A Sense of Personal Space

I recently returned from Montana. My husband was working at the  National Folk Festival in Butte, and we attached a vacation to that trip. I’ve never spent time in the Rockies before and I have to say that it is in some ways culturally more foreign for me from most places I’ve been. During the festival, a friend pointed out something that helped me to understand why I was feeling so out-of-context: people give each other a lot more personal space ther than they do back East (or in Europe for that matter.) I suppose that in a place where there is so much physical space in your surroundings, well, people aren’t used to being all crowded together.

I knew that "crowded" was a relative term, and in the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, I learned strategies to deal with people being so crowded together that they would bump into each other all the time. This bumping-into was something I couldn’t filter out for my ADD, so it exhausted me. On Saturdays at the Utrecht market, you can get caught in a sea of people that is comparable in Boston only to the crowd walking to the fireworks at First Night or on the Fourth of July, with the difference that then, you’re swimming in a group with a common destination. At the market, everyone was trying to get off at their own stop along the way as it were, in the form of a flower or cheese stand, for example, or a bank. I think that it is a cultural crowd-coping mechanism in the Netherlands to just ignore other bodies as you travel from point A to B. I finally started holding my arms up to my sides, as a sort of shield, and when people walked into them somehow it got their attention and they’d apologize and give me an inch more of room. Plus, bumping into my arms is less tiring than bumping into my torso somehow.

Just as the Dutch are headed in different directions in their busy swarm at market, at the folk festival in Butte it seemed that people were just not accustomed to swarms of people at all. And so a far smaller number of people seemed to constitute a crowd and, in a narrow street, cause a pedestrian traffic jam.

But away from the crowd, I seemed to keep bumping into people. I wasn’t picking up their cues at all; they needed me to wait longer (yeah right, wait?) for them to pass through the door or finish at the buffet before I came along. Go slower, take my time, and perhaps imagine giving them the amount of space they’d need if they were on horseback and not on foot.

Once I assimilated this fact (I didn’t exactly get used to it on my short trip), I loved it out there. I miss the wide open already.