The surprising way the pandemic brought me back to my American roots
Many things are hardwired into us at a young age. Experts say learning a language accent-free is only possible up to age nine — except for Henry Kissinger, who has a German accent despite emigrating to the States as a child. Olympic athletes begin training at an early age to achieve greatness.
But who would have thought that our sense of personal space is just as deeply embedded? I found out just how much when I moved to Germany.
The physical distance between people is an expression of body language. There are workshops galore on how facial expressions or crossing your arms or legs signals something to your conversation partner. People strive to learn how to control their body language to be more open, less aggressive, more confident.
But what do you do when someone just gets in your face?
This happened to me in one of my first jobs, working at a student loan agency in D.C. in the 1980s. Nearly everyone qualified for a student loan, but occasionally the system would spit out a loan application because of missing information. This delayed its approval. The loan agency had chosen the unfortunate formulation of “Your loan has been rejected” to inform students of such a delay. Many panicked and immediately came to protest, fearing they would miss their tuition payment deadline.
One such student was particularly agitated. He insisted on speaking to the “office manager,” which to my dismay was pretty much my job description. I forced myself to adopt a calm demeanor and confronted him, reassuring him that this “rejection” was just a delay.
He was a big, heavy-set man and moved in closer and closer while he spoke, loudly and angrily. I knew if I gave any ground, it would send the wrong signal. Soon I was staring up at him, just inches away.
I was terrified. My heart thumped. I was sweating. But after a few minutes of holding my own, I managed to console him enough that he backed down.
This sort of encounter became the norm in Spain, where I spent a year studying Spanish. My total immersion plan included a group apartment with Spanish girls.
“What does X mean, I would ask?” inquiring about an unfamiliar vocabulary word. I wanted to take full advantage of living with three native speakers. They were happy to oblige me.
These questions always unleashed a threefold torrent of explanations. Bursting with eagerness to help, they would slowly close in on me, each one speaking louder than the other in an effort to get her version across.
My body would stiffen to weather this storm of words coming at me from all sides. Toyi came at me from the left, Sonsoles from the right, and Rosa zeroed in on me head-on. I resisted the urge to duck out of this ever-constricting circle. I never let on how uncomfortable it made me: this was their way of showing they cared. I was sure they didn’t understand that Americans need personal space. A lot of it.
But this was just a taste of things to come. A few years later, I moved to Germany, also known as The Land of No Personal Space.
The grocery store
Germany has a special kind of grocery store called a discounter that sells a limited number of high-quality products at low prices. They feature weekly specials of must-have seasonal items that people will line up for before the store even opens. Gotta get a pair of those down mittens! Another interesting fact about discounters is that they minimize their rent by limiting the space between aisles.
The first time I navigated a cart down the narrow aisle of a discounter, I realized that it takes special skill and patience — at least it does if not charging into people is one of your goals in life, a goal I thought everyone shared until BOOM! Somebody rammed their cart into me. Surprised, I turned around, expecting a gentle smile and apology. Nope. The perpetrator wasn’t even looking my way. This is just what one does in the store. BOOM! BAM! Ouch!
This is outrageous, I thought. My pulse quickened; my anger grew. I formulated what to say to this rude person…and then decided to just keep my mouth shut. Willkommen in Deutschland. This is the way it’s done in these parts, I told myself, and when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Even if what the Romans do is give each other bruises on their rear ends while looking for a cheap tea kettle. I moved here. Now I have to deal with it.
But I must admit that there is nothing more gratifying than sharing such war stories with fellow expats. Hey, I’m not crazy after all — just a foreigner. One fellow American told me of a grocery store encounter in which the woman behind him in line rammed him repeatedly with her cart.
Exasperated, he finally turned around. In heavily American-accented German, he said loudly, “My dear lady, the war is over!”
The train platform
I also learned that people will not make a wide circle around me when passing by on the train platform. Not even when the platform is nearly empty. Nor when I’m the only person standing there. Whoosh! They walk past so close I get a whiff of the garlic in last night’s spaghetti sauce. I feel like Neo from The Matrix dodging a bullet in slow motion, except the bullet is a person and I only use my cool goth coat for special occasions.
Get used to it, I tell myself. But I can’t. I can’t change. It’s my culture.
Or so I thought.
The grocery store — take 2
When I’m visiting my sister in Virginia, a trip to the Shopper’s Food Warehouse grocery store is one of the highlights. Giant carts, giant aisles, giant boxes. America! Land of the free, home of the huge. It’s great to be back where I belong. Here, I know my way around and know all the rules.
But then I hear a small voice behind me. It’s my sister.
“Brenda,” she says softly but urgently. “Brenda, let that man by!”
“Huh?” I look at her. What is she talking about?
Almost imperceptibly, she jerks her head towards a man with a cart, a good 10 feet away. Or so it seems to me.
“Let that man pass you!” she growls between clenched teeth.
I turn to look. The man is planted behind his cart in a slightly militant stance. And he is glaring at me.
I forgot! Americans speak glare. I tried this, too, upon arriving in Germany. I doggedly bored holes in people who bumped me in line, who bashed into me on the train platform, who rammed me with their grocery carts. I squinted and scowled, huffed and puffed. I rolled my eyes dramatically in their direction.
But they weren’t watching. Like the tree falling in the forest that no one hears, nobody registered my glares. I eventually figured it out and gave up.
They don’t glare in Germany. They bump, bash and ram.
Back in the U.S. again, I realize I had forgotten this.
Aghast at my own behavior, I smile at the man and quickly push my cart aside. I am shaken: I have become one of them, over there. From then on, I decide to add an additional two feet between me and the next cart. Just in case.
The grocery store — take 3
March 2020. The schools have closed. It hits: this virus is serious. I force my daughter to call off a visit to a friend. I cancel all my lunch appointments. Life comes to a standstill.
It’s scary. How serious is it? How contagious? Nobody knows.
When we have completely run out of food, I realize it’s no use. I have to go grocery shopping, virus or not.
I enter the store meekly. There are very few customers. That’s odd.
The atmosphere in the store feels strange, too. Something is different. People are nudging their carts along, slowly. Some wear medical face masks, others have jerry-rigged scarves or bandanas to cover their mouths.
There are only two people in the produce department; one woman is looking at the tomatoes and there’s a man near the lettuce. I navigate my cart up to the carrots and notice how the woman registers my arrival and moves away, eyeing me with caution.
Moving on to, a sense of relief floods over me. Why is this shopping experience strangely comforting? I should be anxious, knowing there is a dangerous, unfamiliar virus afoot.
Instead, I feel relaxed.
Then it strikes me. The space! They’re giving me space! People are moving aside to let me pass, with nary a glare or a bump. The pandemic has transformed people’s need for personal space overnight from two inches to “Get away from me! It’s the bubonic plague!”
I sail gently, slowly, through the grocery store aisles, immersing myself in the oceans of space between the cereal and canned goods. Ahhh! There’s no one in my way. The next cart is miles off. I can linger as long as I want.
I’m American after all.