An essay written within the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation's recent workshop Close to Home: Writing Personal Nonfiction Drawn from Life with Evan James
"Are all Bulgarians as touchy-feely as you?" The question had never occurred to me, until my friend Jenny asked me a few weeks after we met during our freshman year of college in Saint Paul, Minnesota. This was the first time I thought about personal space explicitly, even though I'd probably experienced it on a sensory level throughout my whole life. I was coming from a high school in Kuwait, which, although American in name, spirit, and language of instruction, was actually a hard-to-disentangle jumble of cultures, customs, greeting habits, and levels of touchiness. In Bulgaria, where I usually spent summer and winter vacations, friends tended to hug and kiss each other regularly, while strangers often stood a little too close for my own personal comfort. In the States, the tables seemed to have turned: many of the Americans I was meeting in college seemed to favor saying hello by waving at one another awkwardly while maintaining a distance of a few feet, and it was my tendency to stand a little too close that soon became a running joke among my new friends.
A few weeks later in anthropology class, we learned about a social experiment that examined cultural differences in social and professional interactions. It dawned on me that I was behaving quite similarly to the South American businessmen from the study who, in their zeal and excitement during negotiations, would unwittingly keep taking steps forward, while their North American counterparts would keep stepping backward until their backs were against a wall.
Personal space, and by extension physical touch, is sometimes thought of as a kind of language, which – much like spoken language – we learn and then use to communicate our emotions, thoughts, and needs. As someone who's had a lifelong interest in languages and makes their living by deciphering meaning in one language and attempting to transfer it into another one, I'm especially intrigued by this comparison. And it seems to me that many things that are true of "regular" languages are even truer of the language of touch. Despite assumptions to the contrary, I don't believe that we can ever truly "master" a language, whether we're born into it or acquire it later in life. This is even more so the case with the language of touch, which seems like something that's continuously learned, reflected on, and (re)negotiated. With every language, including the language of touch, knowing all the rules and conventions certainly helps, but it doesn't guarantee that you'll never break them, either on purpose or in what may be an innocent mistake.
Since those early college days, I've become much more aware of people's varying preferences when it comes to their personal space and I make a conscious effort to respect them. I'd like to think that becoming a translator has had some bearing on my ability to interpret nonverbal signals when interacting with people, so that I don't behave in ways that make them feel uncomfortable. And yet, my enthusiasm sometimes still gets the better of me and I find myself standing too close to someone I've just met and waving around my arms a little too energetically. Over the years – inadvertently – I've literally cornered friends while talking to them at parties, squeezed myself into elevators packed with strangers, and, on one occasion, even doubled up in a revolving door with a woman who had just interviewed me for a job. In these and many other instances, I can only hope that my relatively small stature and the fact I'm a woman has saved from me coming off as a total creep.
But there have also been plenty of times when I've found myself on the other side of the equation.
Once, I was sitting in a Brooklyn bar with Nicole Miceli, a tiny but fierce friend originally from Staten Island. Nicole was one of the best people to tell stories to, as she seemed to genuinely love hearing them. We were sipping our gin and tonics, and I was telling her some story that I don't even vaguely remember now, but which must've been gripping enough, as she listened intensely and occasionally interrupted me to exclaim, in her New York accent, "Get outta here!" Every "get outta here" was accompanied by a wide-eyed dropping of the jaw and a friendly but forceful push against the side of my leg. Until she finally shoved so hard that I fell off my barstool. We weren't even drunk.
Living in New York City, in general, could be a challenge when it came to personal space. Riding the packed subway – bodies pressed against bodies, other people's breath on the back of my neck, arms intertwined as everyone tried to hold on to the pole – did occasionally feel exhilarating, but more often than that it made me feel like a squeezed lemon on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Later, when I was in my early thirties, I spent a few years living in the south of France. There, as if the mere fact of having to kiss people when first being introduced to them weren't enough, one is expected to kiss them not once, not twice, but three times, on alternating cheeks. Noblesse oblige. Of course, there was something to be said for the immediate sense of intimacy and camaraderie that this kissing of complete strangers gave rise to. But sometimes, it got to be too much, especially when it came to people I knew I probably wouldn't become friends with. So, on more than one occasion, my boyfriend and I would be strolling down the street, he'd recognize some acquaintance of his and head over to greet them, and I'd walk off in the other direction, pretending we weren't together, so that I wouldn't have to kiss some random person that I'd never see again.
