Saturday, 29 May 2010

Falmouth: Out on the town

Today is the first full day of the Fal River Festival, which kicked off last night with a big party in the even bigger tent that has been erected in Discovery Quay, just outside my front door. Lest you think I am being metaphorical here, let me offer some proof that I am not:

(The erection of the festivities tent, or "marquee," as they say here, as documented from our balcony--there it is, literally just outside my front door)

Living in such a bustling place is a very new experience for me. It is no secret that much of the US is built in such a way as to require a car to drive there. There are many places that still have a "main street" setup, or have had their main streets restored as citizens become increasingly anti-Walmart and pro-environment. My hometown of Athens, for instance, has always had quite a thriving main street culture, but this stems mostly from the fact that it is a college town and college towns need to be set up so that car-less undergraduates have everything they need within walking distance (with the exception of the towns around my alma maters, Haverford and Williamsburg, which are set up for rich locals driving Lexuses and for tourists, respectively, but that is a whole other matter).

Even functional and bustling American main streets are quite different from those in the UK, which I think stems predominantly from the lack of cars required here. In the UK, many areas are pedestrian-only, and those that are not are often transected only by a narrow, one-way road. Along our main street (which, incidentally, is called "High Street" in Britain), there is an automated bollard that occasionally drops to permit the passage of, mostly, taxis and delivery trucks ("lorries"). The buildings are close together, the shops are small and specialized, and in general the whole scene has a very neighborly feeling. The shopkeepers here often seem more knowledgeable about their wares, and are therefore more helpful. This is because many of them are the people who established the shops to begin with--they aren't high schoolers or college students working part-time at a nationally-established franchise, but people who actually specialize in, say, yarn or sports equipment or jewelry, etc.

Another thing about the physical setup is that it involves much more public space. There are squares, parks, quaysides, monuments, footpaths, etc., where you can wander and sit on benches and take the dog. There are even public toilets, so you don't have to furtively sneak to the back of McDonald's or 7-11 while feeling guilty about not buying anything. As I mentioned in my Germany commentary, these public spaces often involve more serious greenery than can be found in the US. I suppose this kind of setup is necessary because everything is smaller and closer here, and there isn't much room to branch out. If there weren't designated "fresh air" spots, people might get a bit claustrophobic. These areas offer a nice sort of oasis, especially if you are someone like me who prefers being in the middle of nowhere with no buildings and roads in sight.

This setup, along with the fact that public transportation is great and cars are convenient but not necessary, also encourages people to walk much more. This is one of the biggest differences that you notice when coming from the US to the UK. I recently read a statistic that the average American walks 200 m (1/8 mile) each day. Here, though, it is often easier to walk than to drive, and so you do--to buy groceries, to go to the bank and the post office, to visit friends, to go out to eat or get drinks in the bar. You do it even in windy, rainy Cornwall, even when your destination is over a half mile away. If you're a young lady going out clubbing, you even do it in high heels and scanty clothes.

At the opposite end of the people spectrum, there are also a lot of elderly people out and about--many more than in the US. At first, I was a bit saddened by this demographic because I encountered frail-looking, cane-wielding grannies ever-so-slowly making their way up High Street to run errands. It seemed to me that someone needed to help them out so they wouldn't have to exhaust themselves with the effort. But then I started seeing it from a different perspective, which was that these were people who at least had the opportunity to maintain some independence and interact with society, rather than being shut up in nursing homes and/or rendered helpless by their inability to drive themselves. I'm not sure which of these views more accurately captures the truth of the situation. You also tend to see more handicapped individuals, and it seems to me that people here accept canes and crutches and wheelchairs as being a more natural and normal part of life than people from the US do--probably because Brits are more often exposed to these sights, and from an earlier age.

The comings and goings of all such people are quite interesting to watch from my vantage point above Discovery Quay. This square alone has eight eating establishments, and six of them have an outdoor setup so that people can work on their Vitamin D production while having afternoon tea:

(The newly-painted furniture of the Stay Cafe; that's the River Fal Festival tent being erected in the background)

These outdoor facilities are quite common, both here in Britain and other places I've been in Europe. You do find them in the US, as well, but less often (at least in the places I've been; they are more common in the bigger cities, I think, and probably on the West Coast). Another difference is that here, you can actually get the wait staff to serve you, as opposed to getting takeout or a tray full of food, and then eating it outside. Many of these places provide blankets so that you can comfortably have drinks late into the cooling evening, or during the early spring and late autumn when it is chilly outside. I can't imagine eating anywhere in the US with a blanket over my lap or around my shoulders.

I think that this is the first time I have lived in a town with someplace that could actually be classified as a "town square." Williamsburg theoretically had one (called "Events Square"), but it was really only a cordoned-off road in which people occasionally gathered to hold markets or present performances of some type. Discovery Quay is, more or less, a literal square, and is a place that can be used by the townspeople as they see fit:

(A view of the Quay on a normal day; the little huts are tiny shops of people who sell jewelry, souvenirs, and tickets to local events)

This is, of course, a tradition that dates back many centuries (medieval Britons had the same setup), and is charming, useful, and sometimes annoying. For instance, imagine my irritation when I am rudely awakened from an afternoon nap by these guys:

(Drumming buskers...or busking drummers. All I know is, only some of them actually had rhythm, but all of them were making noise.)

Drummers, of course, are particularly loud, but this sort of disruption is equally obnoxious when in the form of bagpipers (my husband's nemeses) and brass bands. One day last summer, a performance troupe came and did scenes from "The Mikado" (whilst dressed in traditional Japanese garb) and occasionally there is a group of people who gather to do capoeira (or something that could theoretically pass for capoeira, anyway). We have also witnessed singing groups, parades (for instance, the strange Mardi Gras-like parade that kicked off Aberfest during Easter weekend), and artisan shows (including the man who sells animal garden sculptures made out of recycled metal--one day I will own one). Recently, there was a brief and unexplained gathering of antique cars:

(This "event" occurred with no fanfare, and broke up after just a couple hours.)

As residents of the Quay, we get discounted entry into events that happen under the big top. Thus far, I have only taken advantage of this once, when we attended the "80's vs. 90's" dance that is part of the annual Falmouth Week. Even if we don't attend the events in a physical way, we can attend them in a sensory way, since the audio is practically as loud in our front room as it is in the tent. During last night's opening festivities, we were treated to some interesting renditions of 60's R&B hits, during which I was given the privilege of listening to "Lady Marmalade" no fewer than three times. Although this makes it difficult to watch TV (or hold a conversation), it does make for spontaneous house parties:

(Guests capping off the evening after the "80's vs. 90's" dance, which we left after witnessing one drunk partygoer hit another over the head with a glass beer bottle. For the sake of my guests, I will mention that this was a "fancy dress" dance, and they are all in costume--more on that topic later.)

The Quay is also popular among families who are teaching their children to ride bicycles, skateboarders who come to practice tricks on the steps, and kids who need space to practice passing disks/footie balls/rugby balls. My favorite use of the space, though, is the one that Nature has found:

(Rainbow over the harbor ("harbour"). There is another spot where rainbows are common, and it can be seen from the opposite side of the flat--but I like this view best. Sometimes our friends sit out in the harbor and wave to us from their boat--another good view.)

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