This past week, my fellow francophiles and I here in Paris attended the contemporary dance performance Volver at the handsome Palais de Chaillot-Trocadéro performance hall, centered on the interaction between an individual and place, specifically regarding immigration and the difficulty in uniting identity with place. While some expressions and verb tenses were certainly lost in translation, a general message came through: adjusting to a new way of life can be difficult.
Après un spectacle de musique et de danse au Palais de Chaillot, Trocadéro
My abroad experience has been my first exposure to learning how to live as part of another culture, not merely to visit. While my Sewanee soul would love to wish everyone a lovely morning in passing, doing so in France is generally a social faux pas. Subtleties like saying hello, asking for the bill, and when to cross the street are all relatively superficial, yet require some thought and gradual acclimatization all the same.
After attending Volver, I found myself comparing my own cultural assimilation experience with that of others coming from extremely varied backgrounds. For those coming to a foreign country with little or no knowledge of cultural differences, I can only imagine how intimidating everyday interactions must be. When one adds a racial or religious component to this change, it really makes my abroad adjustments seem mild at most.
As an American, I find myself consuming, sharing, and participating in much of the same pop culture as Europeans. While I am a foreigner here, France is not totally foreign. France has a knowledge of America, American life, and American culture that has consistently surprised me throughout my stay. I have found that our political affairs, music, films, literature, language, etc. seem to hold a significant influence on French culture. The posters decorating métro stations bare many American actors’ faces, the music being played in cafés is so often American pop, and the similarities continue. As my language barrier lessens, I become more aware of the similarities between the two cultures and the impact of living in a time of globalization and instant communication.
As I exited the métro and made my way home following the Volver performance, I passed the same group of displaced foreigners that I pass every time I leave my metro stop, and for the first time I considered the utter unfamiliarity that these individuals face on a daily basis. While I don’t wish to get into the politics of immigration in France, I certainly felt a sense of empathy for these men, women, and children that I had not considered before. While I experience hints of homesickness, I know that I will return home and anything I find myself longing for will be waiting for me in January. For these families living on the streets, they likely don’t have that promise of a return to normalcy. They aren’t living in a country that is necessarily interested in their homeland. The posters in the métro do not show familiar faces. The lyrics to pop songs are not those to which they can sing along.
A dose of perspective came with the performance of last week, and while I am physically far from home, I have a cultural safety net simply because I am American, and that is something to find comfort in.