Years ago, a Spanish friend wrote me that his son had done the unthinkable: moved his family out of Madrid to a suburb. What would be normal for an American was a calamity for my friend. Suburbs and rural villages were fine to visit on a weekend, he said, but any sensible Spaniard lives and works in the city like normal people.

The same mindset holds true in Latin America and the Mediterranean nations. There, people congregate; in America, we separate. Consequently, we travel to the Parises, Madrids, and Romes of the world, but would not be caught dead at night in most deserted American cities. The Latins snuggle together in close quarters, but most Americans need space. And if today many of us cannot afford “land, lots of land,” as the words of an old song go, give us at least a yard with grass to put a little space between us and the neighbors.

I recall my own wonderment many years ago when some Latin acquaintances invited me to their “house.” I expected to see a stand-alone house and was taken aback when I was ushered into an apartment complex joined structurally to others. And although there were gorgeous potted flowers everywhere, no grassy turf could be seen anywhere except in plazas and city parks. It was a jolting start to my education of the Latin world.

The differences go back many centuries. Roman historian Tacitus noted that the Germanic tribes — remote ancestors of today’s English and Anglo-Americans — did not live in communes, but sought any solitary spot with land around it for their individual family huts. Like a good Roman, Tacitus thought the isolation was bizarre and wondered at first if it was because northern peoples lacked the skill to build communal structures. Later he attributed it to a puzzling love of personal independence and a very un-Latin indifference to, if not a preference for solitude.

Unless she has been “Americanized,” today a Latin woman will probably prefer to go out accompanied to shop, unlike an Anglo woman who thinks nothing of going alone. In Latin countries where you see one woman in public usually you see two. There used to be another reason to prefer company. A lone woman in public was considered morally suspect and often the target of gross male attention. But in general, both sexes prefer company. I have pointed out before that the Spanish word “comer,” to eat, is a contraction of two Latin words: “cum,” with, and “edere,” to eat. To the Latin mind, civilized dining is dining with family or friends.

The British islands were too small for the full expression of the old Germanic yearning for space. No wonder, then, that in vast America, the English reverted to their ancestral ways and spread everywhere they could find land. And their descendants are still looking to buy a few acres in the country, build a house and live in splendid isolation.

Harold Raley is a professor, linguist, writer and philosopher. Email

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