If there is one thing that clearly defines me as an American when I travel abroad, it is this: I like my space.
I don’t mean that I need to travel through wide, open panoramas, or cavernous, echoing canyons. Purple mountain majesty and amber waves of grain are all nice and well, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean that wherever it is that I happen to me, I like for there to be a small, invisible cushion of space around me where other people are not. That’s all, just a little space between me and the next person. Especially if that person is a stranger.
I know that this preference is not shared by people in many other places in the world. But knowing that this value is not shared and living the value difference are two entirely different things.
So it bothers me here in Israel when, as I prepare to bag my groceries, a woman steps in front of me, grabs a plastic bag, and starts shoving her potatoes in. Technically, we could both do it at the same time, but it’s a pretty tight squeeze. Or when, as I wait in one of twenty chairs in the near-deserted post office, someone walks in and sits down in the chair right next to me. Or when, as I sit on a blanket on the grass in a park, a person getting ready to leave the park walks right along the edge of my blanket, instead of arcing around the blanket to avoid me, as most Americans would.
An example: I was recently enjoying a late afternoon beach excursion with the kids. The beach was pretty empty. So I was able to plunk us down in one of the few shaded places on the beach. Perfect. The kids and I could play in the waves, then stretch out on our towels without the bother of the sun glaring in our eyes.
And that is just what we did for a half hour or so, when out of the corner of my eye I spied a man standing nearby, beach towel draped over his arm. He was eyeing the three shaded spaces on the beach, trying to decide where to sit. The kids and I occupied one of those spaces. A couple lounged in the second space. The third was empty.
A sudden sense of impending doom came over me. What if this guy came to sit right in our space? How could I relax at the beach with this guy right next to us? How would I comfortably read, shake the sand out of my suit, write in my journal, or discipline my children, with someone else sitting there too?
I looked around in fear. Then I decided to deploy the only weapon at my disposal: my children.
“Kids,” I whispered. “Can you start, like, yelling or something?”
“Huh?” The boys looked up at me from their sand digging, surprised.
“What are you talking about, Mom?”
“Make some noise,” I told them under my breath. “Loud, obnoxious noise.”
Their lips curled up in amused surprise. Was their mother actually asking them to misbehave?
“Uh, why?” one asked.
“Because I told you to, that’s why.”
The boys looked at each other, then raised their voices halfheartedly to call out a few nonsense words. The man with the beach towel scrutinized us. I started to get a bad feeling. This was not going well.
“Louder!” I told the boys. They stared at me. Apparently my kids, so adept at disobedience, cannot misbehave on command.
Beach towel man began his approach.
“OK, kids. I’m serious. Start throwing sand!”
“What?!” the boys jaws dropped, stunned, as though I’d just asked them to dismember each other.
“Throw some sand,” I hissed. This was frustrating. Many afternoons at the beach they have sand fights so fierce that they create a virtual sandstorm. At some points the sand has been so thick in the air that the beach has looked like a scene from the bad 1980's movie Dune. But now that I needed them, the boys were just sitting there passively, like a pair of altar boys in church on Sunday.
My younger son limply tossed a handful of sand in the air, then watched it land next to him. He looked up at me.
“Not good enough.” I coached under my breath. “Don’t just toss it. Throw it. Really throw it. Come on, you can do it.”
He stared at me again. Then, finally, he lifted his arm. “Ready! Aim! Fire!” he yelled. Sand flew everywhere.
“Good one!” I said with glee.
Too late. Mr. Beach Towel was already preparing to land in the square of shade with us. I dropped back on my towel, closed my eyes, and tried to pretend that he was not there.