Making some Personal Space

By alison - June 6, 2007 (Updated: November 28, 2014)

Ever since I returned from a visit home to Canada last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about space. Not outer space, but personal space, both physical and emotional.

Flying home to Halifax is never a direct flight. Often Andrew and I find ourselves first flying west to fly east, and vice versa. Our last flight took us from Brussels to Germany, then to Quebec and finally back to Halifax.

Flying over Belgium, and much of Western Europe for that matter, you rarely loose sight of civilization. There are always cities, towns, highways, people, people and more people. Even the land that is devoid of people is still cultivated agricultural land.

I noticed a huge difference as we flew over Nova Scotia, towards Quebec and back again. There was civilization, but there were also vast tracts of emptiness. Well, not empty of course, they were full of trees, lakes, rocks and most likely wildlife. But there were no signs of humanity.

Andrew and I always find it strange now to drive at home. Our first drive at home in our rental car is always from the airport, located well outside of the city, into downtown. This is a major highway and is often congested – by Halifax standards. But as we take that first drive, we are always struck by the emptiness of the roads. Where is the stop and start, bumper to bumper traffic of the Brussels ring? (And why, with all this empty space are we only allowed to drive 110 km per hour?)

Downtown Halifax is, of course, more bustling. There are more cars, more traffic, and more people walking down the sidewalk. But there is always a sense that you can find a quite corner – your own private space. This is something I’ve always had difficulty finding in Brussels.

A friend and I were chatting last week about the ‘forests’ around Brussels. Coming from an Eastern European country, she also finds the population of Belgium difficult to bear at times. As we talked, I remarked that I always find the signs of civilization in the Belgian wooded areas depressing – the dull hum of the highway, signs at every cross trail pointing the way, and always, other walkers. My friend marvelled at the many people she encountered who carried maps in the forest, when it would be next to impossible to truly lose your way.

In Canada you can walk for days without setting sight on another soul (not a good thing of course, if you happen to be lost). Our city parks are well used and always busy on a warm summer evening. But if you head outside the city, it doesn’t take long to find an undisturbed corner of forest to call your own.

Unfortunately because our empty spaces are so vast, we take our forests for granted, in Canada. Like everywhere, our cities are sprawling outward and our wild spaces are starting to become less so with each passing year. For now there is still room to breathe, but it may not always be so.

As a fairly solitary person, I grapple with the crowds of Brussels. I find it hard to maintain my own emotional space while struggling with a lack of personal space.

Living outside the city helps, but my yard is small and I can see the yards of four of my neighbours when I sit on my deck. I still find myself longing for open spaces, peace and tranquility of the kind I used to find sitting on an empty beach in Canada, listening only to the crashing waves.

Last weekend however I decided to create a little oasis for myself. I bought a small metal café table and two chairs. They look just like something from a painting of a French bistro. I nestled them in the corner of my deck and surrounded them with plants and flowers in beautiful pots.

Each sunny morning, I take my coffee and sit in my oasis and find my own emotional space. Yes, I can still hear the hum of the E40 in the background, but it mingles with the sound of the birds singing in my neighbour’s tree. If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine that I am miles from civilization and the highway hum is the ocean – at least until a car alarm goes off or a siren blares by. Those stolen moments of peace in the big city, may just be enough to restore my personal, emotional space

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Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Have you ever eaten at a Jamie Oliver restaurant? Many years ago, Andrew and I went to Fifteen in Amsterdam, but... - 8 hours ago


  1. Comment by pugwash pops

    pugwash pops June 7, 2007 at 05:30

    … some imagination … some abracadabra … some props … you got it … enjoy, have fun …
    pugwash pops

  2. Comment by pugwash pops

    pugwash pops June 7, 2007 at 05:34

    p.s. … by the way, I love your deck and your neighbourhood … it’s got a lot of everything …

  3. Comment by Hexe

    Hexe June 7, 2007 at 16:29

    Although I have only been a “lurker” to this point, I understand this need for space. I grew up in Maine, where like our neighbor to the North, there is plenty of forests and uninhabited space. Living now in central Florida, at time I feel closed in (although on a much smaller scale compared to Brussels). From my back yard, I can see six neighbors yards. I travel home to Maine so my children can have the experience of woods and farmland. Good for you for recognizing the need for your own space and creating your own oasis of semi-quiet.

  4. Comment by dsky

    dsky June 8, 2007 at 00:22

    Come on down to Wallonie, Bois de Nivelles. You’ll find what you’re missing…

  5. Comment by Alison

    Alison June 8, 2007 at 10:39

    PP – It certainly does have everything 🙂
    Hexe – HI! Thanks for leaving a comment. I always like it when somebody ‘de-lurks’ 🙂 I spent a lot of time in Maine as a kid (I grew up in New Brunswick) and I can see how that would be a big change from central FL. Unfortunately the suburbs seem to be growing everywhere and we’re blocking ourselves in more and more. I guess that’s why it’s so important to have a little space of your own somewhere. Good Luck!

  6. Comment by Alison

    Alison June 8, 2007 at 12:51

    Christina – We’re so Canadian 🙂

  7. Comment by christina

    christina June 8, 2007 at 12:47

    Well you KNOW I can relate to this. 🙂 One of the things that makes it difficult for me here is that there are people *everywhere* you go, there’s no real place to be alone. And it IS so important to create a little secluded oasis for yourself. We’re grateful every day to have our garden to retreat to. And I also sometimes close my eyes and pretend the traffic noise is the ocean. 🙂

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