My senior year in high school, I spent several months in Ashland's sister city, Guanajuato, Mexico. I had a lot of fun, and between going to school, having dinner with my host family, making new friends and attempting to dance salsa, I also managed to learn a little bit of Spanish. Being an exchange student was one of the best experiences so far in my life.
When I was attending Ashland High School, my social life revolved around "The Quad." The Quad was the outdoor area between the different buildings. Although we only had 10 minutes between classes, most of my memories of being a Grizzly involve, in one way or another, being on The Quad.
The high school I attended in Guanajuato didn't seem to have something similar to The Quad. Or maybe it did, and my lack of Spanish language abilities and an attempt to recover from a bad bout of shyness prevented me from ever finding it. Instead of a quad, Guanajuato had a plaza.
The plaza in Guanajuato was known as "El Jardin," which means "the garden." It was the center of social life not just for high school students, but for people of all ages. The plaza had tall trees for shade in the hot summer months, and was full of benches to sit on. Between the high school and college students, couples and families, any available bench, or part of a bench, was considered pretty hot real estate.
On one side of the plaza was a large staircase where people would sit to watch mimes, clowns and various other street performers. People would sit and eat ice cream while depositing pesos into the performers' hats. There were restaurants and bars all around the perimeter and the echoes of different mariachi bands could be heard any night of the week.
There were subtleties to hanging out in El Jardin that I never quite caught on to perfectly during my time in Guanajuato. Apparently, one night of the week was more for the young, ready-to-party crowd, and another night of the week was for couples. I never really kept very good track, and usually ended up hanging out on the plaza every day of the week with my friends and host sister.
Years later, I visited Guanajuato with my son, Silas, who was 1 year old at the time. We visited my old host family, ate lots of good food, but mostly spent long afternoons and evenings playing in El Jardin. Silas would toddle from bench to bench, periodically falling and meeting lots of new friends himself. Even when I wasn't a young, fun and single teenager, my time in Guanajuato centered around the plaza.
Despite growing up in Ashland, our own Plaza has never been the center of my social life in the same way. The Plaza might be a place to meet someone, or to sit for a moment on the benches, but it's never a destination, at least for me, all on its own.
I visited the redesigned Plaza with Silas and my mom a couple weeks ago. It seemed fine. The previous Plaza's design seemed fine, too. The change that I would like to see in our own Plaza would be for it to become more of a social destination — a place that as a town, we could gather, see each other and just hang out.
We could sit on benches, lick ice cream cones and watch street performers.
We could do this not just in the evening while waiting for the plays to start, or as a place to meet a friend before going out to dinner, but as a destination in itself, a place where we could all make new friends.
Zoe Abel is a lifelong Ashlander and only an occasional visitor to the Plaza. You can contact her at email@example.com.