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Learning a European Sense of Space, part 1

The narrow, twisty road is flanked on both sides by high walls—some of stone, some of dense shrubbery, or of fence covered with a thick mat of ivy. Sometimes it's the edge of a building, but often it's a garden wall, that defines the limits of someone's property. And those limits go right up to the road—with no space remaining for even a sidewalk. The lane is so narrow there isn't always room for two cars to pass, and because of the walls, you can't see around the bends. But it's still a two-way road.

Crazy, you say: no town would allow such unsafe construction; that's what zoning ordinances are for. And you'd probably be right, anywhere in the U.S. But this scene is normal, where I lived southern France.

At first I thought roads were like this because they had been built long before cars. But then I started taking a class in a nearby town which had all been built during the past five years, as residential space for new local industry. And it was the same.

Twice a week, I drove through this new town marvelling at the same tight curves and blind corners that were tricky to manoeuvre around. The same kinds of hazards, like public landscaping that included pots of flowers sticking out into the road. And the same scanty parking areas, so that people parked along the narrow two-way roads in a way that reduced the two lanes to one. I had to conclude it had been designed this way, on purpose. But why?!

Finally, as I kept driving through that town week after week, I began to realize that it grew on me. The way the buildings adjoined each other was irregular, creating odd angles, nooks and crannies. And the nooks were filled with fountains or flowers or stairways up a hill to the next level of buildings; the crannies were filled with vines cascading down the wall, or sandboxes for kids to play in, or benches to look at the view from.

And the view—whatever direction you looked—was worth looking at: the architecture of that place was inviting. Eventually I stopped missing the straight roads and regular blocks of predictable American urban architecture. That town taught me a different attitude toward space.

Though I may be thinking in stereotypes, what little I saw of the rest of Europe led me to think it might be a an Old World sense of space.

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark

Edited slightly from the version published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 26 March 2004

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