Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My bubble has burst...

No. I am not talking about the real-estate bubble or the economic crisis. I am talking about my bubble of personal space.

Americans need an average of two feet between them. Be it at a party, in an elevator or in line at the grocery store, we feel at ease if we have an arms-with between ourselves and a stranger. The Europeans, the French specifically, work with much less. In Paris, the space between you and the person sitting next to you on the train or at a restaurant can be a matter of inches. How are you supposed to deal with the closeness? How are you supposed to enjoy a romantic dinner while knocking elbows with a stranger? How do you get used to having several arms reaching around you to grab the pole in the metro? Makebelieve.

Most Parisians have mastered the art of ignoring each other. When sitting on the metro, shoulder to shoulder with a muttering crazy person you simply pretend you cannot hear them. When walking down the street and passing pedestrians at a rate of 100 people per block you pretend you're the only one on that sidewalk. Because if you paused to process the people around you, you wold loose your mind. So Paris has decided to ignore its fellow residents for sanity's sake.

When my mother stayed with us in May, she would open our shutters every morning and greet the world like Mary Poppins meeting her bird friends. She would then break the unspoken Parisian Apartment code of conduct and wave to our neighbor across the street. We can plainly see in to his apartment and he can obviously see in to ours. We have been mutually observing each other for some time now but we pretend that we aren't. If you acknowledge the fact that a stranger can see in to your life and that the banging coming from above is likely not a basketball and that the reason the hallway smells bad because the garbage from the 40+ people living in your building are stacked at the entry, you would go nuts. So you just simply pretend it's not happening.

At first I thought this practice was cold hearted and an impossible habit for me to get in to. But as I rode the metro yesterday with a tangle of arms between me and the pole, I took deep breaths and successfully ignored the overweight couple making out inches from my face, ignored the crazy old man talking to himself about the pot smoking youth and ignored the tall kid behind me breathing on my neck. All for the sake of sanity because otherwise I would have to cover my eyes and start screaming, "get me out of here!".

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