American villages

It’s July — Tour de France time. My mother enjoys watching it on TV because it’s the closest she’s going to get to visiting France. The cyclists pass through tiny settlement after settlement. Each has a unique name, but all look alike: villages without industry, mere clusters of homes and farms, where no one is out on the streets (except to cheer on the riders) and nothing ever appears to change.

Without easy mobility at 75 mph-plus, Americans aren’t sure what to do with themselves. Beyond the cheerful planning for contingencies — the kitchen gardens, the Priuses and solar panels – there looms an abyssal future in which nobody (or, only the upper classes) will have the wherewithal to move from place to place. Americans now say they long for village life (“village” as some kind of intimate community, whether urban, suburban or rural), but what many really desire is a commune: a village with a transcendent ideal behind it — some kind of political or ecological or spiritual purity — and naturally, a growth plan. “As we grow and succeed, more and more like-minded people will join us.” (Any surprise that the presidential election has taken on the aspect of revival? It’s the American way.)

An alternative future is envisioned by some progressive middle-class Americans as a sort of extended blackout. We’ll make popcorn by firelight, sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” It’ll be fun. Yet our grandchildren may regard popcorn as a staple food, and “99 Bottles of Beer” as a deeply meaningful chant. Village life is idealized, and allegedly packaged up for us in the form of suburban developments and now even urban revival. But not the stillness-unto-death of real village life, with its passing moments of raw ineffable joy.

5 Replies to “American villages”

  1. you nail something here, and bring many of our conversations full circle. so many of lubrano’s people, as you’d put it, wonder why there is such powerful appeal to our childhoods – even if they were childhoods of no vacations (beyond day trips), one telephone, one car, black and white televisions, crowded houses with two-or-three-kids-to-a-room, ice cream once in a while and little or no fast food.

    it was contentment. the old folks you still find living in the same homes in the city and geddes and westvale and mattydale stayed put for a reason; they were parents then, and they did not – at elast generally – get lost in any dreams about what they didn’t have or where they couldn’t go. (one of obama’s political problems: his grandfather, the guy in his life, DID fret about might-have-beens, spending much of his life wandering and unhappy, according to obama’s book, and thus did not share that elemental core of place so familiar in many working class childhoods). the quality of gotta-have-more: bigger house, bigger and faster cars – as in zzzz, plural – bigger vacations, bigger camps for the kids, always more and what you have isn’t good enough, financial planning to make sure you can get-get-get tomorrow – that was insidiously injected into the ensuing gnerations, as if by syringe, so those who share their parents’ ideals and sense of place can easily be made to feel inadequate and out of time … yet in that ideal is sustainability, and a certain belief and love in the american experiment not for what it promises but for what it is, a sense that community can be enough. that is what i’ve felt in europe, in a different way, the times that i’ve been there (after all, many in our parents’ generations fled europe because it didn’t offer that chance at community).

    the quality you speak of we once had, at least those of us from working class backgrounds (although not – and this is a critical distinction – those wounded by the cultural shrapnel of poverty). as the beatles said, for a lot of us, we need to get back.


  2. I think you’re on to something, especially in your distinction between true villages and today’s communes. Sadly, when I think of American villages, I have a sense of stultifying, segregated sameness shot through with a serious resistance change in any form. The very things I celebrate as a tourist in Europe seem so wrong to me here. But I come from parents who couldn’t wait to get out of the cities and who for years, even once settled, always assumed they could toss kids and belongings in a U-Haul at any time and hit the road. It’s not a very modern lifestyle–but hey, gas was $1.50/gallon in today’s dollars. We’ve explored some varied potential futures at; a lot of them seem to include a return to a small and stationary lifestyle.

  3. Sadly, when I think of American villages, I have a sense of stultifying, segregated sameness shot through with a serious resistance change in any form. The very things I celebrate as a tourist in Europe seem so wrong to me here…

    I know, that’s the problem! It’s un-American. Perhaps Europeans will think it is cute.

    Sean, re working class backgrounds – I see what you mean, but if so, what was Springsteen singing about?

    Americans hate stillness and quiet openness. Hate it, hate it. So much “change” and “getting back to the land” and all that, seems just like the traditional American addiction to expansionism (which meshes so well with religious fundamentalism and war, etc) in new clothes. Maybe I’m dancing around a deeper spiritual question here, but wouldn’t it be nice if people just gave this addiction up? for all time?

  4. Is it expansionism, or is it ownership? I wonder that when I see the patches of land that Cornell rents out to apartment-dwelling gardeners–people have this peculiar need to claim a piece of soil. My parents had none of that, but I admit to enjoying my soil after years in a NYC apartment. So many of our rural issues–noise, trash, trail-building, rights-of-way–seem to pit neighbor vs. neighbor and involve the notion that “this is my soil; I can do with it as I will.” I don’t think Europeans have the same sense of “staking a claim” that we historically do.

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