In my opinion, one of the quintessential experiences of most European cities that I have gravitated towards for years, (even just as a tourist) is that of the European square / plaza; it’s that central town square or market place that many literary and history books credit for being a main contributor to the development of democracy & representational self-government throughout Europe, a characteristic of European cities for over 2,000 years.
In reading more about the significance of these squares I came across the following passages which particularly resonated with me:
..”The sense of inclusion”, the feeling that one is a member of the neighborhood, or of the city, is subtly reinforced by the square’s visual enclosure. Being “inside” the square, surrounded by continuous building walls, with the sky as a ceiling, makes one feel temporarily “at home”, and nurtures the citizen’s sense of belonging.”
….The European square is a place for dialogue and discussion, meetings and greetings, for shared experiences and forming bonds. What do people talk about in squares? No subject is taboo! Mainly they exchange stories about their lives and experiences; details about family, work, state of health, plans and hopes. This significant conversation and dialogue the ultimate expression of life in the city” (Mumford) creates community. As Wendell Berry observes, “community exists only when people know each others’ stories”.
“The European square fosters sociability, that is, interaction for its own sake, to give pleasure to each other, not to enhance one’s status or position, but to increase each other’s sense of well-being. Sociability may involve gossiping, bantering, storytelling, joking, flirtation, intermixed with seriousness, concern for the other and expressions of support, even love.”
These readings & these experiences remind me of how much I miss spending time in such squares back in the Middle East. I consider how the squares of the old Arab cities have been almost eradicated and destroyed or left to the natural urban decay of centuries. I think of how new cities completely lack these random forums of interaction and creativity and sociability ..& it makes me wonder if this was a random urban planning mishap or an intentional move to quench that evolvement of what the European squares have come to symbolize over hundreds of years.
In Egypt, we had our brief glimpse of attempting to revive this concept. Tahrir Square for my generation at least was meant to symbolize change and maybe some day grow into this. But that didn’t last long. I think of all the other squares in history that have been wiped out of history books with all their potential, especially when juxtaposed against the beauty of those that have survived and are here to stay for future generations.
For the time being, the present takes me to enjoying this particular one, the grandeur of Milan’s dome, passageways, restaurants, hustle and bustle with hundreds of people crossing paths at different stages in their lives – the lovers, the heartbroken, the healthy, the sick, the dying old and the exuberant young from all different ethnicities and walks of life, enjoying a laugh, an exchange of thoughts in different global languages yet all sharing the same fresh air, the possibilities of blue skies and the freedoms of the low flying pigeons who can’t seem to ever step away from the buzz of these places. It seems quite befitting to experience this while listening to one of my favorites, Ed Sheeran’s love ballad, Perfect:
“Well, I found a woman, stronger than anyone I know
She shares my dreams, I hope that someday I’ll share her home
I found a love to carry more than just my secrets
To carry love, to carry children of our own
We are still kids but we’re so in love
Fighting against all odds
I know we’ll be alright this time…”