Gabrielle Pastorek is a senior majoring in creative writing and French. She is traveling to Avignon, France during Spring Quarter to study French and culture.
I could absolutely write a post (read: a novel) on how I immediately recognized that the French do, indeed, enjoy their wine, take their time during meals, and manage to live a relatively slow-paced life. These are things that, while they may be a tad stereotypical, most Americans could appreciate as cultural differences that may not be so hard to get used to.
But I’d like to move away from the wine and cheese for a moment and talk about proximity.
Proximity between buildings, proximity between people and cars, proximity, of course, between people. These are all spacial phenomena that took me only a few days to notice, especially the latter—proximity among people.
Because America is so large and culturally diverse itself, proximity problems may not be uncomfortable for every American traveling to or through France. But as an American who very much values her (sometimes excessive) personal space, I have certainly noticed that it seems to be lacking here.
Before I continue, let me first just say that this is by no means a jab at the French or their culture. I am quickly learning that there are no bad or good, negative or positive variants between cultures—there are simply differences. And proximity is one of them.
I have, perhaps unsophisticatedly, used the term “proximity” quite a few times already to describe a nuanced aspect of French culture without laying out exactly what I mean. But to avoid the risk of letting my literary essayist side show, let me step right into some examples:
1) To faire les bises or not? Faire les bises (to give kisses) refers to the typical French greeting that requires two people to basically touch cheeks with each other and make a kissing noise, potentially up to five times. Luckily for me, the people in Avignon only give three kisses, although in the center of Paris it’s only two.
Perhaps this comes down to a mixture of personality and how one was raised, but I have found myself in more than one slightly awkward situation when my involuntary reaction to a stranger’s face approaching mine was to immediately retract. Admittedly, this may be a bit dramatic, but it took traveling across the Atlantic for me to realize how much I instinctually value my personal space, especially surrounding my face. So for future travelers who may share this trait, a tip is to mentally prepare yourself for greetings whenever, especially if you know you are about to meet someone new. By simply acknowledging that (what feels like) an invasion of your personal space is about to happen, you can control (surprisingly strongly) any involuntary reflexes that may come off as rude.
2) Talk about talking. After my first dinner with my host family, the three of us—my host mom, host sister, and myself—were standing around the kitchen table, cleaning up and chatting. Even though the rooms are relatively small here, there was certainly plenty of room for all three of us to stand comfortably apart. But as the conversation progressed, the distance between us quickly diminished. I have since discovered that this is the norm—at least in Avignon. When a group of people is engaged in conversation, eating, or just watching TV, it is rare that anyone will be an arm’s length apart. While it definitely promotes a friendly, accepting atmosphere, it may take a few days to get accustomed to this, especially for those of you who would prefer to shout across the room than to lean in closer.
3) Take it to the streets. Finally, there are also some unspoken rules when walking through the streets of Avignon that pertain to shared space. First, because Avignon was once a medieval town, the streets are far too narrow to fit two lanes of traffic and a sidewalk on each side. In fact, most streets don’t have a sidewalk large enough for any adult human, and there is usually only enough space for one car to pass through at a time. Thus, motorists, pedestrians, and their abundant dogs share the roads.
This creates two problems: Firstly, motorists don’t care much for pedestrians, to put it nicely, so there is always a chance that you will look over your shoulder and a moving car will be inches away. The second, and perhaps more unnerving situation, concerns the sidewalk etiquette (or seemingly lack thereof) between pedestrians. Unlike in America, there is no unspoken rule that everyone walks on his or her right side. Thus, especially for unknowing Americans, this can potentially lead to a lot of run-ins, literally, with other pedestrians trying to share the same narrow space. Because this seems to be commonplace here, the French seem used to it and carry on as if no one collided. Or even better yet, the French can much more easily avoid these collisions, whereas I find myself doing that awkward dance when you can’t quite decide which side you should choose. So heads up, you will inevitably come into physical contact with at least one other pedestrian per day, but thankfully he or she will most likely just shake it off.
As I’ve prefaced, my slight personal discomfort when it comes to how the French interact with each other is by no means an indication of a fault—neither on my part nor theirs. Living in France—or any other country, for that matter—as a non-native requires patience, tolerance, and above all, the ability to accept differences and step outside of your comfort zone. Who knows, maybe when I step off the plane, back onto U.S. soil, I’ll greet my friends and family with three kisses on the cheek. Or maybe I won’t and I’ll more cognitively appreciate the personal space allotted to me in the States. Either way, I know I will return with a new attitude and way of seeing the world—both as a native in America and a non-native in France.