I find myself, at the moment, more of a foreign girl at home than I’ve been in plenty of places where I couldn’t speak a word of the language. My country is baffling me. In the wake of yet more police shootings of black men, peaceful protests were being staged in Dallas–a city where reports are that community policing was working and relationships were good with the local communities. Just as the event organizer and a police officer were complimenting each other on how great everything was going, a war veteran gunned down eleven officers, saying he just wanted to “kill white people.”
This all took place during the Fourth of July week. The American mid-summer patriotic holiday, where we come together to celebrate the success of our national experiment, the vibrancy of the colors in our combined tapestry, the hope of a union of people from all nationalities and all walks of life. It’s a national day off work, celebrated with fireworks and picnics and barbecues and lots of people attaching their longer summer vacations to the free extra day off. Stores have sales, communities have festivals and special events, and in cities everywhere there’s just a lot to do.
We started our holiday in Colorado with Cherry Creek Arts Festival on Saturday,
then picnicked at Denver’s City Park with a Latin jazz band Sunday,
and slid downtown from there to the steps of the state capitol to catch fireworks at Civic Center park.
We finished off Monday night at a cookout with neighbors and retail (mostly) fireworks.
And being at all these cheerful gatherings of neighbors and fellow-citizens, then seeing how fragile the threads that bind us really are, I’m struck by something I’ve discovered about America from being in other countries: Americans aren’t awesome at hanging out. A couple of years ago, a Pakistani neighbor I had in Saudi Arabia learned she would be moving to America soon, and was nervous about it. A mutual Pakistani-American friend was preparing her for some of the differences that might baffle her, and among them said that in America you won’t see people out of their houses much.
Well, that’s not exactly…okay, true. Outside of very few big cities, Americans get in their cars, drive to work, work, drive home, then close the garage doors behind themselves and go inside. Public transportation, again, is used by large segment of the population in only a few large cities. Between the advent of air conditioning and television, people don’t even sit outside in the evenings. We go out for errands or for dinner or entertainment, but the majority of us don’t just hang around outside our homes. In my suburban neighborhood, if you see somebody over the age of 12 walking without exercise clothing, pool toys, or a dog, it’s weird. (Exception: people in business dress during commuter hours, walking to or from the bus.) There’s a park, but people go there to use it to throw a ball or a Frisbee for a little while and then they leave. Here it is, on a summer Sunday afternoon:
Rockin’ the grass, huh? Contrast it with my favorite park in the world, Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, which doesn’t have great stretches of grass because there are so many people using it all the time:
People in Paris come out to stroll, to sit, to just be where people are. And of course there are the ubiquitous sidewalk cafes found everywhere in Europe, where you not only drink and eat, but relax and people-watch. For as long as you like. Winter and summer.
And Parisians are not unique. In fact, they’re in the global majority. An friend of mine who grew up in York, in England, talks about how people would go out to stroll on the High Street in the evening, just back and forth, seeing and being seen, joining conversations on politics or the weather or gossip. On a weeknight evening on the Riva in Split, Croatia, I saw groups of men chatting and people watching, children playing, couples strolling.
In Italy, the typical breakfast is a cornetto (just don’t call it an “Italian croissant” around an Italian) and a cup of espresso, eaten standing at the counter at a neighborhood bakery or cafe, elbow to elbow with the neighbors.
In southern Spain, townspeople sit in the plaza in the morning,
And people drift in and out of tapas bars through the evening.
In Bali, families gather at temples or in neighborhood ceremonies that occur…really often. This group of ladies were chatting in the shade and invited me to join them for a picture.
In Thailand, people shop for their meals outside, every day, often every meal, from street vendors. Rather than stay in your house staring into a half-filled refrigerator, you go out among your neighbors multiple times a day to buy individual portions of, say, broth, noodles, an egg, and some vegetables. (And be sure to pick up some mango sticky rice while you’re at it.)
And this, I’ve figured out, is why I love the Fourth of July weekend in America so much. That’s when you actually can find Americans out, in public spaces, just being people together. At the Latin jazz concert, a toddler danced a few feet from us while Grandma sat in a folding chair knitting.
In front of them, an interracial pair of thirty-something couples chatted. Police lounged against the pavilion behind the crowd, chatting with passersby. Teenagers flirted. Dog-walkers stopped to listen to the music. And in front of the stage, a few free spirits swaying to the music eventually became a crowd dancing. Children, parents, late-in-life couples showing off what they’d learned in salsa dancing class, hippies, yuppies, beautiful, couldn’t-care-less, graceful, awkward, African, Asian, Latin, European. Folks, rubbing shoulders, rubbing hips, sharing a gigantic outdoor living room.
In the famous Christmas truce of 1914, German and Allied soldiers in some places along the front lines laid down their weapons on Christmas Eve, could hear one another singing Christmas carols, and the next day cautiously came out of their trenches and took pictures, exchanged gifts, and even played football. But the high commands on both sides saw this as undermining their forces’ “fighting spirit” and forbid any future fraternization. No, for people to kill each other they need to see the enemy as something unlike themselves, something other than human. A label rather than a person. And for heaven’s sake, you have to keep them physically separated from each other so they don’t find out the truth: that we’re all made of flesh and blood, with parents and children, hopes, loves.
I have a feeling our social isolation contributes to the way people seem more able to turn on each other in America than they are elsewhere. There’s something about the places that bring strangers together that strengthens the social fabric—public squares, public schools, public transportation, public hospitals. They increase our familiarity with each other, facilitate shared experiences, show us that we’re more alike than we are different. And yet Americans seem to treat those places as something you have to accept when there’s nothing else, and that you bypass as soon as you can. We aspire to having our own yards or gardens, private schools, personal cars, private healthcare. We put immeasurable effort into finding ways to avoid those places, rather than make them better at doing their essential job of bringing us together.
I mean, when you live close to the people around you, you can’t just bark at faceless content providers or other commenters on social media. You have to work things out in person.
And then you have to get up and get along the next morning and for years to come.
I don’t have a fix for this. Even with the money and magical power to poof a bunch of public spaces into place, I can’t make Americans change their habits and actually use them. But I can use the ones around me more. I can go to a divey hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern restaurant outside my neighborhood with four stars on Yelp and chat up the owners. I can spend more time in the park. Ride the train. Attend school programs for children not related to me. Visit someone else’s church. And I can vote and advocate for people and programs that strengthen the bonds of community instead of the ones that create more isolation.
As long as I don’t have to salsa dance in public.