Looking into the Mirror
Seven weeks, 51 days, many, many cities, towns and villages, more than 4,700 kilometers traveled! What an experience! It is said that the value of travel is that you learn more about yourself when you are out of your own country than when you are in it. The first experience that I had with that phenomena was when I lived in Japan for a year when I was a graduate student. When you are away from your own culture, you become more aware of the customs, attitudes, and language that form and shape you. Granted seven weeks is really too short a time to expect to experience this but it does provide enough time for you to reflect on your own customs and culture.
What you notice more at the beginning are the obvious things that shock you. Things that are very different from your own customs. As time goes on, you begin to notice more subtle differences. And eventually, if you allow yourself to become aware, you begin to understand more complex differences such as in politics, attitudes and the various meanings in language. I suppose that the reason one becomes aware of one’s self is because of the natural tendency to make comparisons between your culture and the other.
Here are some examples. In the U.S. we tend to be rather direct and blunt with each other. We have less of a tendency to say “hello”, “excuse me”, “thank you”, and “good bye”. Public displays of crudeness, vulgarity and selfishness seem to be more freely expressed. Here, while the aforementioned can occur, it stands out because of its rarity. There is a concerted effort to adhere to polite, civil behavior. It is part of the national psyche. The benefit is obvious and this behavior is demonstrated everywhere. From everyday contact on a person to person basis, or while driving in a large crowded city like Paris or on the very narrow roads in rural villages to being in very compressed rush hour commutes on the metros. On the contrary, we tend to be short on patience, easily upset, and quick to react to any situation that disrupts our course or routine. While Americans have a reputation as easy going and quick to make friends, the French are reserved, formal and much more likely to take a long time to befriend others. In an earlier blog, I mentioned that most French homes faced inwardly so that the front of the home facing the street seemed to be the back. And that the nicest part, the courtyard, was never exposed to the street. This attitude goes back centuries when it was necessary to close yourself off from the street and lock yourself within the walls of your abode to protect yourself from any threat, real or perceived.
Historically, France was a land of many different cultures and languages. It wasn’t until a long series of battles for power and territory by various individuals or groups that the country was finally unified. Unlike Italy, France doesn’t have major cities or monuments throughout the country. Presently nearly 20% of the population lives in or around Paris which, apart from Moscow in Russia, is the largest city in Europe. The rest of the country is made up of smaller cities, towns, and villages. In order for everyone else to distinguish themselves from Paris, many regions throughout France produce regional specialties, mostly in gastronomy. This has created an incredible variety of products of the highest quality. Take cheese for example. Charles de Gaulle has been credited as saying “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” Today by the way, that number is over 400 different types. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many wineries there are throughout the country. The one thing I can say for sure is that the French (as well as the government) are concerned about quality. There are rules, regulations, and laws that govern and assure the quality of countless French products. While we (Americans) might feel that the government is excessively intruding in our private affairs, the French welcome their government’s direct involvement and see it as its role in preserving all that is French.
Cheryl and I have begun to learn to accept things that we would otherwise dismiss as being too intrusive, dumb or “backward”. It is always easier to frown and react negatively to something than it is to make the effort to smile and try to understand that that is different from you. This doesn’t mean that one has to accept EVERYTHING unconditionally of another culture’s customs. Here is an example, a rather intimate one. It seems that the French (and I have to say other European countries as well) have attitudes about “personal habits” that are completely contrary to ours. In the U.S., in many states, it is a crime for men (or woman for that matter) to relieve themselves in public. Yes, you heard me right. In 1990, I had the opportunity to come to Europe and travel throughout Italy, France, and Spain. While in France, I came across many places mostly in towns and villages outside of Paris where men could relieve themselves in public urinals that were essentially small curved walls on public streets. While I didn’t notice those types of publicly exposed urinals this time around, I constantly saw men, of all types and ages relieving themselves in public against any available wall that seemed slightly obscured from the public. Maybe I am even being too generous with the slightly obscured part. While in Biarritz, a very chic resort town on the south west coast of the French Basque country, to my dismay I witnessed a man in his thirties pushing an infant in a stroller, stop not more than twenty feet from a fancy store front where there were half a dozen ladies outside having a lively conversation, walk over to a barely obscured wall on the building next door, and relive himself! What did the ladies do, how did they react? Surely they could plainly see him if I could, and I was more than twice as far away and across the street! No reaction, none, nothing, nada. Life went on as usual. It reminded me of a college course I had in cultural anthropology many, many years ago where our professor set up the following situation and asked the following question. “In a remote African village located on a flat desert plain with no trees, brush, or rocks to hide behind, a man needed to relive himself. What did the villagers do?” Well, to our young unsophisticated minds that was quite a puzzle. Let’s see, the villagers brought out animal hides and surrounded the man to shield him from the rest of the people. Or, the man was required to walk so far away form the village that he couldn’t be seen. How about, all the villagers left the village and came back when he was done? No, the answer was elegantly simple. They simply averted their eyes. We came across this very example when we stopped in at a beautiful riverside village on our canoeing trip down the Dordogne river to use the facilities. The “facilities” consisted of a small building that had its double doors wide open. To the left were two separate doors where the toilets were. On the right with nothing to obscure it from public view was a wall where the men could relieve themselves. The ladies that needed to use the toilets, lined up facing forward not more than ten feet from where the men were relieving themselves. What does this attitude say about our own morals and customs? That, I will leave up to you.
On a more positive note, I have to mention how wonderful it is to have everyone greet you, no matter how brief the contact is. Yes, people are people everywhere. And they can have problems or issues that they are dealing with. And yes, occasionally you might come across someone that is not having a good day. But generally and far more often than not, courtesy and civility reign. It is something that we in the U.S. (much more so on the west coast it seems) could benefit positively from if we only practiced it more
Today Cheryl asked me the following question: “Out of everything, everything we have experienced these past seven weeks, what is your most favorite thing about France?”
It took me a while to answer that. What I really truly enjoyed most about our experience here I have to say, is the country. By that I really mean the “country”. What struck me time and time again as we traveled from region to region, was how beautiful this country is. Every time I thought I had seen the most beautiful part of the country, the next place was just as beautiful but in its own unique way. I can understand now why the French are so proud of their country and why they make every effort to preserve it. Even though change is inevitable in this modern age, France is slow to adapt to change, especially when it comes to culture. And preserving and conserving the countryside IS part of the culture. I think the various regions in France will probably stay unchanged for some time to come.
Thinking back on my own country, it makes me appreciate how vast and diverse it is with so many beautiful and magnificent places, along with the incredible diversity of people and cultures that defines us.
Tomorrow we leave for home. I have often thought what it would be like to live outside my native country. I did it for a year after all. But the more I look away to other countries, the more I look back at my own. And so, standing in front of the cultural mirror of self reflection, I have to say…..no, not now. I realize what I have back home. Family, friends and a rich culture that while not perfect (and whose is), can never be replaced.
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