On having space

About ten years ago, I fulfilled a lifetime dream of going to Paris with the aid of student loan funds. I knew I’d be paying for the trip for the rest of my life, but I don’t have any regrets now, and don’t think I will when I’m ninety, probably still with student loans.

Anyhoo, when I returned from the trip, there was a new employee at the library where I worked. She was from Paris. I was intrigued to find out how she wound up in DeKalb, Illinois.

DeKalb, in the middle of cornfields and more cornfields, boasted two claims to fame–a famous corn variety sold to farmers all over the country, and the legacy of the barbed wire barons. Cash from the barons brought a few rich families to the area, and they erected a few large homes. There was a tour. Like a lot of little towns, though, it had been reduced, by the nineties, to a Walmart and a bunch of boarded up storefronts on the Main Street. If you weren’t from there, the only reasons you might move to the little town would be because you got gentrified out of Chicago, or because you were a student at Northern Illinois University and just sort of stayed on. I was the later, waiting for my boyfriend to finish a computer science degree so we could get out of dodge.

But back to the lady from France who’d landed in Cornville.

“You moved from Paris to here?” I asked, incredulous. I couldn’t imagine how she was faring, but she seemed happy.

“Yes,” she said. “My sister did too. We both married men in the service. We wanted to be where there’s more space, where there’s more green. It’s less stressful here, a different pace, even though I’ve gained a lot of weight.”

True, she wasn’t in miniature, as all French women seem to be, especially Parisiennes.

Then, a year ago, on the plane to London to visit C. for the first time, I met a woman who’d moved to the remote American South from the London area. Again, I wondered about her reasons.

“We wanted the children to have space, and to have a yard,” she said. I nodded, not really understanding exactly what non-yard reality was. By then, I’d spent most of my life living in apartments without a yard, so I got that. But I didn’t really understand what it was like to be without any grass anywhere in the entire town except for a little patch by a public playground.

Now I get it. When locals say space, they mean square feet, or square meters. Or centimeters. Things are tight in the way that people often ditch their couches on the sidewalk when they move since they won’t fit through the door of their new place. (Why they wouldn’t measure first I don’t know. Too much trouble, I guess, but there always seems to be a ton of furniture on the sidewalk around here.) Plus, folks seem to favor overstuffed couches, which is not a good direction for cupboard-sized lounges. Things are tight here in a way that makes my old studio apartment in Chicago look like a bloated mansion.

My entire experience of the London area could be described as being in a very small, crowded store, in the holiday season, with a bulky purse and backpack, trying not to knock anything down or hit anyone in the face with my elbow. Everywhere I go—the train, the sidewalk, the street, the grocery store, the Tube stop, a pub—anywhere—one is constantly negotiating space. Walking on the sidewalk to the train even forty-five minutes outside London requires some serious spatial intelligence at times. Shoulders become a liability, and I imagine myself as the Sears Tower, Prudential Building, or some other City of Big Shoulders monument trying to navigate the squeezy sqoonchy nooks and crannies of the UK. Near our train stop, negotiating space becomes especially important, because if you underestimate, you’ll literally be on the street, under the tires of a double-decker bus. Really–a few times a car has brushed by my body and I’ve felt it shake my frame. Or, since no one cleans up after their pooches, you might land smack in the middle of a large doggie present, always left to festoon heavy pedestrian areas, or the pink and white puke sploshes that decorated the sidewalk during the holiday season in a festive, almost snowflake-like pattern. Hmmmm….too many candy cane cocktails? Let’s just say that on some seedier blocks, like our train station section, the sidewalks are a serious diet aid. A ten minute walk can leave you nauseous for hours.

At home, space is a constant issue, and everything almost always looks cluttered. Folks seem used to it, going up stairways sideways or squeezing themselves into airplane-sized bathrooms in their own houses. I’m not sure whether I’ll get used to it or not, and I now understand the sense of possibility so often associated with the States. Granted, that possibility remains bittersweet, given our means of establishing ourselves in already inhabited territory. Still, I get it now, the fascination and longing for expansiveness, and what happens when one is constantly enclosed, constantly vying for every centimeter. Without physical space, nothing new is possible. There can’t be any magic unless it’s Harry and his wand. Instead, it’s bump, “oh, so sorry,” and “pardon me,” and “please excuse my protruding body parts that I think may just have bumped/or ground against you in a way that could be construed as suggestive.”

Sometimes even the expansive thoughts of night feel fenced in, or muddled, as they mix with the thoughts and conversations of the neighbors, just inches from our head on the other side of the wall, the woman coughing now, or calling to her husband, or closing the wardrobe door. The people outside on the street aren’t really on the street, either, but actually in the lounge given that there’s less than a foot separating them from us. The concepts of privacy and shelter get revised, not so much a dwelling as some windows and a place to keep our stuff (relatively) dry. Fortunately I’ve finally stopped pining for my old roomy two-bedroom apartment with the balcony and fantastic view. I must be adjusting somewhat, and do like the fresh air that comes in off the North Sea sometimes. Today it’s quite brisk, and anyone who’s been out in it will likely sleep hard, at least for a few hours, under their duvet.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Char Herzog
    Feb 19, 2011 @ 20:27:03

    Hi Tara . . . love reading your blogs!! You make a grim situation sound manageable. Sara lives in southern France near Tarbes and has such a hard time with the rainy weather and depressing atmosphere. Know that you are thought of often!
    Char

    Reply

  2. mariellen anderson
    Feb 24, 2011 @ 01:25:45

    You know whereof you speak: the cornfields of Illinois are a comfort in a weird way. You are trying to be positive about all the overcrowding over there in UK. Hang in there (sounds trite), but your choice to find some humor will work to your benefit eventually.

    Reply

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