in Cuba, Bosnia, Italy and Ireland — all of these countries have taught me to be more invested in my friends, family and experiences when I’m there with them than I was in my more self-absorbed pre-travel days.

Thoughts on sidewalk cultures elsewhere in the world? Am I way off in thinking that America just doesn’t quite have that togetherness anymore?

Heading to Cuba or Bosnia?

Check out A Little Adrift’s guide to responsible travel in Cuba

Check out our guide to traveling Bosnia & Herzegovina.

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35 Responses to A Little Perspective… What do Bosnia and Cuba have in Common?

  1. zablon mukuba February 8, 2011 at 6:04 am #

    Few Americans, potray Cuba in a positive light am impressed you have ventured to do so. I also like the fact that they still operate as big family units

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 8:09 am #

      Thank you, there really are some amazing areas and culture in Cuba underneath the tourist exterior, there are real people there living their lives and going about their daily routines, so it was fascinating to see that aspect of the country.

  2. Angela February 8, 2011 at 5:34 am #

    Although I certainly love the Internet for the huge range of possibilities it makes available to anyone and for allowing travelers and expats to easily keep in touch with family and friends, I somehow miss that sense of togetherness you talked about in your post.
    Coming from Sardinia, where the sense of community is still very strong, I definitely missed it when I moved to Rome, first, then Dublin and London. This is why I’m always very fascinated when I travel to places where these values are still alive, such as SE Asia. Lovely post, a pleasure to read it :)

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 8:12 am #

      I do have this image of Southern Italy, Sardinia, and those regions are still with that strong family unit through everything, so I imagine it must be difficult to have moved away from something that was so clearly a part of your life growing up, and then now you’re in cultures where that hasn’t existed for decades or longer…

  3. Mikeachim February 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    And by Brit, I mean English. Bad habit. Apologies to the Scots, the Welsh & the Northern Irish. My bad. It’s the English that are the aloof ones. My half-Scottish side is currently beating up my half-English side on this very bone of contention. ;)

  4. Mikeachim February 7, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    A post after my own heart, this…

    I come from a country that’s usually really bad at being neighbourly. It’s not because we don’t get on with our neighbours, it’s not because we’re unfriendly in general…it’s just that breaking the ice, stepping out and connecting, is a hard thing for Brits. (Generalising wildly here, maybe projecting wildly too). We say hi, we exchange polite, aloof small talk, but then we withdraw once more, back into our castles. Raise the drawbridge, chaps.

    I used to think this was romantic delusion mixed with the common mild contempt we have for the place we grew up. But then I went to Italy and to Greece, and saw a little of traditional Mediterranean family life (again with the generalising). Families, getting together. All at the same time. It made me sad, because that certainly is a dying tradition in my corner of the world, no romantic subjectivity about it…

    Being a Brit is an odd thing, I sometimes think. We so patently lack that talent for instantly, openly being comfortable with new people that Americans and Canadians abroad seem to excel at. And I can’t help feeling that with us, that trend begins at home.

    That’s a big part of the thrill of travel, for me – realising that being a fully social animal, ie. being fully human, doesn’t have to mean being a permanently nerve-shredded party animal. It just means a gentle but persistent shift in attitude. It means thinking of yourself as a member of a wider community, not an island. Without fearing for your individuality.

    All this is essentially explaining why I’m going to be a nightmare to have around when I come to Chiang Mai. ;)

    Fun post, Shannon. Much enjoyed.

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 8:26 am #

      It’s an interesting observation about the English – I’d say that as a traveler through your culture there is certainly that visible wall, people are friendly enough but maybe not welcoming. I find that the US culture on the whole (and again with the huge generalizations) is incredibly friendly and outgoing in a lot of regions, but yet there’s a falsity to it. We don’t actually want to know “how you’re doing” when we greet perfect strangers and yet we ask the question of acquaintances and neighbors as if we were a part of a community and shared caring – which we’re not (in many places) – it’s a facade, a lot of places in the US reflect the British sense of not being open, but we just mask it with a friendly smile (in the US south perhaps where the friendly closemindedness will bowl you over regularly).

