A friend of mine recently asked an interesting question in his Google+ stream. He wanted to know: when you feel you want to "get away from other people", how far do you have to go? And he was interested in how people from different countries and cultures answered this question, so asked anyone who responded to mention where they lived.
A few minutes walk from my home.
The question is of course open to interpretation. I interpreted "get away from other people" as "get away from the hustle and bustle of human civilisation". When I want to take a break from that, I head to a place surrounded by nature, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. There are parks not far from where I live where I can sit on the grass or a tree stump or some rocks, surrounded by enough trees that it's difficult to see the buildings which lurk just a hundred or so metres away. The noise of traffic has died away to the very occasional loud motorcycle or emergency siren, but otherwise there's just the sound of birds and the wind in the trees.
So if I want to "get away from other people", I can walk for about 15 to 30 minutes and find such a spot. I stated this as my answer, and added that I live in an inner city suburb of Sydney, Australia. I then added that if I really wanted to get away from it all, I could drive about an hour or two out of the city and into one of the nearby national parks, and really lose myself in true wilderness. Out there, it'd be possible to actually get so badly lost that you couldn't find your way back to civilisation, as several search and rescue operations over the years testify.
Then I read some of the other respondents' answers. Some of them said that they would go to the local library. Or simply sit in their bedroom. Or even just put on some headphones and listen to music - even if they were surrounded by other people. And that would be enough for them to "get away from other people", by their interpretation of the question. The interesting thing was that almost all of these people were from Europe. There was another Aussie respondent, and he answered similarly to me, that he'd take a 20 minute walk from his front door until he was surrounded by bushland. The responses from Americans were mixed, some of the "bedroom" variety, ranging all the way up to one who said he'd drive five hours out to the mountains.
There's an interesting cultural correlation there, though of course this is highly anecdotal and subject to respondent interpretation of what was a pretty open question.
I don't normally buy fruit from an open-air market like this, because there are none near me, alas.
In the present day it's easy for us to connect to people across much of the globe and to interact with them. One of the cool things we can do is to find out more about how they live, their culture, and their attitudes to various things. Because not all of us behave and think the same way, and a good part of that is derived from the culture we live in. And some of the things that are different we just don't consciously think about very much.
I almost always have an umbrella with me if I'm leaving home for more than an hour or two. I carry one in my backpack, and we have a couple of spares in the car at all times. Sydney's weather, while not as famously changeable as, say, Melbourne's, can cloud over and dump a storm on you with very little warning. And when it rains here, it rains hard. You don't want to be caught in it. During a storm, you'll see most of the locals have an umbrella.
- How often do you buy breakfast out instead of make it at home?
- What do you wear to work, or to school?
- If you need to get a couple of kilometres across town, do you walk, cycle, drive, or catch a bus, taxi, or train?
- Where do you buy fruit and vegetables?
- Who cuts your hair?
- Is there an art museum near you? Do you ever go to it?
- Do you carry an umbrella?
So I was somewhat surprised when I visited London, a city famous for its gloomy weather, and it rained, and my wife and I pulled out our umbrellas that we'd brought with us on the trip. We saw that virtually none of the people around us had or were using umbrellas. They just huddled under their jackets and shuffled through the rain.
Perhaps Londoners are so used to the rain that they don't feel a need to protect themselves from it. Or perhaps the rain in London is only ever a drizzle, and rarely the sort of skin-soaking downpours we get in Sydney, so people think a jacket is enough. Or a mixture of both, maybe plus something else I hadn't considered.
A rainy day in Sydney.
The point is, we're all different, but often we don't realise just how different we are. The modern world has given us a great tool to use to explore those differences and learn in what ways our cultural environments shape us. It's called social media. Got a question or a burning curiosity about how people do something elsewhere? Ask on Facebook, Google+, or your blog - or any of dozens of other Internet community forums or sites. Social media can get a bad rap sometimes, but it's just a tool and we can use it for good: to educate people about how we do things and to learn how other people do things.
The old saying goes that travel broadens the mind. It certainly does: you get to see first hand what other cultures are like. And since we're all humans, learning about how other humans live is a worthwhile thing. It gives us a better perspective on humanity as a whole. It underlies the way we think about other people, about how we consider political decisions, and about how we relate to other people, which leads to a basis for ethical and moral behaviour.
I've found that people who travel and experience a diverse range of cultures generally have broad and sympathetic outlooks. They don't suffer as many prejudices (conscious or unconscious) about people who live differently from them. They tend to see not "other people", but just "people".
But if your opportunities for travel are limited, the next best thing is to read widely and to find out more about other cultures anyway. Ask questions on your social media, prompting people from other countries to tell you how things work where they live.
 My answers:
- Almost never. About the only time I have breakfast out is when I get up before dawn to shoot sunrise photos, then pop into a cafe afterwards. (Which is a handful of times a year.)
- To work I wear casual clothes. In summer, a polo shirt or T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. In winter, replace the shorts with some casual trousers or jeans and add a pullover or light jacket. Back when I went to school, I wore a school uniform.
- I usually walk if it's less than about half an hour's walk.
- Usually the supermarket, but moderately often at a specialist greengrocer.
- The same barber who has been cutting it for almost 20 years. He still uses a cut-throat razor to trim around the ears.
- There are a couple of major art museums in Sydney. I visit them once every year or two.
- See main text for my answer to this one.