These days, of course, everything is different.
In the spring, when the global pandemic was declared and everyone had to start social distancing, I thought that all these years of being aware of how personal space can oscillate, adjusting how I handle it according to different people, places, and situations, and sometimes even playing around with it, would have equipped me to deal with this "new reality" and helped me adapt to it more easily.
But it hasn't, not really. In many ways, out of the countless challenges of this "new reality," I've found the lack of physical closeness one of the hardest to deal with. Though I find it unpleasant and it makes it hard to breathe, I got used to wearing a facemask in public places. I got used to coming home and immediately rushing into the bathroom to scrub my hands with scalding water and soap for 20 seconds. I got used to wiping my phone down with rubbing alcohol, teaching a class on Zoom, being unable to go to my favorite yoga studio, and waiting in line outside the supermarket. I even got used to not traveling, which for someone who has been on the move constantly pretty much all their life, has been no easy feat.
But not touching, hugging, or kissing friends, family, and loved ones – even strangers, if I'm being honest – has been pretty crushing. It's kind of amazing, and perhaps quite revealing, that I first heard the French phrase crève-cœur and learned what it means not during my three-year sojourn in France, nor during the disintegration of my relationship with my French boyfriend, which eventually put an end to that sojourn, but only a couple of weeks ago, while listening to President Macron's address to the nation, in which he asked people to abstain from getting together with friends and family, "même si c'est un crève-cœur." Even if it causes heartbreak.
As I write this, Bulgaria is preparing to go into another lockdown, which is likely to last until spring, so I'm bracing myself for a long fall and miserable winter of social distancing and no physical contact. Thankfully, the numbers weren't so bad during the summer, so the measures were temporarily relaxed and it was possible to go out and get together with friends I hadn't seen for months. In spite of recommendations against it, we would hug tightly when saying hello and goodbye, and sometimes, unable to help ourselves, even in the middle of sitting together. It felt as though we were trying to stock up on physical touch, just like you have to build up reserves of Vitamin D in the summer, which are then supposed to carry you through the winter.
I don't have a clear idea of how it's all going to unfold. I don't think anybody does. I do know that I'll have to find other ways – other languages – to feel close to the people I love. I'm trying to be grateful for the small blessings. Lockdown has actually made it easier to stay in (virtual, if not physical) touch with friends in faraway places – something I've never been very good about. It's allowed me to spend more time with my mom, though I've been keeping more of a physical distance from her than usual. It's given me the chance to sit down and look through old photo albums and remember friendships and journeys I haven't thought about in a long time. It's provided an opportunity to start making my way though friends' books, manuscripts, translations, and other creative projects, to which I wasn't able to give the attention they deserved before.
Still, none of these activities can ever fully compensate for the real thing, so I very much hope that we'll be able to touch one another again before too long. And I'm not alone in this, apparently: according to several studies, most people mention "hugging my loved ones" as one of the first things they want to do once the pandemic is over.
In the meantime, as I figure things out, it looks like my mom's poor cats are going to have to bear the brunt as the sole recipients of all my physical affection, which has nowhere else to go now. By the end of the lockdown in the spring, the sight of me with my arms outstretched was enough to send the two of them running away to hide in unreachable corners. But they're both British Shorthairs, a breed that's also known as the Cheshire Cat. So for the time being I guess they'll have to grin and bear it.
Ekaterina Petrova is a literary translator and nonfiction writer. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa, an MSc in European Politics from the London School of Economics, and a BA in International Studies and German Studies from Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN. Currently based in Sofia, she has also spent time living, studying, and/or working in Kuwait, New York, Berlin, Cuba, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and the south of France.
Close to Home workshop is part of the Alone Together, the virtual edition of CapitaLiterature in 2020, implemented with the support of the Embassy of the United States to Bulgaria and Sofia Municipality's Cultural Calendar.