Conor Friedersdorf writes for his college magazine of the time he went to Seville, in Spain:
As I soaked up the city—fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast, gazpacho or spinach with garbanzo beans or tortilla Española later on—I remembered how lovely it is to enjoy each meal, spending an hour or more on a leisurely lunch, or sipping wine with a late dinner. Walking its streets, I remembered how fine it felt to get from place to place putting one foot in front of the other, able to enjoy those details that can be appreciated at four though not 54 miles per hour.
Ernest Hemingway called Paris “a moveable feast,” noting that those lucky enough to live there while young will be able to take something of it with them forever. I’ve lived twice in Paris and twice in Sevilla. The latter is my moveable feast, though after my first visit I forgot to take along as much as I might have.
In the years that followed, working in the world of American politics and language and ideas, I often reflected on the cerebral skills Pomona confers. No doubt its graduates are achievers. Yet my second visit to Sevilla reminded me that my semester abroad remains the College’s greatest gift: years after graduation it led me back to that city—a place where thoughtful visitors are taught that cultivating enjoyment for everyday pleasures has a lot to do with living life right.
I wrote yesterday about the front porch culture in south Louisiana, and how I didn’t fully realize until my sister got sick and died how valuable it was. Conor’s line about Seville — “a place where thoughtful visitors are taught that cultivating enjoyment for everyday pleasures has a lot to do with living life right” — really does seem to apply. I called the other day to check on my mom and dad, and caught them in the middle of eating boiled crabs that a neighbor had brought over. Knowing my folks as I do, the only thing that mattered in the world at that moment was that pile of hot red crabs resting atop that morning’s Baton Rouge Advocate, spread across the kitchen table. Those crabs, a gift from a friend and neighbor, made them so happy, and these days, they need that sort of thing. It was a simple gesture, but it meant the world — and my folks were able to receive it as it was intended, because they could slow down enough to live in the moment and be grateful for the taste of boiled crabs, and the way Zatarain’s crab boil smells on your fingers.
In south Louisiana, people are always looking for reasons to get together with each other, usually over food, just to be together. It’s an intensely social place. The thing is, very little is planned. When I’ve been down there visiting in past years, Daddy will say something like, “Mr. Ronnie decided to cook up a gumbo at the camp tonight. Wanna go?” That sort of thing. Whoever can come, comes. Bring a six pack. Let the kids run around and get dirty. Why not?
This is normal there. It’s normal in a way that’s not really normal anywhere else I’ve lived. Well, it is normal with my Orthodox friends Vladimir and Murray in Dallas, and their wives; they were always having impromptu get-togethers, just like in St. Francisville. I regret not having been to more of them. I had gotten into a more rigid mindset where it seemed too hard to do that, to just be spontaneous, to take advantage of the opportunity to be with friends and eat something and not worry about anything. I wasn’t raised that way. I don’t want to be that guy, the guy who doesn’t respond to random chances to get together because over time, without quite realizing what was happening, that capacity for friendship got cultivated out of him.
In the language of sociology, what front porch culture does is build social capital. This we saw when Ruthie got sick, and in the aftermath of her death. The breathtaking acts of kindness and solidarity the community visited upon Ruthie and her family didn’t come from nowhere. It comes from the compound interest on deposits made on the front porch. Money can’t buy that kind of wealth. I don’t know why it is that so many of us feel the lack of social capital in our own lives, but we organize our lives and structure our imaginations such that we make it hard to build it up. Mea culpa.