Third places for third, fourth (and more) lives
Southern Spain's communities of amateurism
Three years ago, fed up with my industry and looking for a change, I made a list of what’s important to me in a job. At the top of the list was “agency and ownership over work projects,” the ability to control and be accountable for what I make. Or as Brené Brown has popularized, an opportunity to be “in the arena.” Seeing other people make decisions over my work made me feel empty and powerless–a classic case of what socialists call “alienation from labor.”
That desire is dying, the possible coup-de-grace coming on a recent trip to Europe from which I’ve return de-inspired about work and re-inspired about everything else.
The a-ha moment hit me while spectating an event called “Moros y Cristianos,” a parade–put together in cities and towns all over Spain, on different days throughout the year–that doubles as a reenactment of the “Reconquista” of Iberia (please humor me and ignore the HIGHLY questionable subject matter for now). In a given town’s parade, each neighborhood is responsible for a tract featuring intricately costumed warriors, elaborate moving floats, special effects, horses, and a large musical band. Each requires a company of musicians, designers, animal handlers, and artists–almost all amateurs—laboring year-round to prepare for the event.
Watching neighborhood after neighborhood put on a show, I was stunned that one town could provide so many skilled and committed amateur artisans. You’re telling me every town in this country puts together one of these?
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Amateur hour at the Third Place
Moros y Cristianos is just the most festive example of the many “amateurish” institutions in these communities. It seems like every neighborhood has a handful of sports clubs, music bands, art clubs, and a dance troupe or two. Participants take these activities aggressively seriously–if you forced me to describe Spaniards in three words, I’d go with “dead serious amateurs.”
My workhumper conditioning tempts me to mock people for being so extra about their non-professional passions. But if anything, it’s inspiring. In America, for people to remain actively involved in an amateur hobby (let alone into their 40s, 50s, 60s) is rare. When we do see it, we don’t take long to ask how they’ll monetize or professionalize it. We’re distrustful of amateurism.
But why? If nothing else, BQE has taught me to love amateurism. I want lots of amateurs ungracefully struggling with sports and making “bad” art. Especially bad art. I want lots of bad art. Bad art makes the world beautiful.
In contrast, Spanish culture and infrastructure make amateurism the norm, and “third places” play a huge role in this. For anyone who may not know, “third places” are social spaces separate from home and work (the “first” and “second” places). Southern Europe seems to take these seriously. The French put lots of effort into promoting them and Spain has tons, including the street itself: safe public parks and squares that everyone makes ample use of (even young children, late into the night, often unsupervised–I feel envy at how less daunting parenthood would be if I lived there).
Sociologists consider third places essential for community because they allow people to interact in ways that don’t make sense in the other two spaces. You may not cut it playing saxophone professionally, but you can be the saxophonist at your local Moros y Cristianos outfit–you don’t have to wait until retirement to exercise that part of yourself.
This reminds me of how my favorite “film” projects have often been dumb joke videos for friends’ birthdays, vacations, bachelor parties, etc. I’d be mortified to show these to anyone else, yet they delight my friends. I may not be a famous filmmaker in the world, but I’m THEIR filmmaker. That’s more gratifying than most professional success I’ve ever had.
The most beautiful part, to me, is how Spanish third places visibly benefit elders. There are senior citizen centers that actually look fun to hang out in. There are even clubs that pump old jams at 5 in the afternoon so that elders can party before the young’uns come out. Seniors in Spain are physically and socially active, always out and about–and like children, often into the night.
In short, everyone looks active and engaged, always geeking out on something. And that something is rarely a job.
This “wholeness” of identity separate from work is palpable in much of Europe, where apparently it’s not rare for friends to go months before finding out what each other does for a living (again, unfathomable in The States). In the two months I was abroad, only two people asked me what I did for work, in both cases well over an hour into conversation. They simply don’t seem to care as much. If it’s part of how they “gauge” your status, then it’s a small part.1
America could get in on this–in some places, it already does
My gut reaction is to rue that large swaths of America have neglected their third places and fail to imagine them as more than coffee shops or fast food restaurants. (Erring on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt, I like to think that most MAGA-adherents yearn for the 50s less as a time when they could be brazenly racist and more as one when third places were strong and communities tight-knit. Call me a sap.)
However, I don’t want to fall into the trap of over-romanticizing Europe and under-valuing the possibilities in front of me. As Russell Smith says, you have to start where you are, and there is more wealth surrounding you than you think. The truth is, many US subcultures have strong third places. For those of religious inclination, places of worship serve the role. For much of organized labor, union halls do as well. (Note that both are NOT staples of white collar “coastal elite” culture…another point forrecent argument that blue collar jobs are way better).
But even for us outside those cliques, our better cities and towns have robust park districts with varied programs, some of which I have been lucky enough to enjoy over the years. Given our infrastructural sprawl, chances are you have to search harder and may need a car to access them. But they’re there, if you prioritize them. Of course, as a long-term solution, encouraging local politicians to prioritize strengthening access to third places is also necessary.
Alienation from work ain’t so bad if you’re connected to the rest of life
I’m back home, looking for work after my little jaunt, and I review that checklist from three years ago. I cross out “ownership and agency over work projects” with gusto.
What’s changed? Lately, I’ve better cultivated little pockets of time and energy to labor on personal projects. I’ve increased, albeit modestly, my interactions with family and friends. I don’t live in Europe and don’t frequent many physical third places, but at least I’ve strengthened digital and “temporal” ones, along with corresponding roles where I feel ownership over what I do.
In the spirit of not having to find meaning in the same place I find my money, it no longer pains me to be out of my workplace’s “arena.” I just worry about not actively harming society with my work. Beyond that, I’m happy to let others
ruin determine the result. It’s a relief, frankly. One that Europeans have seemingly known for ages.
Something else I observed is that, as opposed to The States, it’s hard to tell who does white collar vs. blue collar work just by looking at people. I hadn’t thought consciously about this until I left, but in America there seem to be much clearer fashion and consumption “markers” through which people signal (consciously or not) what kind of work they do.