You know that idyllic image of American life in the 1950s? You know the one I mean: Neat yards aligned up and down the streets of pretty suburbs, complete with 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 deliver a fresh apple pie to welcome you to the neighborhood, and huge porch swings fit for 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 mediums (like Facebook) mean I never gave up my close friends when I moved across the country—and then left the country altogether.
Over the past more than ten years of travel, it has surprised me that so many cultures have maintained their local communities in addition to the global connectedness the internet has fostered. They didn’t lose the in person connection with the rise of social media, it merely expanded their world (if and when they got social media).
Life Lived on the Sidewalks of the World
It was fifteen years ago on my study abroad program in Italy that I realized other parts of the word live their lives on the sidewalks of their towns and cities. That initial glimpse proved increasingly true as I began traveling to far-flung places and within disparate cultures. Backpacking in Bosnia was a revelation. The European sidewalk café culture there means evenings in Bosnia are lived outdoors and are suffused with a low buzz of voices. Locals socialize at their nearby café, people-watching and enjoying the company of friends. Throughout my weeks there, it was like a warm hug when I went out for my evening meals.
Six o’clock is the social hour in Bosnia—it’s the hour meant for gossiping over the clink of beer glasses. By evening, the sidewalks and streets of Sarajevo and Mostar overflowed with tables full of chattering locals, not just those tourists forced to hunt down their nighttime food.
Fast forward another nearly decade, and my new home in Barcelona shares some of the unhurried pace of life that I was surprised to find in Cuba. Lunches may last hours, and dinners almost always do. The world-famous Spanish tapas emerged because of a culture that likes to socialize for hours and needed snackable items to pass the time.
Cuba’s Neighborhood Communities
Fast forward to what Cuba’s like: It’s a lot like other places in the world that still value community, friends, and quality time. The sidewalk culture is different in Cuba, but it channels a similar essence. Instead of cafes lining the streets, the actual structures of Cuban homes facilitate friendly conversations and a more 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’ homes to share news and gossip.
Throughout the day, the elders in Cuba sit in rocking chairs in their windows, grandmothers quietly knitting while keeping close tabs on every single thing happening in their territory.
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.
Even though I had my issues with the experience of traveling in Cuba, I loved Cuba for the palpable sense of community present.
So, What Happened in the U.S.?
My culture lost our sense of togetherness somewhere along the way; our family units are smaller in the U.S., 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 traveling the world has allowed me to 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 invest myself fully in my friends, family, and experiences.
Thoughts on sidewalk cultures elsewhere in the world? Am I way off in thinking that America just doesn’t quite have that togetherness anymore?