As a child in the 1940s, I enjoyed lazy summer days playing on our big breezy front porch, in the downtown immigrant neighborhood of Buffalo where we lived. In the evening, Mom, Dad and Yiayia, my Greek grandmother, would come out, too. They’d sit on the porch in their white wicker chairs, just like all the other families on our street, visiting back and forth with the neighbors on their porches, all new to the country, sharing gossip and (when we were lucky) sharing wonderful ethnic pastries they’d baked earlier in the day, while the kids played street games. That was when I was a little girl.
In Amherst, the upscale suburb where we moved when I was a teenager, it wasn’t quite the same. There we sat out on patios in back, in Adirondack-style chairs behind hedges and fences. There were no sidewalks and passers-by because everyone drove. You issued invitations if you wanted the company of friends.
Later, when I’d grown up and gone away, my parents moved to a second floor flat a bit closer to the city. In that neighborhood they hauled their folding aluminum chairs out into the driveway and watched the traffic go by. They got their neighbors to do the same and once again enjoyed the informal, daily banter of friends reviewing the day. When they eventually rented an apartment back in the city, they’d sit out on their tiny balcony overlooking a parking lot, calling hello to the few passersby they knew.
Mom said that when she was a girl people would sit out on summer evenings around the fountain in a downtown park, which was actually just an island in the street. It was cooler than their crowded upstairs apartments. On really hot nights, if there was a breeze, they stayed all night and slept there, outside, without fear.
In Potomac, Maryland, the Washington, DC suburb where I lived for 40 years, where my children grew up, houses are air conditioned. People rarely venture outside during the muggy Maryland summers. When they do, they use backyard patios and decks where it’s quiet and private. Instead of congregating in parks, each family has its own playground equipment in its own yard. Busy and driven, neither the adults nor the children are home much so they don’t really know their neighbors very well. They don’t mingle. They know nothing of street games and porch culture.
Once, when sirens wailed and stopped a few doors down from us it turned out to be a devastating teenage suicide–people discreetly kept their distance. My mother, who was visiting at the time, was incredulous. She expected everyone on the block to rush over to find out what happened. To her, it seemed rude not to, as if we didn’t care. To my neighbors, it would have been rude to intrude on a private tragedy.
I learned where my family’s sitting out custom came from when I went to Greece. There it’s called “peripate”, which taken literally means the opposite of sitting–“walking around”. Perhaps it began as walking around to visit in the evening but evolved into more sitting as time went by. Or maybe the younger folks would promenade as the older ones sat. At any rate, the purpose is to mingle.
In Greece every town has a square, which may or may not be an actual square-shaped space. What’s important is not the shape but that it be a space large enough for people to congregate. In Sparti, a town of perhaps 15,000, it is a real square, bordered by the town hall on one side and various shops, outdoor restaurants and cafenios (coffee houses) on the rest. People of all ages meet and mingle from dusk “˜til midnight. Children ride bikes and play, teenagers hang out and adults eat at the outdoor cafes. You can take an hour negotiating a meal for the group, family style. You can sit at the table with a cup of coffee for hours and not feel pressured to move on and let the place make higher profits. The owner might even join you.
In Klada, my grandmother’s birthplace, population 250, the “square” is simply the end of a street that’s been widened a bit. A few chairs in front of a small taverna define it. And in Paraloggi, my father’s birthplace, a tiny village at the top of a mountain, a stone wall at the village entrance serves as the square. The night we drove up to Paraloggi at dusk we were greeted by two dozen weathered-looking men and women, some barefoot children, a donkey and two collie dogs gathered at the wall.
Searching for relatives in these villages, we would arrive at dusk when people were sitting out, and ask if there were any Macherases or Kalogereses or Demopouloses left. We’d be invited to sit and have some juice. We’d be asked about the USA, my children, my parents, my visit, if my daughters were married, if I had grandchildren. We’d learn about their families, too, and any possible connections they had to anyone anyplace in the USA. Our question about my relatives was incidental to the opportunity to visit. You can’t be in a hurry in Greece.
Sitting out is just one of many signs of the communal culture that is Greece. For example, the subway seats face each other, encouraging communication. Shopping is a social experience. On entering a shop, you are expected to chat with the clerk and on leaving you exchange polite good wishes. And the huge stone amphitheatres of ancient times are still used for performances, providing another way for people of all ages to congregate.
A favorite shared pastime in Greece, another form of sitting out, is gathering to watch the sun set. This happens everywhere in the cities, in the mountains, by the sea, on the ships. People congregate in a spot with a good view and chat while they wait for the show. After the sun sinks, they applaud as if watching the curtain drop on an opera or ballet.
Thinking about these spectacular Mediterranean sunsets and the time it takes to properly enjoy them, I contrast the culture of my origin with the American one, the culture of rugged individualism that tells us we can do anything, be anything, own anything, if we work hard enough and compete fiercely enough. The culture that says we must learn to hurry, multitask, be efficient, get ahead. The culture that tells us not to just sit around with friends and neighbors and watch the sun set.
It takes time to live a communal life, to connect with other people. It happens in places where people value live conversation during long, leisurely meals. Where people don’t arrange the furniture to face the TV and watch talk shows, but instead arrange the furniture to face and talk to each other. Where people have friendly conversations before conducting business. Where people gather to watch the sun set and clap when it sinks slowly into the sea. Where people think it’s fine to simply sit out together and do nothing at all.
Now that I’m retired I’ve been thinking about these things, about the value of sunsets and front porches. Being mostly American, I didn’t take the time before. The Greek in me seems to be emerging in my later years. My downtown Bethesda condo faces West and if I sit out on my fourth floor balcony I can often see a lovely, if not spectacular, sunset.