The Butcher and the Baker

On my daily commute to work, I walk from to and from the train station.  It’s not that far – about a half a mile – and I feel lucky not to have to step in a car every day.  Many people, though, drive to the train, even a few who live right near me.

A few Fridays ago, a guy who I know a bit (a wave, a nod, pleasantries exchanged every now and again) was driving home from the train.  I was in a rush to get home to see my kids, and at that moment on a hot day, “hey do you want a ride?” would have been a welcome overture.  He didn’t offer, and while he was driving off I got to thinking about the distance between us, the oh-so-sacrosanct space of aloneness that we create when driving our cars, when sitting in front of our computers, when shopping online, when plopped in front of our HDTVs, and how through all the progress we’ve made, we’ve traded in the crush and human connection of the sawdust-floored marketplace, of common spaces, and of all the unexpected, simple happenstance that comes from living our lives stumbling and tripping over one another.

In the late 90s I lived in Madrid, Spain, in an airy one-bedroom apartment that opened onto a quiet, bright courtyard.  It was the second time I’d lived in Spain and it took this second take to unlearn my frustration at the “inefficiencies” of Spanish life: on Sundays, everything – and I mean everything – was closed except for churches, coffee shops and a few restaurants, and since the internet wasn’t yet so ubiquitous, my (now) wife and I developed a cherished ritual of going to a local coffee shop with the newspaper and spending hours wiling away the day, talking, and working on the crossword puzzle.

When we left Spain, as part of our goodbyes, we went door-to-door to the fruit shop, the butcher, the baker, and the cheese shop to say goodbye to the shopkeepers who had become part of our lives, who had advised us on dishes and taught us the words for pastries and cuts of meat and the best local cheeses.  Yes, going to a shrink-wrapped supermarket is more efficient, but shopping for food wasn’t a chore when it was filled with conversation and questions about how last week’s dinner came out.

I worry that with all the efficiencies we’re creating, we’re also facilitating a habit that’s averse to basic human contact.  It’s easier to smile and look away, easier to walk into your car than to offer someone a ride, easier to click and compare than get to know a salesman or a store owner or a neighbor.

The irony is that people crave genuine human connection.  We’re just getting woefully out of the habit.

Just crack open the door a little for someone and you’ll see the light flood in.

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6 thoughts on “The Butcher and the Baker

  1. This is spot-on! I’ve been writing a lot lately about the concept of ‘human institutions in the non-profit/social service worlds, and I think this drive towards ever-more efficient systems has begun to (and some cases succeeded to) drive the human element out of organisations built on exactly that – their human element!

    But yes, couldn’t agree more that these patterns are much more widespread than simply NGO/ voluntary organisation management structures – they affect every part of our lives and I think need to be deeply questioned before – through very rational arguments – they infiltrate even further into our collective psyche.

    Thanks for articulating these ideas so clearly!


  2. I love this post, Sasha! Great work emphasizing the importance of human connection.

    I face this same tension between efficiency and humanity when I decide between sending a quick email or walking down the hall to engage in a leisurely conversation.

    Sometimes I choose successfully, sometimes not. Your thoughts here are encouraging for me – to keep on pushing for the connection that we all need and want!

    Keep up the great work on your blog!

  3. Great post Sasha, thank you for sharing.

    But the big question remains: how do we go back from here, from this constant run towards aseptic efficiency?

  4. Stefano, I wish I had an easy answer. I think a starting point is taking conscious steps to create genuine human connection whenever and wherever we can.

  5. You are right Sasha, and I really hope that things can revert, even if I am not that optimist.

    My two cents.
    I was raised and I currently live in a small town in the north of Italy, just 25 km north of Milan, which is not exactly “quintessential Italy” but still it’s much more mediterranean than most people may realize (as soon as you move less than 100 km north you’re in Switzerland… another world).

    Northern Italy, and a lot of places in Europe, are losing their genuinity in their run towards efficiency.
    Effficiency is by itself is a good thing, of course, and having you been exposed to Spanish “inefficiencies”, I think you know what I mean… 😉

    But we are paying the price for it: my parents were born during WWII, when Italy was basically a rural society (with all its pros and cons), they have seen their world change so fast they sometimes don’t understand why exactly their sons are always running here and there and have so little time for their families and friends.

    Even if differencies persist – Madrid is not Milan and Milan is not NYC – life in big cities and in urban areas in all parts of the world tends to get always similar, more efficient, more hectic and less “human”.

    While I welcome efficiency and progress, I hope that we can find a reasonable balance, sooner or later. Hopefully sooner…

  6. It’s true. Last year we moved from our home of 12 years in a very walkable neighborhood. We took a long time to say good bye to our neighbors, the people at the food coop, the gift shop, restraunts and our mechanic.

    Now in our new home, outside of a smaller town, we are building our new community. It’s taking some time. Mostly because we both travel for work so much.

    It takes time to build trusting relationships with people regardless of who they are and the situation their in.

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