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Traveling is a challenge no matter how you approach it or like it. It happens to be my passion. But travel barges in on your personal space, starting at the airport. Before you board the plane, you’re jiggled and jostled while navigating security. How many times have you felt as if you’re playing beat the clock just to get through the TSA screening process and collecting your possessions?
It’s taken a while, but I routinely make snarky comments to people behind me, telling them to get off my back, so I can gather my clothes, cell phone and other paraphernalia. I’ve become increasingly aggressive since I left my driver’s license in a plastic bucket on the conveyor belt and had to spend an entire day replacing it. There must be a lost and found in aviation heaven that’s jammed with electronics, documents, the belt that was holding up someone’s pants, and sweaters passengers thought they’d collected.
Skip the fact of being stripped of liquids that are more than three ounces—and that limit has recently been increased. I hope someday it goes up to 12 ounces because I want to gulp something as soon as I’ve had the chance to catch my breath after making it to the other side. Come to think of it, you could swig a miniature purchased at the liquor store. But then, you might really be subjected to a lack of personal space because the airport police don’t think kindly of people drinking in the airport in public area
Plane travel is the ultimate testimony to existing in cramped quarters. Coach class can be more intimate than you ever fathomed, especially when someone has reclined his or her seat, so you’re wedged into your chair. There are (or should be) rules of etiquette. But they seem to evaporate each year. How many times have you gotten to know your neighbor better than you ever imagined just because you need to go to the WC—where invariably there’s a line to be admitted to the inner sanctum.
Unless Americans are forced into sardine situations, they tend not to stand on top of one another. And as friendly as people in the U.S. tend to be by telling one another too much too soon, strangers rarely touch one another. In other countries, the protocol is very different.
For example, in Asia, it’s apparent that vendors in outdoor markets feel they have the right to run after you and tug at you in order to make a sale. “Missy, missy, how much do you want to pay?” the out-to-kill salesperson will ask while simultaneously grabbing your shoulder. Americans aren’t used to this since it’s hard in the States to locate a salesperson when you want one. And you rarely touch even when you’re forking over your credit card and collecting the purchases.
Ask someone who’s French for directions and they become so intense you may feel you’re going head to head. As my Bonjour Paris colleague Joseph Lestrange has pointed out, they can make any conversation seem urgent, a matter of life and death, even if all you want to know if should I turn left or right or how much a beer costs. I think of this as the linguistic equivalent of crowding, words hemming me in.
The American idea of people not crowding you is a mystery to people who are used to existing in more confined quarters. But think about it. When you’re in Paris, there’s generally a lack of space wherever you go. Contrasted to the U.S., grocery aisles are barely wide enough for one cart and rarely two. And these are small caddies.
Bakeries are located in narrow storefronts and if someone steps out of line, it’s hard not to notice. Visitors to Paris find are dismayed to discover that they better know exactly which loaf or pastry they want when it’s their turn to be waited on. The customers behind you have little to no tolerance for any form of discussion other than, “Bonjour, je veux une baguette et deux croissants, s’il vous plaît,” and off you go after a fast financial exchange.
Most Parisian restaurants are jammed with tiny tables. Thank goodness most French speak with well-modulated voices or you’d go nuts from noise pollution. Skip the idea of a truly private conversation if you’re eating in a bistro or a café.
The French must have it ingrained into their psyches that personal space is a negative. Sure, there are those who go off hiking, but even when they can spread out, they don’t. When they go on vacation, they tend to be like termites who exist only as a colony and not at all as individuals. In August, there’s a mass exodus to the beaches, and off they go to the ski slopes in February. And when they arrive at their destinations, they tend to stick together as if they’re joined at the hip.
That’s the way they are. As another colleague, longtime resident of France and husband of an exceedingly French woman, Bud Korengold has noted, a title for his collection of very sympathetic stories about living in France could be called “Those French!” The exclamation point encodes exasperation sometimes, puzzlement at others, and often enough absolute wonder, not to say admiration. That’s why they’re French and we’re not. And that’s why we come to visit or stay.
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