Closer, now…

Monday morning and a potentially-suicide-inducing class at 8 a.m. an hour’s metro ride away. To add insult to injury this morning it was a grim, grey, rainy day… ah, I dream of England…. After this class I usually stop for breakfast in the bar next to the metro, as nobody in their right mind can survive til lunchtime on an apple and a cup of tea. As I was sipping my coffee and munching my tostada (toast) at the long bar, one foot hitched, cowboy-style on the brass rail, a woman came and squeezed in next to me, so tightly that I was obliged to shuffle up the bar to the very end, and move my coffee cup, plate of toast, the briefcase at my feet, my handbag, brolly, and the coat that was draped over the rail. She was so close to me she almost fitted under my armpit like an old pal, and for a moment it seemed as though she might slip her arm round my waist , nuzzle me affectionately and grab a bite of my toast. I glanced down the bar, expecting it to be as packed as when I had walked in ten minutes earlier. In fact, there was an expanse of counter so long and empty I could almost see the tumbleweed drifting across the end of it. So why did she want to snuggle up with me?
Here lies a fundamental difference in our cultures and attitudes to personal space. We cold Northern Europeans shudder at the merest uninvited physical contact, jumping like a scalded cat if someone strays too close. We walk around surrounded with an invisible rope on gilded posts, which we unhitch only for those on the guest list. Your name’s not on the list- you’re not coming in. If you keep insisting I’ll just call security. The Spaniards, on the other hand, can’t get close enough. You see the difference in a packed metro train during commuter-hour, or in an over-crowded lift. Brits, standing stiff and expressionless as stacked mannequins will stare anywhere except at the person next to them and will suffer with gritted teeth the indignity of intimacy with strangers. Spanish people, on the other hand, may huff and puff and tutt, when squashed up against each other, but eventually this may erupt into either a heated argument where everyone has a good moan- ‘oy, get your foot off my toe!/ watch where you’re standing, you great oaf!!/ no need to push, come on!….’ or a jolly good laugh. Generally it is the latter, guffaws, raised eyebrows, giggles, and comments like ‘is someone going to hand out lubricant in a minute?’
Even more remarkably, whereas the British will choose to sit/stand as far away as possible from each other and everyone else, evenly spaced like chess pieces, the Spanish will instinctively huddle up like a pile of sleepy hamsters. The best place to test this theory is in an empty cinema. In Summer if your house does not have air-conditioning often the only ice-cold place to sit for a couple of hours is the cinema. A couple of Summers ago I even resorted to seeing Transformers 2 (I was desperate, I’d seen everything else) at a matinee performance. I was the only person in the cinema (also arriving, like a typical Brit, on time for not only the film but the trailers and ads). I sat slap bang in the middle of the row in the middle of the empty cinema. As the film started and Spaniards started to arrive, one by one they chose to sit to my left, right in front of me, to my right, in the row behind me, until I was surrounded by a cosy little huddle of people chomping popcorn, chattering animatedly, and answering their mobiles. Luckily I hadn’t gone to see a moody art film. The exact same phenomenon can be observed on lonely park benches, deserted trains, and underpopulated cafe tables. Enter an English person and he/she will head for the furthest table or seat, as if you are a sworn enemy. A Spaniard on the other hand will have no problem choosing the table or place next to you.
Annoying? Sometimes. Until you get used to it, and of course, it very much depends on who it is cosying up to you. Nobody wants someone else’s bad breath, b.o. or inappropriate physical contact. Luckily I am past the age where a casual frot on a busy metro carriage is any kind of probability. And as I get to know my hosts ever better, I realise that this kind of communal stalking is not done to wind you up or to invade your personal space in any way. It’s just that there is a totally different attitude to the concept of personal space here. Someone sitting alone is seen as intrinsically lonely, in need of contact. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, a Spaniard’s home is a free-for-all. The Spanish are an inately sociable race, and move in groups at almost all times. So next time someone slides up next to you and into your precious personal space, try to see it as a form of affection, or as a compliment. It’s kind of cute. ‘I don’t want to sit the other side of the cinema in the corner- I want to be next to you! I want to sit with you…’

One Response to “Closer, now…”

  1. It happened to me once.Sitting on a park bench waiting for my daughter to finish her classes,a wizzened old crone siddled up to me and launched into the usual many questions.There were lots of empty benches surrounding us and the Brits would have snaffled those before even contemplating sitting next to a stranger and shock horror maybe even conversing with them.Admittedly it turned out that he was on the aged pull but even so very friendly and resigned to the brush off,bless him.
    It’s a great characteristic to have because if you’re in trouble just flap your arms manically and shout as loudly as possible and the support group magically appear to lift you up and nurture you until such time as the maybe perpetrater has been clipped around the ear by a scary granny and sent on their way! So comforting.

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