there are several things that distinguish Europe from the United States. one of the most striking to me at least is the existence of the town square or piazza or campo.
Vernazza, where we are staying in the Cinque Terre region on the northwest coast of Italy, is an excellent example of a European town square.
relatively small in scale, it has a real human feel to it. about the size of two, maybe three tennis courts.
surrounded on three sides by buildings, each of which is no taller than five stories. the square opens up to a view of the harbor with its small boats and lapping waves of the Mediterranean Sea.
a very few stores. more importantly, eating and drinking establishments flourish. most of the restaurants have the majority, if not all, of their tables outside on the square. all the tables are protected with beautifully colored umbrellas. the colors excite the spirit. all the tables and chairs are wooden and collapsible. the sounds of glasses clinking are only overwhelmed by the din of individual conversations. the table talk is lively. the entire square is alive with a muted, reserved, almost contemplative, yet definite hum.
most tables are being used to eat, at all hours of the day. but, in between meal times, some tables become local card games that occur every day. other tables become the center of a roundtable of six or seven chairs which are filled by three generations of the same family, all discussing a variety of topics. other tables are filled with just two young people lingering over their dinner wine, every so often leaning over the table to exchange a sweet, soft kiss on the lips. some tables are filled with the older ladies of the community discussing whatever topics i don't know, but in earnest conversation to be sure. some tables are filled with visitors who are experiencing something they are not used to -- namely, a town square that is alive, with people and conversation, and with different generations. at least one table is filled by a gentleman who is typing on his laptop computer a blog to send to his friends across the pond.
the ambiance is infectious. it is so pleasant. so relaxing. so contemplative. yet, so alive.
in addition the square has at least 50% of its area open. with no chairs or tables. this allows people to just walk and connect. it allows for kids to play with their balloons. it also allows for special events to occur.
last night, for example, they had a table or two set up for a bake sale to raise funds to help the victims of the earthquake in central Italy . the night before, they had a performer displaying his acrobatic antics to the delight of all, and especially the younger crowd. the night before that they had music which encouraged all kinds of lyrical, free form dancing. tonight, Sunday night, the open space has no special activity. it is just open and quiet. it feels wonderful.
i asked PJ and Tom tonight where in America do we have this same feel, this same experience, or at least, something close to it. the best they could come up with was Starbucks.
and, yes, often Starbucks has that feel within its stores. however, the thing that is different about this town plaza/square experience is that it is not just within one store. it is outside, and it is a community experience. and you are invited to hang around. to talk, to play cards, to let the kids play, to talk, to see friends.
maybe one of you reading this can share where you think there is a comparable experience in the States. we are stumped. we can't think of any.
of course one other significant factor in making this experience what it is is the lack of any autos. no cars are within miles of this town square. no parking issues. no traffic lights. no emergency vehicles. only people walking.
everything in the square is alive, but at the same time muted. for example, there are no overhead bright street lights. it is not all concrete. there are four trees.
bottom line. I could get used to this.