      And as far as Chiang Mai is concerned, let the nightmare begin! :We’ll take you anyway you come, even if it’s as a hilarious but socially awkward Brit ;-)

  5. Kenan Lucas February 4, 2011 at 3:33 am #

    Sarajevo is one of my favourite cities – not just because my Dad is from there – but for the reasons you mentioned in this post.

    With respect to that lack of life or community feeling in countries such as the U.S. and Australia (where I was born) I would probably have to blame suburbia for that.

    • Anonymous February 4, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

      That’s as good a reason as any – I fell in love with Sarajevo in the short
      week I was there and could imagine going back there to live or visit for a
      longer time – the community and size of the city makes it easy to combat
      that suburbia you speak of while maintaining a small-town city feel! :-)

      • Kenan Lucas February 5, 2011 at 2:53 am #

        Awesome! If you ever find yourself in Sarajevo again I will be happy to give you some pointers from a (somewhat) local perspective.

        • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 10:34 am #

          That would be fantastic :) I’ll definitely be in touch before heading back to Sarajevo!

  6. My Kafkaesque Life February 3, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    We still have this culture in some coastal town, but the mainland has lost it. Well, there are cafés in Ljubljana in the center, but in suburbs, everyone’s inside wasting time online… including me :-P

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 10:33 am #

      That’s the problem it seems! Suburbia has made is utterly enclosed in our technology. Sitting inside on our computers talking to each other (like I am right now! lol) instead of seeking out a connection with those right near us!

  7. Gorilla Safaris in Uganda February 3, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    Thanks for sharing this. It reminds me of many villages in Africa; the children roam around the whole village, everyone knows everyone. People constantly visit each other, its like one big family and this could be a community of up to a thousand. Its quiet, simple and beautiful.

  8. Aly February 2, 2011 at 1:06 am #

    Lovely post. I agree that things have changed from what we think was our ideal, previous community life. Although, I kind of doubt that this ideal was ever a reality for many Americans. Our previous “communities” had a history of rejecting many people based on race, class, political ideology and religion. For example, I know I would not have been brought a pie in the 1950’s town my mother was born into.

    But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lovely ideal, and something we shouldn’t aspire to! I would love for everyone to slow down and think about their neighbors more. Like what I’ve found in South America; I spend a few weeks in Peru and forget what it is like to “need” to go somewhere all the time. I can just be, sit on the roof, and enjoy talking with neighbors in the sun.

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 11:04 am #

      Thanks Aly :) I agree that the communities of past eras are likely romanticized – and yet there are pockets of this type of community and warmth that permeates in more homogeneous societies. The US certainly has a strong history of discrimination…hadn’t thought about how that plays into the equation, but in many of the countries I’ve visited they are much more uniform in religious and political views…and often socioeconomic status (as is the case in Cuba)…so perhaps the pervasive discrimination and then forced “togetherness” of differing groups in the US played a part in altering our communities?

  9. Andi Perullo February 1, 2011 at 12:18 am #

    Such a fantastic post! I loved seeing the comparison and I totally agree that togetherness is being lost in the USA. Thank goodness my family works hard to resist that change.

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 10:32 am #

      Love that your family works to stay close and together even though the culture is losing site of that. What is Argentinean culture like? I haven’t yet visited but have heard that South America has pockets of this type of culture?

      • Andi Perullo February 7, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

        Family is definitely THE most important thing in Argentina. Every meal is spent together. I love love love that!!!

  10. Jane January 31, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

    Sometimes we just forget those small idle things for us and it turned out to be a social and culture gems, we got to envy these.

  11. Joshua Johnson January 31, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    Sidewalk culture was the very first thing I missed about Southeast Asia, the sense of communal cohabitation and the ability to eat something new every 5 feet. In Seattle the sidewalks can seem so gapingly lifeless…

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 10:37 am #

      The food every five feet really cannot be underestimated! That’s one of the reasons I just can’t seem to leave Thailand. But I will say that the music scene in Seattle has provided maybe a bridge against losing that community just a bit, right? I have visited the city and enjoyed the collectively alternative vibe, coffee houses, etc. Not sure what it’s like as a local, but to an outsider, the city is a lot more human than some cities?

  12. Jenn Coll January 31, 2011 at 5:33 am #

    interesting to note in your pictures the bars and grates on nearly all the windows, doors in Cuba. It’s a fascinating counterpoint to your piece on open community to note in the pictures these symbols of confinement.

