The first challenge presented by the subject of place attachment is how do we define the word, or concept, ‘place.’ It only takes a minute of thinking about the subject to realize that the possibilities are vast. Place attachment theorists tell us that parameters of place can be as small as a single object, or as expansive as the universe itself. These ideas, while intriguing, don’t get us very far.
It seems a bit more manageable to me, at first, to think of a place as a geographic whole that is made of ‘the sum of its parts,’ and then something greater. Thinking of the definition of place this way, we can begin to enumerate the qualities of places. So, let’s take the Washington, DC suburb in which I currently reside: Bethesda, Maryland. There is a lot to say about Bethesda. In fact, there’s plenty to say, just about my street – which is arguably a ‘place’ unto itself – but I’ll try to keep things simple for now.
So, Bethesda is very close to Washington, DC. Like any other place, she has her own, unique history. She also has her own metro stop in the DC metrorail system. There are thousands of residences within walking distance of the Bethesda metro stop. Downtown Bethesda has many restaurants cafes, small markets, three farmers markets, schools, playgrounds, bike trails, high-end retail, a large bookstore (can you believe it??) trendy shops, outdoor musicians, two movie theaters (1 ‘indie’), a free ‘circulator’ bus, and many pedestrian-filled streets. Some other things to know about Bethesda might include the median household income of her residents (as of 2013, estimated at just over $149k), the percentage of residents who have graduate degrees (more than 50%), and the ratio of bars and liquor stores to libraries and gyms (I don’t know the answer to this, but I would bet it’s pretty even).
All of the abovementioned statistics and other bits of information about Bethesda are tangible and quantifiable. Naming the attributes of a place, however, is much more complex than a set of statistics, or even observable, tangible realities. Most obviously, a key aspect of any place is its culture. Attempting to describe Bethesda’s culture is a very big challenge, indeed. For an individual person who lives here, who wishes to understand the culture from within, it may be especially difficult without venturing outside of Bethesda to make some comparisons. For me, it only takes a quick trip to Silver Spring (on the other side of the metro line), or New York City (about 4 hours away), or my birthplace, Dayton, Ohio (8 hours by car), to get a good reminder of the culture, and ‘feel’ of Bethesda, Maryland.
Since I am neither an anthropologist, nor a humanistic geographer, I will not attempt an academic analysis regarding the culture of Bethesda. Nonetheless I can say that, empirically (or using a Phenomenological approach), Bethesda feels different from all of the abovementioned places. Bethesda feels much more vibrant than Dayton, Ohio. On the other hand, compared with Silver Spring, Bethesda feels a bit homogenous and stuffy. Compared with New York City, on the third hand, Bethesda feels sleepy. So we can see that comparison is a big help when attempting to fathom the overall character and ‘feel’ of a place.
Think of it this way: people don’t tend to notice that someone speaks with a particular accent, until that accent is different from the familiar norm. In fact, most of us probably think people where we live don’t even have an accent when we speak. I can recognize many accents, but I am clueless as to how anyone would ever be able to ‘place’ my own accent, until I go far enough away from where I live that I can hear the difference. Culture is similar, in that we tend not to have conscious awareness of the cultural norms we live in, until we step outside of those norms.
I have a couple of personal experiences that illustrate this point pretty clearly. The first took place at a holiday dinner table in Jerusalem, with good friends. I had known this family for many years, been present at the birth of their oldest daughter, and felt at ease in their home in every way. In fact, I felt like a member of the family myself. When we sat down to this special holiday dinner, I was delighted, relaxed, hungry and feeling at-home. The soup was delicious, and I wanted a bit of salt. I asked my hostess to please pass the salt. A dark silence fell over the room. There was no salt at the table. Apparently asking for salt was interpreted as an insinuation that the food was not well-prepared. My old friends, my hosts, were so deeply insulted (and ashamed for me for asking for salt) that they could not even tell me what was wrong for a long time. As hard as it is to believe, we became estranged for many months over this, and I don’t think they ever fully understood or forgave me, though we remained friends. I think of this incident as a painful example of cultural difference that is as subtle and slight as it is powerful and palpable.
