I wouldn’t say it’s culture shock, but there is a noticeable difference between Italy and North America in terms of how people treat each other’s personal space: you have substantially less of it here in Europe. People stay closer to you, they wave their hands and sometimes touch you as they talk, they pat your child on the head as she walks past them on the street. To me personally, this has never reached the level of being uncomfortable. Just noticeable, that’s all. In fact, I’ve grown to kind of like it.
One detail that I notice about these mini-intrusions into each other’s personal spaces is that the fundamental motivation for it is to take some degree of personal responsibility about your and your family’s well-being. People notice what’s going on with others around them, and they genuinely care about it.
Here is one example: our daughter rides a bicycle to and from school, while my wife and I walk behind her. We travel along a busy street with heavy traffic, and our daughter stops in front of every driveway and intersection to wait for us, so that we cross the street together. As she rides ahead on a sidewalk, people, who go in the opposite direction, stop and check if she stops safely an the intersection. They scan the street for her adult guardians and continue on their way only when they see and make eye contact with us (we are easily identifiable by a our daughter’s pink school backpack that we are carrying). This is not an isolated episode; it happens all the time.
Our daughter also regularly receives free sweets at patisseries and cafes (to her great delight) and pats on her head and cheeks from old ladies (to a much lesser delight).
It seems that respecting other people’s privacy and personal space comes secondary here to the notion that “it takes a village to raise a child”. As much as I’ve grown accustomed to being left alone most of the time, this feeling of being a part of the tribe is surprisingly comforting.