Susie and I live in a large, relatively new development in Chapel Hill called Meadowmont, with perhaps a thousand homes [and even an elementary school for the children.] One small part of the development consists of a complex of three-story brick buildings called Meadowmont Village, with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and condominiums on the second and third floors of three of the buildings. We live in a third floor condo in the same building that houses the very popular Carolina Cafe, where people have breakfasts and lunches, and stop by for coffee.
One Sunday a month, the manager of the condo association organizes something he calls "The Brunch Bunch," at which Meadowmont residents can get free coffee and muffins at the Carolina cafe and sit around chatting with their neighbors. Some of the people who attend these things [they tend to be the older residents] know one another, many do not. The idea seems to be to foster a community spirit.
We also have an apartment in Paris, in the 5th arrondissment, just outside Place Maubert. Le Metro cafe, in Place Maubert, is our local cafe, and when we are in Paris, we spend a good deal of time sitting at the open air tables, having a Kir Sancerre or an espresso or a chocolat chaud a l'ancienne, and watching people walk by.
Parisians, generally speaking, devote a great deal of time and money to activities in the public spaces of the city. The most striking of these is fete de la musique, on the first day of summer, when all Paris comes out into the streets and plays musical instruments or listens to others playing, promenading until after midnight. It is the most wonderful collective celebration I have ever taken part in.
And yet: Parisians would rather die than attend a French version of a "Brunch Bunch," at which they were expected to talk with neighbors whom they do not know and with whom they have not made a formal social engagement. It would be easy to conclude that Americans are friendlier than the French, but it is the Americans, not the French, who hide themselves in gated communities, if they can afford to do so, and devote almost nothing to the public life of the community.
The differences are quite striking. It would be impossible to imagine, in Meadowmont, the sort of cafe that seemingly occupies every street corner in Paris.