My first Spanish teacher was telling me about her family as we sat on the grass in the Plaza de la Independencia, Quito, Ecuador. “There were six of us kids in a small house,” she said, “but somehow the two of us youngest sisters had a room to ourselves.” I knew she still lived at home. “So Marta, you spent all your life living with your sister?” “Yes, until she got married last year and moved out.” That must have been great, having a room of your own!” I said. She looked shocked.” “I am so lonely now, I cry every night.”
So much for the joy of solitude. When we’re home in Eureka, Louisa gets up at 4, then I get up an hour later and spend the hours from 5 to 7 am at Starbucks, reading and writing, giving her space to do the same. Our early morning routine is how we manage to thrive in our small Old Town apartment; we need our “alone time” in separate spaces. In the longer term, we usually spend a week or so apart a couple of times a year for various reasons, and find these periods of separation keep our relationship fresh after nearly 45 years. I suppose this is what Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran was talking about in his “On Marriage” lines that have now become clichéd wedding material: “…stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
We were talking about solitude versus companionship a couple of days ago with our Nicaraguan coordinator (we’re here as volunteers, encouraging young people to go into business for themselves). Noel thought this was very much a cultural tendency, Latinos veering to the gregarious end of the spectrum with gringos being more independent. He confirmed that in his experience, most Nicaraguans much preferred the company of others to their own.
Which certainly fits with our experience in Mexico, where we live part year. Shopping in supermercados, for instance, is usually a challenge, not just because the aisles are narrow, but because you have to navigate past not just one person—as is typical in California—but past a whole gaggle of family and friends. Same on the sidewalks, where the logistics of getting past a swarm of 10 or 20 folks can become a major logistical challenge.
I suppose one reason for the Latino tendency to sociability stems from family size. The topic of “family” is the go-to conversation theme in Mexico, much as “weather” is in the UK or “economy” is in Silicon Valley. “How many primos (first cousins) do you have?” I’ll ask a Mexican acquaintance. “Este, no se,” they reply, “Um, I don’t know. Seventy? Eighty? Maybe more. How many do you have?” “One,” I say. Invariably, their faces show sympathy—the idea for them of having just one cousin is unthinkable: “¡Que lastima!” Such a shame! And I feel bad for myself to be so deprived.
It all comes down to cats versus dogs. Cats are mostly solitary animals, their evolutionary background being one where they generally hunted and ate their prey alone, while dogs are gregarious to a fault, having evolved from wolves who hunt in packs. According to anthropologists, our ancestors lived in small tribes of 100-150 individuals. That is, we’re naturally more dog than cat, and our need to spend time apart seems to be a cultural, rather than an inherited, tendency.
That’s the theory, anyway. I plan on raising the issue at the next meeting of my hermit support group.