Prague, Old Town Square

In my grandparents' time, Chinese families and extended families lived in single-story homes built around the four sides of a square, encircling a small courtyard. Siheyuan, they're called, and you can still find them in China, though by the time I was born cities were full of apartment buildings. 

When I was little, we lived in a sixth floor walk up in Beijing in a gated complex that evoked a siheyuan: several buildings surrounded a large opening with a garden and playground at the center. 

I love community squares. I've loved them my whole life. Squares and the energy they contain. (Naturally, I love crowded markets too.)

Full of spontaneous interaction, they do that word I so love, bustle. You can be alone there, quiet there, and at your own choosing, a participant. You can drink a cup of coffee or eat a snack sitting in on a bench in a square and move on with your day but then it's always there to come back to. 

In Italy there were plenty of these gathering places, several in Lucca that stand out in my memory. In Prague, in Old Town, there was one full of magic. We found ourselves returning to it again and again both on our way and not, unwittingly and happily drawn to it. 

I said at the time, with full force of drama, that squares are the pinnacle of civilization. Rather, they are elemental to our species. Isn't it amazing that we create places such as these which sing to our desire to be near others? Places which, if you find yourself adrift in an unfamiliar place, provide a measure of comfort, a promise of orientation, a beer, a bite, or simply, music?

The magic in Prague was present all day and grew palpable at night. We listened to several performers who must have some sort of organized schedule. We were transfixed as children at people blowing giant bubbles. We laughed often. We climbed the Astronomical Clock tower one night and listened to the music from above. We saw the city over the rooftops, beyond the square into the light-specked dark, across the river, then back to the piano and song below us. 

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