The second experience to be shared here is a bit more complicated, as it relates to gender-based pestering in the street. As a feminist who grew up in the Midwestern U.S. in the 1970’s, my response to men and/or boys calling out to me in the street would be to look them in the eye and/or tell them, seriously and directly, to cut it out. This worked like a charm. Looking men in the eye and telling them to stop really did the trick (at least back then). The one thing I knew was that ignoring catcalls and turning my eyes to the ground would just egg them on. Ignoring them and ‘acting like the victim,’ apparently, made them feel empowered and they would begin to shout with increasing volume and vulgarity. So, I always faced them, and made it known that I wasn’t going to just ‘let it go.’
It was utterly shocking, then, to find myself in Jerusalem in the 1980’s, walking down the street, and when confronted by men and boys catcalling, my old reliable method of dealing with this type of harassment absolutely backfired. The more I gave these men eye contact and/or any verbal engagement at all, the more emboldened they became, making a literal sport out of keeping me talking to them. It took me a while to figure out that in Jerusalem, ignoring such ‘overtures’ was the best way to have these encounters come to a quick and easy end. These men were looking to engage me, and as long as I looked back and spoke to them, they were increasingly amused. Men in the street in the U.S. did not want to engage. They wanted to intimidate. By facing them, they could see that I was not intimidated and they would become disinterested. As a young American woman residing in the Middle East, this was a helpful cultural difference to observe, internalize and share with others. Upon sharing my observations with American friends, I received considerable gratitude in return!
There are many ways to think about culture, of course. The point, here, is that some of the most important and interesting aspects of culture are difficult to discern, especially from within. For me (and many others), one of the most impactful aspects of culture manifests in the relationship between people and how they view, and move through time. At first thought, most of us are familiar with the notion of ‘Jewish time,’ or ‘Argentinian time,’ or ‘Black time.’ I have heard all of these expressions used to describe various cultural norms of beginning events, or arriving at events, long after the stated time of commencement (this goes well beyond the concept of ‘fashionably late’). I once attended the wedding of a bride whose family was all from Argentina. The wedding was in Miami, Florida, scheduled to begin at 8pm. The guests all arrived and waited for the arrival of the bride and her family, who showed up at 9:30pm, with no conscious awareness that in the eyes of most of their guests, they were outrageously late!!
One of my favorite old jokes about Jews and ‘WASPS’ at group gatherings goes like this: “Wasps will leave a party without ever saying ‘goodbye.’ Jews, on the other hand, say ‘goodbye’ and never leave.” Get it?
It is a fresh experience to live within a culture where boundaries of time between people are unfamiliar. If nothing else, such experience can make one view one’s own habits in a very different way. For example, in the U.S., in my experience at least, people rarely – if ever – show up at another person’s house unannounced. To do so would be considered quite rude unless people know one another fairly intimately. In other places around the world, this is not the case at all. In Jerusalem, for example, people regularly visit other people unannounced, and are greeted with a cup of tea and an invitation to have a visit and some friendly conversation. This represents a radical difference in the way people move through daily life in a place, which translates into significant differences between places that cannot be quantified, but are nonetheless very real. It is important to note that I do not mean to suggest here that one cultural norm is superior to another. The point is that they are different, and there are positives and negatives to each. Feeling ‘at home’ in one culture or the other can be simply a matter of familiarity and habit, or it can become a matter of preference, or even conviction.
The following video link to Nellie McKay’s original hit, ‘Caribbean Time’ demonstrates this concept quite beautifully. If you listen closely to the lyrics, you can discern the view she articulates regarding the potential meaning and impact of geographies of time.
Enjoy, and PLEASE comment below!!