According to Ted Kaczynski, the downfall of society is due in part to the lack of laundromats. Initially, when I heard this, I thought that no one should be taking any advice from the Unibomber. However, it has stuck with me. And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. We can get through a whole day, ordering food, buying groceries, doing laundry, without ever talking to another person. We are losing our sense of community because we don't have any communal places anymore.
I imagine that laundromats used to be a place like the beauty shop, where people would talk, gossip, and just be together. It would foster a sense of community. Now, we have an inherent distrust of people, and we don't talk to anyone anymore. We go to "drive thrus" and eat in the car. We have self check out at the supermarket so we don't have to talk to the checker. We have ATMs, online-shopping, texting, automated customer-services answering systems, WebMD, and even automatic ticket-dispensing machines at the movies. We abhor the idea of sitting too close to someone on the bus, on the plane, or in a restaurant. We walk around with earbuds in our ears (or a bluetooth- or both! So we don't have to miss a call while we're listening to our music. But who is calling us?) and ignore all the commotion that is life around us.
At first I thought this was a phenomenon that was localized in the suburbs. The small town I grew up in isn't sophisticated enough to have self-checkout, and everyone still knows everyone else's business. But no! Last time I was home, there was the self checkout in the grocery store. It's all downhill from there.
Which brings me back to France. When I was on exchange in France, I went to a café, ordered a pain au chocolat and a coffee, and sat at a table, ready to read my book and ignore the people around me. Ah, mais ce n'est pas comme ça en France! An elderly woman sat down at MY TABLE and began TALKING TO ME. I nodded politely, but kept by book open, to show her I was already occupied. And yet she kept talking- asking me about what I was reading, where I had come from, what I was planning for the rest of the day. And after a few minutes of politely answering her questions with one-word answers and then going back to my book with an annoyed look on my face, I conceded. I put down my book and I talked to her. Because that's what they do. And that's what we should be doing as well.
Thankfully, I think this is a becoming trendy, at least in part. I recently went to a breakfast place in south Denver, and, as I was one person (armed with a book, of course), they sat me at the "Community Table." I was ready to pull out my book and ignore the other 8 or so people sitting around me, when I thought, "I'm at a COMMUNITY table. Cool." So I closed the book and introduced myself to the people at the table. And we had a conversation while we ate. I met someone who had read the book I brought, and we discussed the author and the other books she had written. I talked to someone who had lived in Paris as an au pair and was going through a similar withdrawal as I, even five years later.
I didn't make any lasting friendships during that breakfast, but I did indulge in good food and good conversation. And it was good. And I felt a part of something that I would have missed had I just set myself in a corned and buried myself in a book. And I sincerely hope that that piece of community that is so important to the French remains important there, through all the technological advances, so when I return, I will be welcomed and engaged in conversation by whomever happens to sit at my table next time.