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Learning a Eruopean Sense of Space, part 2

When we lived in France, I realized people there had a different attitude toward their place, from what I was used to. Public areas in towns were lavishly cared for. Every tiny nook among the streets and buildings was planted with bloom—and laboriously replanted, as soon as the flowers faded, several times a year.

Private property was more private. When Europeans visit the US, they're amazed that we seldom build walls, or even fences, between our property and the neighbor's. "But then," a French friend observed to me, "You've never been invaded, have you?" In a movie chase set in Paris, I noticed how simply the hero eluded the villain, once he got over the high enclosing wall around one property—because they were all like that: closed off, revealing nothing of what was within. There was no way to tell which way he'd gone.

Europeans also seemed to relish their space more. A house does not have a "yard"—there's no concept corresponding to our use of the term. The whole area surrounding the house: lawn, flower beds, parking area, terrace, pool if you've got one—everything up to the limits of your property is your "garden." Usually highly designed. The many rock walls, ornamental trees, and flower beds or boxes that need constant attention, are laid out to create something worth looking at, at every turn. No space is unused.

In comparison most Americans landscape our houses much more simply: the basic shrubbery called "foundation planting," a flower border or two if we're ambitious, a couple of trees that take care of themselves once they're established, and our characteristic open, relaxed lawns. We don't lay claim to our space so fiercely—and we don't tend it so intensively, either.

In France, I frequently took my husband to work. I never got tired of driving up to the place, the gardens around even commercial buildings were so impressive. Fountains, flower beds, rock gardens, pampas grass or cypress trees standing prominently like sculpture—and always impeccably groomed. What effect it must have on a person, to go to work every day in such a beautiful place....

In the U.S., we have more elbow room—but Europeans have more art. It's the wide, open spaces that inspire us. For them, it's the relationship between human beings and a place intensely cared for.

When I came back, I wanted both.

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark


Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 2 April 2004

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