on learning from urban immersion


How we experience purchases of coffee and baked goods may sound fairly trivial, and elitist.

But, based on my current immersion in the south of France, I have come to think these simple interactions offer valuable lessons for how to live in neighborhoods and cities.  The rhythm of traditional transactions, with deep cultural roots, offers significant lessons about the role of expertise in daily life.

I saw it in Fréjus this morning in the wisdom of the coffee vendor.  In a transaction that was more consultation than transaction, he custom-ground “moka sauvage” beans after carefully listening to our stated needs, about the flavor we were looking for, and how we prepare our coffee—in an Italian stove-top espresso pot.  We emerged from his small commercial space with an impeccable recommendation.  A fine diagnosis, I thought, from a doctor of arabica.

Similarly, yesterday, while sampling hot chocolate, in Roquebrune-sur-Argens, I watched a man enter and review the lemon pastry options de jour.  After some discussion, reflecting the expertise of the vendor, he chose a lemon tart over a lemon cake.  The dialogue was brief but refreshingly complete, something akin to a computer or camera purchase in another world.  It was as if time had turned back to something that has always been or something that we are always searching for.

Inspired by the tradition of this pastry transaction, it was our turn. How to decide: a green tea sponge cake, with blackcurrant filling, or a dark chocolate mousse cake with coffee filling?


One or both, and if both, when to eat?

Again, the old world, pre-Apple Store suggestion by the shopkeeper: “Un gateau pour aujourd’hui, et un gateau pour demain” (one cake for today, and one cake for tomorrow), we agreed.  And then the punchline, as the young woman switched to English with a beam in her eye:

“And, if you eat both today, you can come back tomorrow”. (She hopes, perhaps).

Lesson learned from this extended time away:  Remember the urban rituals where you can still find them, whether closer or farther from home.

Images composed by the author in Fréjus and Roquebrune-sur-Argens, France. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

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