There is so much we take for granted in our everyday lives. Many of the little things have enough consistency in how they work that you don’t really have to think about them – until they are different. Even if you have travelled before, the reflexive mindset probably doesn’t consider changing its orientation to differences all that much because, in due course, you are going ‘home’ to the automatically familiar. But once ‘home’ becomes a different place, it is funny how some of the little, every day things that seemed automatic have to be rethought. The following is just one area that comes to mind that is currently being ‘re-thought.’
Space – the territorial imperative. As an American, I grew up assuming there was a certain amount of physical territory surrounding me that I could rely upon as something of a safety zone or buffer between my physical being and the rest of the world.
On the other hand, Europeans have been dealing with a much higher population density for much longer than we Americans. They seem to have congregated themselves quite early into more densely packed communities for mutual support and security. As a result, in comparison with we Americans, the idea of a personal space and privacy entitlement appears to have become less imbedded into the European psyche.
Now that we are starting to settle into Italy, we are coming to feel our surrounding ‘territorial imperative’ bubble has shrunk. There is nothing personal in what might otherwise be thought of as an ‘assault on my territory.’ It is simply we are among people who have accommodated to being more densely concentrated than we have been accustomed to.
Take for example walking on ancient, narrow cobblestone streets. These thoroughfares, most often minus sidewalks, are shared by people – some walking dogs or pushing strollers and others stopping in groups to chat – plus cars, both in motion and some, more-or-less parked, and then there are the two-wheeled vehicles, mostly noisily motorized and going fast.
As a result, while walking as close to walls and sort-of parked vehicles as you can, you are passed by cars, motorcycles, motorbikes and motor scooters – plus bicycles – and other people. Space is at a premium. The passing Alpha Romeo, whose outside mirror comes within several inches of you, is not making an aggressive gesture; the driver is simply going about the normal way of doing things. This is not a comfortable place for someone who has done actuarial work in the casualty insurance field.
The same space use issue applies to simply walking. People lost in conversation in a group taking up much of the walkway on their approach appear to not recognize you are there. But by some unspoken language, at the last possible moment, someone approaching diverts their trajectory to pass close enough to almost feel them exhale and then goes on. Space is a luxury not to be squandered. Here, a miss is as good as a kilometer!
I seem to have an advantage built into my instinctive reflexes that Arlene has not yet developed – but I have faith in her. After all, I grew up in New York City and commuted everyday on the subway during rush hour into Manhattan to High School. That might be thought of as a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ training program. New Yorkers are not really hostile people, per-se. But New Yorkers develop a skill set of reflexes designed to perpetuate longevity.
Among the skill sets is the projection of an aura of studied indifference to what is going on around you while all the time having the situational awareness of a Bald Eagle. Above all, one does not want to appear indecisive about exactly where you intend to go. Inattention and any appearance of a lack of sheer determination invites immediate lowering of position in the food chain.
In Italian crowds and on streets congested by people and vehicles of every description, Arlene has simply gotten behind me and bravely trudged onward. I think she has become convinced I am acting out some latent death wish but her real problem is I’m dragging her along – involuntarily. When I explain that in growing up in New York, one learns how to do this. To which she replies, “But I don’t like New York!”
Then there is the crossing of streets. At least the advantage of motorcycles and other motorized, two-wheeled missiles is they tend to make noise – lots of noise. Then there are bicycles – the silent menace. Never mind that the traffic on the street is supposed to be one-way. For many Italians, that simply introduces an irresistible challenge. To step off any curb, even when sensing complete silence, one must look in both directions totally ignoring this is supposed to be a one-way street. To do otherwise is to invite the convening of a Novena Mass to speed your recent, untimely departure out of Purgatory.
Ah, cross walks! There are marked pedestrian crossings, that to our absolute astonishment, many Italians actually slow down and some may even stop! Note that I said many – but not all. If an Italian feels there is sufficient space to just get past you while you are in the middle of the street without inconveniencing the appearance of his car by depositing any of your body parts on it – he is very likely to go for it.
Our newly developed survival strategy for crossing busy streets is what I will describe as the ‘human shield gambit.’ When coming to a crosswalk on a particularly busy street, we scan the area looking for an older women burdened with the food shopping for the day or someone pushing a stroller and preferably with several young children also in tow. At this point you are already ahead of me. Yes, we let either of these two potentially sacrificial beings go just ahead of us off the curb into the oncoming traffic and we proceed next to them on the side away from the oncoming vehicular mass.
Either sacrificial candidate seems to work well. In the case of an older woman, nobody but nobody is going to mess with Mama – anybody’s Mama. And given the Italian reverence for children, that is a guarantee of safe passage. I say reverence for children with a qualification; that changes when they become old enough to leave graffiti – but that is another discussion.
And so we are in process of readjustment of our instinctual risk calculus. Key to making that work is to reduce the protective bubble not by feet or even inches, but to dimensions reckoned in millimeters. This is one adjustment to the European decimal system that I had not thought much about but daily reminders make very clear, adjust I must!