Some years ago I had travelled to Greece, the country of my heritage and landed in Crete.
It was the first time I had travelled to Greece and I remember that even though I could speak the language and shared the customs and traditions, there were still many elements that remained foreign and curious to me as an Australian.
I stayed with my aunt and uncle and I recall that one night, around 10:30 pm, I was in my pyjamas in front of the television. Sipping a cup of mountain tea, I was trying to understand what the TV presenters were talking about when my two cousins entered the lounge room.
“What are you doing?” they asked.
“Watching television before I go to bed,” I responded.
“BED? AT THIS TIME?” they asked incredulously. “Go inside, get dressed, we’re going out!”
“Whoa? At this time? I don’t understand,” as I scrambled up from the lounge spilling my tea.
“Come on, come on,” they waved their hands as if to push me out of the room and rolled their eyes up incredulously.
I got dressed, we said our goodbyes to my aunt and uncle and off we walked through the streets on a balmy summer evening.
“Where are we going? Is it safe to be walking the streets here at this time of the night? Are the shops open at this time? This is really late for me you know!” I asked as we walked.
“Relax! Enough with the questions!” they kept saying to me. “Just wait, we’re going to meet friends.”
“Friends? What are we going to do?” I asked.
“Nothing, we’re meeting up with friends for coffee, maybe a meal. Just talking, you know. You need to relax Helen. We don’t need to DO anything – we’re just going to enjoy company of friends”.
“What? AT THIS TIME OF THE NIGHT?” I yelled. “I should be in bed!”
I kept looking at my watch. By this time, it was close to 11 o’clock. Who knows how long we were going to be out and who we were meeting. I worried about eating anything past 6pm as my body wouldn’t have time for me to digest it before breakfast. I worried that I was carrying my credit card and cash on me. I worried about how it would look if I left them early and walked back home earlier or caught a taxi home – on second thoughts, where do you catch a taxi from? My mind was racing. I couldn’t risk my safety on the street and being knifed by some drug crazed person.
Obviously the instincts I usually reserve for empty, derelict and lonely Melbourne streets and lane ways after 9pm kicked in.
“You worry too much Helen,” one of them said as if reading my thoughts.
We turned a corner and entered into a rowdy village square. There were lights, music, laughter.
People of all ages were walking around the square, sitting at cafes and restaurants, smiling and talking to each other, singing and laughing. You heard the chink of wine glasses and the smell of grilling meat.
Old and young, people were out and about. Young giggling children ran past me and my first thoughts were, ” Where are their parents? Shouldn’t these kids be in bed?”.
I was in the Twilight Zone.
I had never seen anything like this before.
At once I felt ‘safe’ – everything was going to be okay.
This was my welcome to the Village Square (aka Piazza)- and a foreign concept to me in Australia, living in the suburbs where at night, people were locked up in their homes.
I never understood why my migrant parents would say things like, “there is no ‘zoi’ in Australia” when I was growing up. “Zoi” in Greek means “life” but the context of what they meant was a social life where you drop what you’re doing and simply walk out your door and into your local town square (your community). It’s your ‘third place’ where people know your name and you can always find someone to chat to and have a laugh.
I never understood my parents until I actually experienced it. So this is what they meant. This is the crucial missing piece in many neighbourhoods and our communities today. A place where the community gathers.
Back at home, we work long days, we come home tired, we plonk ourselves in front of the television and we go to bed. We repeat it the next day. Socialising was left until Friday evenings and weekends because that was the only time we had available – until that got eaten up by other commitments too. We saved up our money to go on long overseas holidays as an escape but they were few and far between. Meanwhile my parents would quizzically look at me and say, “there would be no need for expensive holidays abroad to ‘destress’, if you had a place where you can go to and just meet friends at any time of the day or night”.
As technology and our lives make us more isolated and disconnected from others, I began to think back to my time in Greece and how valuable that Village Square was for me. I had stayed in Crete for some months and I saw the benefit of this as a community gathering and it quickly became part of my normal routine. People would go about their daily lives – their work and family – but every night, they would gather at the village square to catch up, chat, eat and drink coffee with friends and family before retiring home to look forward to the new day where they would do it all over again. It was a simple, rustic type of lifestyle that had gone on for thousands of years but you felt safe, connected and a part of something bigger – you had a part within your local community.
So now as I look at my own community back home, I wonder about the way it is designed and how town planners have strayed from the original concept of the ‘town square’ as a public gathering place. In an effort to modernise and streamline, and with the advent of technology, have we lost the bare necessity of having a place where we can just get together and be social? What do you think?
(It pleases me to see new initiatives in Melbourne to recreate public community spaces to revive and create vibrancy again and to have people gather and reconnect in person. One such recent example in Melbourne was Yarraville’s pop up park).