Spatial Awareness: How To Survive Without a Personal Bubble

Most of the Spanish people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting have the capacity to be extremely warm and inclusive: Spanish hello’s and good-bye’s are often longer than the actual conversation. I’ll give you an example: Hello! What’s up? How are you today? How is your wife doing? And your kids? How’s work? *insert actual conversation* Ok, take care! See you soon! Be well. Talk to you soon! Have a great day! Great to see you! It’s not uncommon to kiss a stranger up to four times in the matter of minutes to greet and say good-bye to them. On the other hand, a nod of the head, or a friendly wave from 3 meters away is an acceptable greeting for most Americans. Imagine someone you’ve never met making a move directly towards your face to lightly graze your cheek and “muah” with their mouths . . . twice! Unfathomable.

I’m from a large city, and in Chicago we talk fast, we walk fast, we eat fast, we drive fast and we loathe anyone that hinders our “well-oiled machine” from working at its best. Oh, you want to take a photo, well my train leaves in 3 minutes, so please step aside. God forbid someone accidentally bump into you on the street! When I moved to Madrid some years ago, I treated the sidewalks like an outdoor treadmill, and I zigged and zagged through the cobblestone streets. I asked for carry-out containers so that I could eat on the go. My greetings were a short and simple, “Hola!” To be honest, the first 3 months were a blur because I missed most of my surroundings since I was so focused on where I was going, I missed where I was in the moment.

The Streets

The sidewalks are tiny and unless there are two single-file lines, there’s bound to be a bit of chaos. Human contact is inevitable; if I got in a huff for every shopping bag that smacked my hip or every over-sized hobo bag that slammed into my arm, I’d be in a literal perpetual state of rage. Nevertheless, when trying to maneuver two large suitcases uphill on one of the busiest streets in Madrid, and pedestrians make no effort to accommodate you frustration is understandable.

Many older people treat Madrid as if it were a museum; they stop, stare, admire, and leisurely stroll onto the next window that attracts their attention. Basically, they’re in no hurry and are most likely walking to walk. I’ve been stuck behind a group of mayores, hands behind their back, heads cocked to the right marveling at the variety of jamón hanging in a window while reminiscing about their favorite cuts and dishes. Inhale. Exhale. Keep it moving.

The Metro

Disclaimer: it’s the easiest metro system I’ve ever navigated. It’s relatively modern, clean and cost-effective. It’s the pushy, impatient passengers that make the experience a bit lackluster. Sir, we both want the same things. If you’d kindly allow my foot to touch the platform before attempting to board the train, we can all get we want out of this situation. Oh, you thought it would be more productive to stand in the center of the doors while passengers disembark versus stepping to the side? Yes, that makes perfect sense. I was almost tackled by a man reaching for newspaper that I personally had no intention of reading on the way to work one morning. If the train is crowded, and seats are limited, some passengers see a game of musical chairs and “booty scoot” you out of your seat as you try to stand and exit at your stop. My favorite experience on the metro is while sitting in a 4 seat section and relaxing with my legs extended on the floor, men and women pass up every other empty chair to sit right in front of you, forcing you to grudgingly adjust your legs. Personal space is a luxury here, and the lack of a personal bubble is much more apparent in small spaces like trains and busses.

There’s Hope:

Life goes on. I’ve learned to adjust my expectations of “personal” and “space”. If you’re not sitting on my lap, or holding my hand, I’m happy. An unintentional thigh-graze on the train? No problem! You’re a close talker, and just spit in my eye? Smile and keep it moving! I’ve learned that the shortest and fastest road to insanity is forcing your standards of “normalcy” on a society that is not your own. Simply put: what works in Chicago does not and cannot work in Madrid, and it’s unfair to expect otherwise. Please don’t mis-understand, foolish is universal, and I have no qualms about calling people out when they act out. Sir, I’m walking between a bus and a brick wall, we both can’t fit, let’s be realistic. I choose to focus on the positive sides, such as the way Madrid has a way of grabbing you and pulling you into its buxom bosom for one of those hugs that border on awkward, but leave you feeling like family.

Danni is a Chicago native by birth, resident of Madrid by choice. She likes her avocados big, and her hair even bigger.

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