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 10:28 am #

      Wow, that hadn’t even occurred to me in writing the post – or even while I was there. The widows are a part of the architecture, but they do the provide an interesting visual barrier…and perhaps a cultural one as well. Although I am sure neighbors invite each other inside occasionally, they do mostly talk through bars. You’ve given me food for thought Jenn.

  13. Audrey January 31, 2011 at 6:18 am #

    When I explain our chosen lifestyle (traveling, being far away from family/friends, not owning a home) to locals we’ve met along the way, some people almost feel sorry for me because I don’t have that close family and grounding in a community.

    I find myself really enjoying, respecting and admiring the closeness of the family and community in places we visit, but then my own actions have been so much the opposite (haven’t lived near family since 18 years old). It’s a bit of an internal conflict. But when I do visit family and friends in the States, everything seems so planned and scheduled, as if we’ve lost the ability to just be together in our busy schedules.

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 10:54 am #

      Like you I often get the questions about family – don’t I miss them and sympathy about how hard it must be to live apart from them. But on the flipside of it, though my family is close there was an independence intentionally bred into me that has perhaps made the perpetual travel easier…

      I imagine you also had a breed of that since you traveled around so much as a child, with your nuclear family near, but full family farther away? It prepped you to handle being away from your family community perhaps?

  14. Dyanne @Travelnlass January 30, 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    Excellent post, Shannon. Some of us (actually quite a lot of us) have maintained that lovely long-ago sense of “community” in “co-housing developments. Indeed, borrowed from Denmark, the concept of co-housing in the U.S. is thriving (there are hundreds of such communities here in Washington State alone).

    In my own community, about 50 of us (of all ages/phases of life) share a most lovely 2.4 landscaped acres amid the bustle of a large urban environment (my beloved Seattle). We each own our own place (though I happen to rent a small mother-in-law apartment), but we share a common house (where we have optional common meals a few times/week) and all the units face one another in a village-like setting. The front porches open onto courtyards and common areas, making it easy to visit neighbors, watch children and share our lives.

    Indeed, leaving my neighbors here in co-housing is one of the key things I’ll miss come October when I move lock, stock ‘n barrel to South East Asia. Then again, I’ve always been able to muster up a happy little support group/sense of “community” no matter where I’ve landed, and I’m sure my new life as an expat will be no different.

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 10:47 am #

      Thank you so much for stopping in and sharing your thoughts Dyanne. I hadn’t really thought about the co-housing developments and communities in the US, I have head of those, and I even have friends living in intentional living communities, sharing and growing food, etc. Your community sounds so completely lovely. With all of that land you undoubtedly still have enough space to feel like you’re independent when you need to be, but to have a community on call like that, to go to the common courtyards just sounds lovely.

      I have family in Bellingham and from their descriptions you’ve found an area of the US that really stands apart…the Pacific Northwest is so different from areas of the south where I am from!

      So where in SEA are you moving to?! I’m loving the community here in Chiang Mai, Thailand ;-)

  15. Anonymous January 30, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    I think that as we’ve become more and more attached to our technology, we’ve lost a sense of face-to-face togetherness. It’s a shame, since there’s nothing stopping us but ourselves! Interesting observations.

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 10:30 am #

      Like you I really do think that the technology has aided in the loss of some sense of community for a lot of the Western world…though looking through some European cultures, they still have a very social and friendly sidewalk culture alongside the smartphones and laptops dotting every table. What’s it like in your town in France?

      • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

        I think that it’s similar in smaller towns in France, particularly in the countryside. However, Nice is a bigger city with lots of English-speaking expats and tourists–so it’s not quite the same! Once you get into the smaller neighborhoods, it’s a bit more local and friendly–but in the heart of Nice, it’s a city!

  16. Michael Hodson January 30, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    Great post. I love sidewalk, outside drinking and eating cultures. So much of Latin America is this way also. Obviously SE Asia. Some places in Europe. It is so friendly and open.

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 10:26 am #

      It seems like somewhere on every continent has still embraced a big piece of this open and friendly culture…now to just find it back home in the States and all would be golden :)

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