Move! Get Out Of The Way!
One of the most enlightening aspects of being an expat has nothing to do with changing space. It is, in fact, exploring and challenging the concept of human nature. One will soon realize that there were some aspects of behavior that one is so accustomed to in their native land that unwittingly ascribed these traits to all earth dwellers. But as you travel, or more importantly settle down in a new place, you become more and more aware of the subtle habits of basic decency that you once took for granted.
For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of living in Spain is dealing with the traffic. But it’s not what you think. I don’t have a car here in Spain. Nor have I ever never driven someone else’s. And thanks to an extensive train system, I rarely find myself riding shotgun along the city streets or on the bus down the highway. The traffic I most commonly find myself in is of the human kind. Every single day, I find myself behind a crowd, a child, a pack of teenagers or a group of viejitos who refuse to move out of the way.
Now, before you believe me to be a rude, entitled American, let me first state my case.
I am well aware that I am not Moses and I do not expect a sea of people to part at my request. However, I do expect those people standing idly on the sidewalk to move to the side if someone is walking in their direction. I especially expect this behavior to be expedited if I first say to them perdon or permiso the Spanish equivalents of pardon and excuse me.
In fact, permiso is actually short for con su permiso—with your permission. Yet despite literally asking someone “‘with your permission, can I pass?” They will still look at you with a blank stare and continue standing right where they are.
Taking Up Space
At first, I had no idea what to make of this behavior. Were people simply being rude? Or did they have some sort of prejudice against me? But time here has taught me that neither is the case. In fact, the truth seems far more bizarre. They were simply unfamiliar with the concept of moving out of someone else’s way. Or more to the point, that one could somehow be taking up too much space.
I know, I know. For most Americans, this is an odd concept to fathom. But I can assure you that it is true. And at this point, I have also gleaned the cause of this (lack of) behavior.
For starters, I have never encountered people with less spacial awareness than the Spanish. For me, life in Spain has meant bearing witness to an endless series of collisions and conflicts that shouldn’t have happened. Or wouldn’t have occurred if someone had simply been paying attention
Case and point, last week, I witnessed a woman in Valencia almost get hit by a bus. Why? It’s simple. She didn’t look before attempting to cross the street. I hear what you are thinking. No, she was not talking on the phone or was otherwise engaged. She simply walked into traffic as though she was taking a stroll in the park.
Don’t worry, this story doesn’t have a tragic end. To his credit, the bus driver slammed on the brakes, honked his horn and raised arms in protest. Her life spared, the woman immediately stepped back unto the sidewalk. And from the window of the bus, I saw her mouth ¡Ay! The universal Spanish cry for a situation such as this.
But things aren’t always this dramatic. More commonly you will find yourself standing behind someone and while calling out perdon with increasing intensity. Eventually, if they will turn around, they will give one of the following types of stares: blank or shunned.
The latter is more common. Especially in women, who have the added benefit shouting out ¡Ay! as they look at you as if you have defied the laws of physics and materialized out of thin air. Nothing beforehand, such as your footsteps, sensation of your physical presence or voice calling out to them did anything to alert them of your increasing proximity. For the Spanish, one minute they were alone, the next you were there. And they have no concept of how on earth that happened.
This was a really difficult thing for me to understand at first. But the reality is deference to others and spatial awareness are not innate.They have to be taught. I learned this when I was standing behind a woman and her young son in line for the bathroom at a major bus station. The boy was standing across from his mother directly in the middle of the doorway. Despite the women trying to pass by him, most of whom were carrying large amounts of luggage, he didn’t move. But what’s even more bizarre is that his mother didn’t move him out of the way. Instead, the woman struggled past him, gently nudging him to the side, only for him to regain his former position like some sort of swinging door.
In order to live her successfully, one must adjust. Not only to the slower pace but to the concepts that you considered to be common sense or human nature is a myth. People will not behave in ways that make sense to you. They will behave in ways that make sense to them. You may not like it, but it is human nature, I think. At least for now.