Why we need a piazza culture here


This is the time of year, festivities over when holiday brochures normally grab our attention. Those technicolour pictures hold the promise of golden sunshine, azure sea and a cultural shot-in-the-arm offered by somewhere abroad. Not yet though, given the rampant Omicron.

Sometimes there were things you enjoyed on previous breaks that you tried bringing back with you. But did you ever notice how some things just don’t translate back home? Take a bottle of ouzo for instance, a cloudy, aromatic glass of the stuff just won’t taste the same as it did on some Greek island. No chance. There are plenty of experiences enjoyed abroad that we have successfully adopted, from tapas to barbeques; travel broadens commercial opportunities as well as the mind.

Some things, though, we just don’t have and thinking back on recent holidays they are things that I really miss. I can reimagine the fabulous squares around grand buildings in France which allow space for pavement cafes, seating, social events and an appreciation of the buildings themselves. Or I recall generous piazzas in Italy, splendid with fountains, fringed with cafes and used for concerts and performances funded by the taxes collected by the local commune.

Of course, history played a part in making these spaces possible. It helps if you start building your grand cathedral or ministry centuries ago and sunnier, warmer climates encourage the creation of outdoor spaces too. But here in Ireland we may be a pizza culture now but we don’t have a piazza culture with generous open public spaces. Just think how useful that would be now, given the need during the pandemic, for outdoor socialising and dining to have rather than to being squashed onto narrow footpaths in makeshift pavement cafes.

There is plenty of redevelopment and building going on in our cities but is there any requirement to create space — even a little for people? Not a bit of it. And the same applies to the many new apartment blocks, too, which are being constructed right beside noisy roads without breathing space or trees around them.

Another thing I wish we had more of are food markets. The markets selling local produce with the kind of fantabulous displays of fruit, vegetables, cheese, fish, meat and meat products like terrines and pates that have you reaching for a camera as well as your shopping basket are a weekly or a daily treat in France and Italy. There’s social element too, friends meet for coffee, aperitifs or lunch around the markets. I can conjure up mouth-watering visions of the weekly markets which rolled into Italian villages with a designated day for each place where queues formed for delicacies like roast sucking pig stuffed with fennel and open-sided trucks turned into shops selling everything from tablecloths to saucy underwear.

The English market in Cork and a few small pop-up markets apart, there’s very little like that here and yet we are a major food producing country and you can’t really blame supermarkets for taking away potential market trade, there are plenty of supermarkets in France and Italy but local markets still flourish.

The traffic can work the other way too, Irish butter and beef have a proud reputation abroad. But Irish pubs overseas? Now there’s a missed opportunity, at least in my experience. Far from being a home from home of craic, showcase for Irish culture and bar-keeping expertise these are grim places more like to make you disown your Irish roots, stay away and avoid bring foreign friends to show them off as a taste of the welcome they might enjoy if they come to Ireland.

No, pub culture doesn’t export well.

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