Sometimes it’s not always as easy to have a conversation with someone as we might think. Whether it’s because of the content of the conversation causes opposing viewpoints, there is awkward subject matter or for the pure linguistic barriers, the last happening more often than not since my travels to Europe a month ago. Almost everyday I face a conversation where I’m unable to reciprocate properly whether it’s at school, on the bus or just walking around town. While I’m adapting to these challenges and improving my language skills, there are also times that it’s important I take the time to adapt to the cultural content conversations that aren’t always easiest to have. However, it’s often true that the more rewarding conversations are the harder ones to have.
For this reason, I sat down with one of two women in charge of my program, Siljvia, who is there to help us with a wide array of topics. Siljvia and Kristin are my two program directors who are there to help me and all other CEA students through our journey’s in these four months from ensuring we have a communitas by hosting group events/trips, to making sure I’m going through the Rites of Passage (unknowingly of course). Among the first few days in orientation we spoke about our peak and making sure that we don’t plateau and get stuck in what we QU301 students refer to as the liminailty stage. Before departure home, the two will also host a session ensuring we know how to adjust back into our native culture—the reincorporation Phase. Kristin, originally from Germany and Siljvia a Croatian native, both have many experiences of different cultures and viewpoints. This held true throughout our conversation evaluating the French culture, American culture and even some Croatian culture in topics ranging from work to personal life. This was even more than I had originally gone look for—automatically a successful conversation. We spoke about the French culture being less likely to believe in the concept of personal space, especially in terms of greeting. It was interesting to get her perspective because she isn’t a native of the country either, meaning she went through these rites of passage at a certain point as well, having to adjust to new changes such as a double-kissing on the cheek instead of a wave or hug. Also how many French Rivieria natives are more concerned with enjoying life and taking a stroll along the Cap (coastline), than rushing to work. This concept applies to social settings as well, she explained to me that it is customary to expect the French to be late, in professional and social settings. Already in those two facts, I could tell the differences from the Northeastern culture I’m used to in the States to the laid back relaxed persona that many here embody.
However, while comparing the cultural contrasts, the list was shorter than I anticipated. The list of acts considered impolite in the France are similar to what we expect back in the US—for example spitting on the street, cursing in public places, wearing only a bathing suit into a high-class restaurant and so forth. The one change that was largest and most shocking to me is the religious restriction specifically on the Muslim heritage. Women are able to wear their hijabs however are forbidden from wearing niqab in public schools and are rarely seen throughout the town. I can only speak for myself when I say I hadn’t noticed this until Siljvia pointed it out, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. Since America is so unique and vast in terms of it’s religious beliefs and who practices which religious, I don’t often consider the idea of suppressing religious beliefs for the community. However, I typically do see a wider range of people on the street. Whereas here, it’s easier to notice that everyone dresses (in all black), walks (leisurely) and talk similarly. As we get further into the 21st century I think it’s calls greater attention to this issue though. My five-year-old brother is currently in Elementary school and I know that if they get Christian holiday’s off, the school is also being required to provide Jewish and other religious holidays off in efforts for equality. For that reason, this religious part of our conversation struck me.
After having time to reflect, I considered my communitas at home and all the different people who comprise it. Even though I went to catholic high school I have found myself friends with Jews, Atheists, Buddhists and various other religions throughout the years. But the difference was we rarely discuss our religious views with one another and what we see is fair or not. Specifically, I thought back to a class in QU201 this past fall semester where we talked about whether our society has become too sensitive or insensitive to religious issues. Drawing this thought back to my original conversation with Siljvia, I wondered if my new home is too sensitive or insensitive to similar religious issues as well.
Out of my conversation, I intended to gain new insight on all the differences between my host and home culture but I couldn’t help but think of all the general similarities between the two. Even further than that, while all societies are different in their own dynamics and natures, there are general similarities no matter where we go. In a strange way this gave me some piece of mind to know that no matter how far I am from home I know that I can always find similarities. Contrarily, it also means I am given the opportunity to push myself to grow by going out of my way to learn new things, such as having a difficult conversation on the topic of religious beliefs. This applies to my time here in Europe, but also once I return home. Often it’s been heard that travel, studying abroad in particular, can change a person’s perceptions. I agree with this statement, but I think it’s subtle changes such as noticing a parallel to my home culture that evokes a greater appreciation for different perspectives which affects both our cognitive and behavioral side. Another benefit to developing a lens for the differences is their value. In terms of learning experience, I find I always retain relevant information better when I notice a change rather than am told it. Slimbach perfectly sums up my views in the quote, “Today we can all be grateful for the opportunity to travel more widely than ever before. But our real frontier lies elsewhere, in traveling more wisely—transforming fragments of information into real knowledge that can then be applied to forming cross-cultural friendships, cultivating understanding, and addressing the most pressing problems that confront humankind” (150 Slimbach).