Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Meet me on the steps of St Claude's

Ah,Paris. For those not watching my tweets, Facebook, or RoelleKids blog, I took an unexpected 2 day trip there last week. One day was spent in the back room of a facility, but the other we got to spend wandering the city.

One thing we noticed as we walked by various little parks, plazas, and almost any place with steps, was the people gathering just to hang. Picnics, bocce games, and people getting together to sit and chat and ... be. Why was this so novel? It seems like a really social, peaceful, great thing to do! Still, it seemed foreign to us.

In Rochester I can understand a bit why, since it tends to be such a car-based city. It seems like a car-focused culture is less likely to encourage casual hanging. I'm not interested in sitting if I have to drive to get there.... (Well maybe I AM, but I'm not totally the norm. And a campfire would be needed to really get me interested) But what about cities with parks, plazas, and steps that people can walk to, just like in Paris? New York, Boston, Chicago? I was actually hanging with my vendor (Meghan), who lives in Chicago, and she was as struck as I was. It just wasn't the same.

Maybe it's due, in part to that classic "American drive" - the one that leads to marvelous achievements, but also to stress levels through the roof, way too many work hours, overbooking non-work time w/ other commitments, running, running, running, doing, doing, doing. Sitting, relaxing, may be something the French lifestyle is just better suited to. As I type, it occurs to me that the 35hr work week may also have played a role in the number of people hanging out on a Friday afternoon.

I read Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam years ago as I started to think about the impact of social networking on relationships. Great book, but one of those where I filled the margins with counter-arguments. Written in the days of discussion boards and usenet groups prior to blogging, microblogging, and mainstream social networks, much did not seem valid or fully explored to me. And I still hear in headlines here and there how technology and social media are ruining relationships and community.

Personally, I think that's bull. Social media can give us a bit of that sitting on the steps bond w/ friends - hanging out, sharing the inconsequential, or maybe if the mood strikes debating deep philosophical issues. Where cars and stress and workaholism may have pulled us away from old world social gathering, I feel social media has filled a bit of a gap. It's so easy for people to blame the new guy. If you feel relationships are suffering, more people are stressed/ depressed, maybe think more about our choice not to hang just to hang, not to meet on the steps of St Claude's (btw, random name, DK if there even IS a St Claude).