By Sierra Dodd, Foster Undergraduate who is participating in an exchange with Audencia Nantes School of Management in Nantes, France.
On the first day of class at my host university, part of our introduction to our fellow classmates included listing all of the countries we had traveled to or lived in for extended periods of time. As the only American in the class, I had the fewest to list. This is somewhat expected, due to the large geographic size of the United States and the fact that, unlike in some parts of Western Europe, a 5 hour flight is unlikely to take you across 3 or more countries. As such, I hope to fully take advantage of my time here to visit neighboring countries while it is so accessible. At the same time, though, I want to take time to settle in my current home city of Nantes and not overwhelm myself (or my bank account) with a trip every weekend, as tempting as it may be. This being my first extended stay in a foreign place, it takes formidable effort to quell the inner monologue of a tourist away for spring break – “How many monuments, parks, and beaches can I cram into a single day of vacation before I collapse of exhaustion?” – and instead give myself permission to have lazy weekends at home sometimes.
After all, there’s something to be said about the kind of opportunities staying in your new hometown and acting like a local can provide. Just the other night I went out with classmates to a local bar for someone’s birthday and ended up having a half hour long discussion about the intricacies of the traditional French greeting – the famed kisses on the cheek. As bizarre as it was when I first arrived, it’s really growing on me! My classmates explained that to them, a kiss on the cheek felt much less personally intrusive. When you kiss someone on the cheek only a small part of you is in contact with the other person, not your entire body as it is in a hug (the good ones, at least). Also good to learn was that if you give just ONE kiss on the cheek to someone when you get up to leave it implies that you have a relationship beyond a simple friendship. Glad I haven’t accidentally done that yet.
The benefits of traveling of course can’t be understated. By visiting multiple countries I was able to pick out unifying trends across Europe that in some cases contrasted sharply with the American way of doing things. The most common and substantial of these differences have already been discussed by people much more eloquent than myself. Instead, I’ll highlight some of the less significant differences – the ones I didn’t read about on all the blogs before coming here. For example, my ability to enjoy the magnificence of the ancient castles in Portugal was delayed due to my utter incomprehension of the meager height of the support rails, if they existed at all! Surely we would plummet to our deaths on the courtyard stones far below in the absence of such safety features? Alas, not a single person took a tumble over the side that day, nor do I imagine they frequently do. We all survived intact. Yet I had never seen anything like this, nor realized how apparently passionately I felt about over-the-top safety features to protect the unwitting consumer from the dangers of themselves. This continues to stand out to me in my travels across Europe, as I trip on every staircase not forewarned with signs and neon tape, and it never ceases to bring out my inner paranoid self. In Sintra, Portugal, I wandered through a terrifyingly dark underground tunnel and somehow managed to not smack my head on any of the unmarked protruding rocks. Such a win! What self-confidence I have built in myself and my ability to not accidentally injure myself, in the absence of a system where you can sue someone for any personal injury you might incur on his or her property! (It is worth noting that I have close to zero knowledge when it comes to the differences between legal systems here, nor do I wish to make light of any situation where someone has befallen serious personal injury due to dangerous conditions. I just found it surprising how dependent I have become on the system we have in the US.)
Other trivial yet surprising differences – grapes have seeds! Olives have pits! Windows don’t have screens! I’m honestly surprised that the pigeons haven’t invaded my room yet and that there aren’t armies of bugs living under my bed. Either Europe has a tamer version of nature than we do in the States or I have seriously overstated the necessity of screens my whole life…not sure which.
Aside from a few more notable cultural differences, like the French opinion that waiting in very slow moving lines for everything is completely reasonable, people are people and the things you have in common will always far outnumber the differences. I have immensely enjoyed my time in Europe so far and look forward to discovering more hilarious discrepancies between our two cultures.