It was late on Friday night when we arrived at our apartment in the medieval Tuscan town of Lucca after a full day of travel. My son asked: “How come every place we visit, there’s a big wall around it? We live inside the walls of the Albaicin in Granada and every city we’ve stayed in has walls.” He proceeded to list them: “Tallin (Estonia), Cadiz (Spain), Jerusalem (Israel), Lucca (Italy), Marrakech (Morocco).”
How fantastic to travel with children whose view of the world allows one to see through a different prism; a long forgotten world dissolved by the responsibilities of adulthood.
I hadn’t noticed until that moment that all these places where we had been living and visiting bore their histories in the edifices and buildings huddled together within thick, ancient walls. The walls are a reminder of former barbaric times when marauding invaders engaged in power struggles that made and broke empires.
While the threat of invaders has long passed, these ancient walls continue to influence the way life is lived within them, a lifestyle that is strikingly different from the one I know in the sprawling modern city of Sydney, full of wide open spaces and….horrendous traffic.
The first difference is the use of space. There is little open space within walled cities and houses are crowded together around small squares (plazas). That means that much of life is lived in the intimate spaces of the streets, squares, bars and cafes where people gather. The distances between places are short therefore people walk which means a lot of incidental human contact.
Here in the Albaicin neighbourhood of Granada I constantly bump into my neighbours while going about my day. I often have to factor in more time to get anywhere because of the many conversations that take place along the way. I love this interactivity and vibrancy. People are out and about every day and often in the evenings. In summer it doesn’t get dark until 10.30pm so why not stay out to enjoy the evening. The only element from my Australian life that I do miss is the open spaces, parks, grass and beaches i.e. gathering with people in nature.
In Australia, the vast sprawling cities provide large private spaces and gardens for their inhabitants but also mean that most people move around in cars rather than walk. There is far less incidental contact with neighbours and community and often people spend their time in their homes rather than out on the streets or in cafes. The one place where I do experience that convivial community feeling is in the numerous parks and beaches of my neighbourhood in Sydney. In Granada my community centres around urban spaces, while in Sydney it is in nature, particularly on the grassy knoll of North Bondi Beach. North Bondi is a place where we picnic after work in Summer, swim in the ocean and usually bump into our friends and community.
My second observation is, in Europe people spend time maintaining their history through festivals, food, religious ceremonies, culture and education. It is wonderful to see the knowledge of forebears passed onto subsequent generations. There is a certain pleasure and obligation to remember where people came from by maintaining old practices.
In Spain, I appreciate the way people uphold their history, culture and family heritage because of a sense of duty and appreciation. I particularly like seeing young people fully engaged in this process, thinking about and participating in activities that serve others rather than only themselves. However innovation and creativity can be stifled by the attitude that the ancestors knew everything and therefore their way of doing things must be maintained as it has for generations.
In Australia, when the British colonised the land of the Aboriginal people and imported migrants (mostly white initially and later on from everywhere) to build a new nation, the view was squarely fixed towards the future. This attitude remains to this day. Migrants from across the world flock to Australia to start over and build a new life. Some want to forget the past while others choose to maintain their heritage privately or in minority community groups. Australian society is a fruit salad of mixed ethnicity and culture with the predominant view towards building future prospects.
Australians seem to be very interested in moving forward and can be quite taken with the latest fads. While I find this leads to innovation and creativity, it can also feed empty consumption, superficiality and a culture of selfishness.
I am privileged to have had the opportunity to experience a different way of living for a year in Spain. Neither way of living is better or worse just different and wonderful in its own way. I do wish though that I could cross-pollinate a little of each experience to the other place. I would love to create some green open spaces in my neighbourhood in Granada and to bring some of the street and café life to my suburb in Sydney. Equally I would love to bring some deep sense of history and duty to Australia and some freedom to break from the past to Spain.