I was party to a fascinating, albeit inadvertent social experiment a couple of evenings ago. We were still in Fondi, floored by the sweltering heat of the past month or so. Even our house, which has yard-thick walls and traditionally poky windows, had given up any pretence of keeping us cool. It felt like the only place you could breathe in the entire town was in the alley outside Maika’s house, which somehow catches whatever faint breeze there is. Maika noticed this a couple of weeks ago and decided to take advantage of it by putting a small table and a chair or two outside. The alley’s a dead end, just wide enough to get a car into, with a gate half-way down it. It’s inhabited by local people, holiday-makers from Naples, an Indian family with their newborn baby.

It’s not unknown for people to spill out of their houses into the street, although they tend to take the furniture back in when they’re finished. Maika, though, left the table, covered with a cheery trattoria-style check tablecloth, outside from one day to the next. When she was there, she used it. What was interesting, and immensely cheering, was that when she wasn’t there, other people did. The Indian woman brought her little boy and new baby out to sit there during the afternoon, when Maika was at the beach. A bunch of women from a flat at the end began to gather round it later on. One night, Maika came home from dinner out in the early hours of the morning and found a bunch of men playing cards round it. She asked them to make sure to leave the ashtray clean and went to bed.

What had happened was that Maika, by invading a public space, had created community. The first instinct is to consider this ‘Neapolitan’, this casual disregard for the public-private boundary, and that’s certainly what it looked like, some scene from a De Sica film of the 50s. But the boundary in Naples, paradoxically, tends to be reinforced by this kind of thing, to favour the occupation of public by private, as though the two were inimical, as though what’s ours is suddenly yours, or his, no longer shared at all.

What Maika’s done, because it’s in her nature, is to open that up, to allow the edge between private and public to be blurred into near invisibility, so that everyone has a sense of ownership, a respectful, even delicate, promiscuity, a sharing. It’s only a folding table, a couple of chairs, a tablecloth, an ashtray. It could be anywhere. But it felt unique. People who wanted to get by as we ate our dinner waited while we moved our chairs. We were happy to put down our glasses, and stand, and smile at the baby, and moan about the heat. Nobody minded, or complained. I wouldn’t have believed this tiny provisional utopia could exist if I hadn’t experienced it myself.
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1 Response to Ownership

  1. Anne says:

    What a beautiful story!

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