Growing up in the 60s in a small, provincial town in Northern Italy, I had no reason to seek out and define the concept of community. It was all around me, as constant as the sky. As a child, all I had to do was step outside, where I would be greeted by friends in the courtyard, the milkman on his way to his next delivery, the proprietor of the local cafe. As a teen, I participated in what Italians do best: Parading ourselves (and our new outfits) up and down the boulevard in the center of town, where we would, no doubt, run into members of our tribe.
My sense of community dimmed in the larger cities I took up residence in as an adult—Milan, Florence, Paris. I was, all of a sudden, tiny and anonymous. As invigorating as these cities were, the phone became more precious to me than food. Without a phone, I’d be hard pressed to meet up with anyone I knew. I would be as lonely and isolated as some of the buildings appeared to be.
When I moved to the United States in my early twenties, my understanding of community all but vanished completely. Geography forced me to buy a car. My phone morphed from a must-have into a lifeline. A visit with a friend—which in Italy was often spontaneously planned and frequently unexpected—required time and preparation. Effort.
Why is this? In the US, urban planning has grown out of economic necessities. Suburban centers dominate and provide refuge for many but also intensify the distance between people—physically and mentally, literally and figuratively. More so in the United States than in Europe, people gravitate towards living in houses, rather than in apartments, particularly people who are in a higher tax bracket. As appealing as this might seem, this deepens the divide; it acts as a separation agent rather than a connecting link. Churches, gyms, cafés, libraries, bookstores, parks, and other “community” places provide people with the opportunity to form friendships beyond the scope of their everyday lives, but what is one to do if they lack the time and resources to frequent these places? We’re charged with the task of creating our own community.
And it can feel like a full-time job.
On a social level, I’ve found that creating a community is more challenging in Western cultures, where “staying busy” takes precedence over forming and nurturing relationships. One could argue that this is becoming true for people in Europe and Eastern cultures as well but in my experience it seems that Europeans are more inclined to enjoy a leisurely lunch with a friend than grabbing a hamburger on the go.
Either way, community today is pretty much what we make of it, depending on where we live, with whom, and how. I have days where my social calendar is empty, I work from home, and my community is my dog and two cats, for hours on end. On such days, I make a concerted effort to cherish the love I have for those who aren’t present. I go on walks in the redwoods behind my house and greet passersby. I have a cappuccino at the coffee store down the street, and make sure to engage the barista in small talk. I might have a hamburger for lunch, but it’s eaten at a table, with napkins, a book in hand, so that I can say hello again to the characters I’ve missed since setting down my novel the night before. I listen to music while I cook dinner. I spend time on Facebook; I laugh my lungs out on Twitter.
And, yes, I pick up the phone.
What do you do to keep your sense of community thriving? I would love to know. (Inclusion of your phone number is totally optional. Kidding. Kind-of).
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