Another day, another stereotype out of the window. This time it’s personal. Personal space to be exact.
We always thought that in many subtle and not so subtle ways Americans tend to keep to themselves with a good buffer of empty space around. They arrived after all on a continent that was scarcely inhabited, they are mostly descendants of farmers, their cities are awkward attempts at cohabitation: all that means that people will stay out of your way effortlessly.
My favorite example is waiting in line. Compared to a good Polish queue your typical American line is like a random specking of people more or less aligned in one direction. You can actually walk through it in most cases. I never forget how, shortly after arriving in US, we went to the cinema to watch one of the blockbusters - Titanic if memory serves. We got tickets and, since it was shortly after the premiere, we realized that the entrance hall is full of waiting people. Since places in movie theaters here are not numbered I was sure we were in for a dramatic stampede, which would rival the intensity of Leonardo Di Caprio acting. But no. When the door opened people slowly, keeping their distance, walked in, one by one or in pairs, and took their unassigned places. It made a bigger impression on me than the movie itself. I realized something then: this is how you behave if you never experienced scarcity, if you never had to queue for a box of washing powder. Never had to wait in line overnight for a fridge or a TV set that so called planned economy was capable of producing.
Sometimes though, the lack of rush can be unnerving. American skiing resorts have to employ people whose only job is to pack skiers and snowboarders into gondolas and onto the lifts. Left to themselves natives just slowly congregate towards the loading station and then they proceed to go one by one on a four places lift, or take up 3 seats in a gondola large enough for 8. The line grows, but there is rarely any protest. Everyone knows that their time to ride will come sooner or later. Our friends contrasted it with their experience from Alps where you can easily encounter 12 Italians in an 8 person gondola. The fact that cannot be explained just by the difference in average weight of two nations representatives.
Another example is the contrast between Mediterranean boat-to-boat mooring and one buoy per boat system popular here. You need to call launch or have your own dinghy to get to the dock, but at least you don’t have to be side by side with other boat as those damn Europeans do.
So armed with all that experience and healthy dose of preconceptions we are choosing a place to leave our towels on the beach carefully triangulating the distance from all the neighbors. Not that difficult of a task. It’s not like beaches are crowded here, not during the week anyway. We take our masks and fins and go snorkeling along the St. Andrews jetty in Panama City Beach. We cannot actually see much underwater but it just feels good to be submerged. From time to time we check on our abandoned towels and clothes. And at some point we can no longer see them. Large family decides to camp on top of our place.
We rush back to the shore. Judging by the accent they are not just Americans but Northerners (as in Yankees) as well. As their total disregard for the invisible lines of our camp shows, they are obviously back from French Riviera. But they do not know yet what they are in for. The art of surviving on a crowded beach is ingrained in our genes and reinforced by endless lines we spent our youth in. Natalia accidentally kicks their flip-flops left inches from our towels. I start to dry off trampling some beach toys. We spray on sun lotion making sure it covers everyone around with a thick layer of sticky residue. We dust off our towels, and we spread them on making sure we look bigger than we really are. We cannot compete with the sheer amount of beach apparel they scattered around us but clearly we are morally superior. This is our place and we have been here first. And we do not hide our feelings commenting loudly on some people’s total disregard of personal space. Commenting in Polish of course, but our tone is very clear.
After five minutes they concede. Flip-flops are withdrawn, kids are leashed on the other side, the entire pack slowly moves away. At which point we feel vindicated enough to abandon our piece of land. We actually both hate sunbathing on the beach. But they needed a lesson.
So, to our dear American friends: cultural differences are important and need to be preserved. Please stay the way the world knows and likes you. We can always move back to Europe if we need our encounters with strangers involve actual physical contact.