Notes for returning ex-patriates on visits, no.5: Its a little island. Prepare to snuggle up.

When I moved to California a couple of years ago, I would quite often worry that I smelled funny. Or looked funny. Or was emitting weird high-pitched whistling noises as I bent over. Or that there was some other thing about me that was making people want to steer clear.

This turned out not to be the case (well, not generally the case, at least) – its just the normal way of things. Standing in a supermarket aisle, puzzling over whether there was a single type of chilli sauce I hadnt tried yet (and any one that tasted like my favourite peri-peri from home), I would suddenly realise that I was flanked by polite Americans, not wanting to pass either side of me, even though Id left a clear three or four feet between myself and a shelf, because they might, by some terrible accident, brush their person against my person [NB: not a euphemism] or otherwise invade my personal bubble [ditto].

At dinner or lunch, waiting staff would move around you, placing dishes and refilling glasses without the slightest nudge – unless they had to place something on a part of a table that meant somehow invading your space, at which point theyd murmur, with great apology, pardon my reach – before throwing something on the table in a swift, seamless motion you wouldnt have noticed without their pointing it out to you in advance.

Far from being the touchy-feely California culture I might have been led to expect, these were a society of people far more – literally, at least – far more stand-offish than the ones Id left behind in my rainy motherland.

It amused me greatly at the time. I felt like I was walking around in some kind of protective bubble; like the forcefield had been not only invented, but was automatically placed around you at US immigration, for the comfort and safety of you and everyone around you.

Almost two years later, of course, the things that seemed silly are normal. And then you come back to your privacy-loving, reserved, withholding, overly-polite darling motherland for a visit and discover that far more than you ever realised, far more than you ever remembered, EVERYONE IS STANDING TOO CLOSE.

At the baggage claim they huddle together and crowd toward the carousel as if for warmth, meaning that the only eyeline you have with your luggage is a half-second glimpse before it disappears behind your neighbours shoulder, and no chance of grabbing it at all. In the line at the newsagent, you have to think twice to check whether you remember offering anyone a piggyback to the sweetie counter, before realising that its just the next customer up in line. Where line is a polite way of saying your bum. As you type your pin into the chip-and-thing machine, you have to fight off the temptation to brush people off your shoulders, like dandruff, or flies, or flies with dandruff.

And it seems completely contrary to the nature of the countries youve been in. And it seems as though, if youd been asked about it, a long time ago, you would have answered with complete confdence, the direct opposite way around: but thats the way it is. Presumably because theres safety in numbers and wisdom in crowds, and its a small country, if you get too close to the edge you might fall off or get eaten by angry cockles, or mussels, but whatever the case, it is just so, and I just SO VERY wish it was not, but EVERYONE IS STANDING TOO CLOSE and it is REALLY ANNOYING.

This has been a public service announcement on behalf of my nerves.