GUEST COLUMN: The spaces between

Nineteen-eighty-three marked my introduction to Italy.

My best friend moved to Venice, my mother discovered Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookbook" and salads replaced casseroles on the dinner table. The dim, green light that seeped from the Venezian Polaroids, my cells that breathed and flushed out the warm vegetables like a cleansing tonic, established Italy as an intensely physical place for me, a gravity-exempt fantasyland borne by water.

I came to associate Italy with the ubiquitous Tuscan coffee-table book, good food and, later, with pleasant dreams of hoeing rows to plant carrots in the warm dusk of some Italian farm. Compared to the hours I spent every day plowing lines up and down the Queen Anne pool, splashing in the sunny, pristine waters that flooded the Piazza San Marco seemed fantastic. All these visions provided the basis for an Italian fantasy I nourished until I moved to Rome four months ago.

I did not realize I hated Rome until I found myself heatedly describing certain situations I encountered in the grocery store, on the bus, on the train, in the post office, and generally any other activity that involves patience and - in Seattle, at least - some sort of commonly agreed-upon, informal organizational process.

In Seattle, finding myself in line behind four people at the Queen Anne Thriftway, do I nudge and budge my way to the front, oblivious to the disarray my elbow makes of the nearby tier of chocolate hedgehogs in the process? No. I set my red basket on the floor, marvel at the dimensions of Julia Robert's smile on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, and, if I am in the mood to and the current customer at checkout stand cannot find her checkbook, sigh loudly and pinch my lips.

Such are the mannerisms we resort to in a city where politeness and respect of (large) amounts of personal space firmly wring the sting out of frustration, incomprehension and anger. Rush hour at the four-way intersection of Queen Anne Avenue and Boston Street? Wait your turn. No need to flap your hands in encouragement to the timid SUV waiting for an opening on your left. We can navigate these public inter-actions with patience, courtesy and a minimal amount of communication.

Two weeks of living in Rome, and I developed a facial twitch that asserted itself in moments of public con-frontation. While their elbows might spare objects like the chocolate hedge-hogs out of respect for their artistry, Romans believe that human interaction involves art of a different sort.

By the time it reaches my stop, there are approximately two seats left on the bus I take to work every morning. Judging by the communal beeline towards the bus doors, every one of the 20 people waiting believe that if they ply my ribs hard enough with the sharp wedge of their elbow, they will be sure to get a coveted seat.

Another example: You have just purchased a mess of spinach greens and tomatoes from the local market, and you enter the "everything else" store across the street. Your mission is simple: buy three balls of fresh mozzarella, a slab of pizza bianca (as the salty, warm slabs of focaccia are called) and a bottle of yogurt. You enter the store. Immediately, a short woman in her 60s, bundled into a black sheath and stilettos, confronts you. No, you must hang your bags on the back of this shopping cart before you may shop. You want mozzarella, fresh? We have it! See, by the way its flesh confronts my poking finger? Neither your physical self nor your food will go without a good shove, investigatory pinch, squeeze or jostle.

When I returned last June to Queen Anne for the first time since my move, I was astounded by the space given to people, houses and cars. And the space between people. Silent streets, no piazzas pooling with hooky-playing truants, no one asking me what I needed in Safeway, no one caring if I got it. Which is another way of saying that I was lonely.

Freelance writer Samantha Paxton is a Queen Anner transplanted, at least for the time being, to Rome. She can be reached via[[In-content Ad]]