New York City may be overflowing with its eight million inhabitants on Manhattan Island alone, but loneliness has always been a lowest common denominator. An average day for me usually began with a jog around Central Park, a cool-down stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, lunch with my TV at home, a pause in the library or Barnes & Noble, a ride along the bike route that runs by the Hudson, then I’d either have a gig or finally go out with a friend. I was accustomed to being alone and so were multitudes of other New Yorkers.
The great lawn in Central Park was always dotted with singles reading a book or sunbathing. Starbuck’s was filled with individuals on their laptops. One would practically fall over readers curled up on the carpet in Barnes & Noble. On the other hand, the NY population has grown accustomed to their own skin. Going to the cinema, eating out or getting a drink at a bar are things one tends to do with a friend or two; however, it is common to see a New Yorker enjoying these activities with no one other than themselves.
An Italian recently told me that she was surprised to see that everyone in NYC was always walking with a cup in hand. I was one of those people who continuously had either a cup of soup, coffee, Coke or lemonade in one hand and my cellphone in the other while I ran around, on my own.
During my first Christmas season in Rome, while taking an evening walk in the centre, feeling happy to find a side-walk art fair on Via Margutta, I realized I was the only one walking solo. Everyone was accompanied by someone, whether it be a child in a stroller, a friend, a spouse or even a dog.
“Please don’t touch me!”
Throughout the years, I began to notice that Italians are rarely comfortable with themselves. Not only do they seek company but they, literally, seek physical contact. They need to be near people. It dawned on me while standing in an almost empty tram car. I was standing, since I only had a few stops to go. As people got on, they stood right next to me, to the point that their hair was sticking to my arm or they would just lean on me as if I were a wall placed there for them to rest on.
All the seats were empty, so were the aisles as well as the other poles. Had the passengers been men, would have thought they were getting frisky. These were women who, one by one, were crowding me. I moved to another pole and surely enough, the following passenger came and almost stood right on top of me. Finally, I had reached my stop and exited to freedom.
Eventually, I began to notice that people would stand rather close while waiting on line in a supermarket. My first roommate then shed some light on my curiosity. “Whenever I sleep in the same bed with someone, such as my sister, a cousin or a friend, I always subconsciously reach out for them in the middle of the night. Sometimes I hug them or sometimes it’s merely my foot that moves until it’s touching them, but I need that contact.” I have come to believe that this is a common Italian concept and that they all need some form of physical contact.
The problem for me is that as an American, I need space and lots of it. I have found it most annoying at the clubs when I would go dancing with my friends. Italians would lean on whoever was behind them as they danced. My violent pokes with my elbow did nothing to relieve the situation, nor did my pushing. At one point I tried leaning back, but as the night would go on, they became sweaty and leaning back ceased to be an option for me.
This is when I changed tactics. “Excuse me.”, I would say poking them in the shoulder repeatedly with my index finger. “Please step back, thank you.” I was shocked to find that they acquiesced.
Americans are used to having plenty of space and I demand it. I once went to a club in Rome where everyone seemed to respect everyone’s personal space, they danced without leaning on you, they walked to their tables without crossing right in front of you. I was so pleasantly surprised until I realized the reason why. The crowd that night was predominately made up of American students. Oh, how I desired to take every Italian club-goer to see how pleasant personal space can be. In the beginning, you grin and bear it. Eventually, though, you do something about it. So it is now common for me to poke someone on their shoulder, wherever I may find myself and ask, “Will you please step back, I need some space, thank you.”
American Independence vs. Italian Dependence
Although loneliness may be a problem, the feeling of independence that comes with it is rewarding. We are not crippled if no one will join us; we do it anyway. Italians are now getting used to doing some things alone, but only the bare minimum such as supermarket shopping, getting a haircut or going to the gym. I will sometimes go to a park to read and I have noticed other people sitting alone on a bench or by a fountain; they have always been foreigners that I have spotted. Cafe tables are full of tourists, not Italians. It is as if they cannot do anything by themselves. They may not enjoy the independence we feel but the treasure of having someone always available for company is precious to someone from NYC. Because while I may feel comfortable doing everything and going anywhere with myself, the reality is that I would prefer to have someone join me. I adore that Italians go out to dinner with large groups of friends and not just because it is someone’s birthday.
I do not really mind that although you may have 50 Italian friends, they are truly mere acquaintances; because at least they are always available to keep you company. Real friends may be few in Italy, but they are few in every city. Eventually, you do learn who they are.
I find that every New Yorker should experience the company of Italians and all Italians should visit NYC alone. Exploring the extremes may help balance out our own personal needs or at least discover what they may be.
Nowadays, I still spend most of my day alone either riding my bike through the city or jogging in the park; but I can always relax in good company. It is the right balance for me.