The first time a stranger sat with me on a bench in Italy, I started. There weren’t any other benches free in the piazza, so I was more than willing to share the space. But this much space seemed a little absurd. Rather than perch on the edge of the seat, leaving an arm’s length between us — the admittedly uncomfortable, but presumably polite, way I’d been taught to share with strangers — the Italian scooted right on over. Less than an inch of room remained between our thighs.
The questions that ensued about what I did and where I was from were, I realized later, part of the pick-up. But the physical closeness? That was cultural.
A friend of mine works at Rome’s international leviathan of offices, the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization. She jokes that you can always tell which Americans just arrived in Rome by how they react to their Mediterranean coworkers in conversation: If they automatically back away, they’re new. Old hands know to grin and bear it when a coworker edges that inch or two more into their personal space than they would back home, lightly touching their elbow, steering a woman through a door with a hand on the back, or leaning in just a little closely. Or they’ve even started doing it themselves.
Even first-time introductions can come with requisite physical closeness. Handshakes are for business only. In social situations, particularly with someone who’s a friend of a friend, you kiss-kiss. And these aren’t faux-look-at-how-European-I-am air kisses: These are actual lips on cheeks. Or at least cheeks on cheeks. Twice. That can get even more accidentally intimate, of course, if you’ve gone left while your partner has gone right. (After much research into the matter, I’ve determined that the right cheek tends to be the safest bet).
That closeness extends, though, beyond the idea of the unconscious, personal perimeter that we all establish around our bodies. As with many of Rome’s palazzos, many of the apartments in my building overlook a shared courtyard. Some have terraces, so that looking down from the top level is like viewing a Jenga tower, one where each jutted-out block brings with it intimate details of someone else’s life.
I can recite, for example, the hilarious and unearthly noises the toddler next door makes when she wants attention and the more intelligible utterances that occur when her father comes home (“Papa! Papa! Papa!“); thanks to hanging laundry, I know exactly what kind of underwear a family on the other side of the building prefers (black cotton briefs, for both him and her); and, with the echo-chamber effect of our courtyard, I no longer jump at the once-a-week tradition of a particular couple duking it out full-force, throwing insults at each other so damaging (“Sei deficiente, you’re an imbecile!” “Vaffanculo, go fuck yourself!”), I’m constantly surprised to hear the repeat performance, a week later, that proves that they have, in fact, overcome the last fight and remained together.
Some of this, of course, is city life, the necessity of living literally on top of one another. But not all of it. There’s no apparent embarrassment when I catch a neighbor pulling her lingerie in from the line, unlike, say, the slight awkwardness that ensued when I bumped into someone in the building’s laundry room, lingerie in hand, when I lived in Washington.
On London’s Tube, I’m always struck by the steadfast and universal ability to avoid locking gazes with strangers, or to talk about personal matters with a friend in only very low tones. But in Rome, passengers share complaints over the buses not arriving and queries about the next stop, while girlfriends shout at boyfriends over their cell phones. Last week, I even saw a Roma woman pop her breast out of her shirt and matter-of-factly start nursing her little boy on the 117 bus. I’ve never seen this before. Still, no one gasped, fled, or gave her a dirty look.
And it’s not just Italy’s cities. In the towns and rural areas, where there’s even more space, physical intimacy seems to be an even larger part of everyday life. When I traveled to Iglesias, a town in Sardinia, with a friend last year, we were standing outside of our B&B, waiting for the owner. Suddenly, a woman ran up and gave us huge hugs and kisses on both cheeks, welcoming us to Iglesias. We were baffled when she promptly left without allowing us in. It took us a couple of moments to piece together that she wasn’t, in fact, the B&B owner — just a woman welcoming two strangers to her town.
In many ways, of course, it all makes sense. Most Italians live with their parents well past the point of what we Americans and Brits would consider adulthood, downgrading any ideas of having privacy at a certain age. Even for those who do live on their own, traditions like bringing dirty laundry home once a week for Mamma are as commonplace as they are stereotypical. And, since relationships are so important here — not just with family members, but with all of the people like family, from your cousin’s girlfriend to your barber — it makes sense that that lack of physical space, and the corresponding communication that “we’re close, we’re buddies, we’re on the same team,” would sprawl out to include a seemingly never-ending list of intimates and acquaintances and even people you wish you did know, but don’t. Yet.
Even so, I continue to feel slightly surprised when a stranger plops right next to me on a bench.
But when I return to the U.S., I find myself, unconsciously, showing how closely I’m listening by brushing a friend’s arm, or leaning in intently. And, sometimes, my friends are the ones to startle.