Thursday, October 9, 2014

Joining the French Culture and Appreciating Underlying Values

I love to travel. Growing up in a family who valued exposure to other cultures and ways-of-life, any chance to travel in or out of the country fills me to the brim with excitement. Whether it be Belize or Greece, Costa Rica or France, the chance to get out of my backyard and explore the incredible community that is our world fuels my fire. I value the chance to observe our differences by way of exchanges, day to day habits, methods of connection, religious convictions, the list goes on and on.  But more than that, I value the opportunity to observe and participate in the most basic commonalities that unite us as a human race. 

During my time in Greece I had the chance to experience both the differences and similarities between my culture and that of an older Greek woman. At the end of our first week in Naxos my father noticed this beautiful chapel next to a small hotel and home.  Since my dad is a priest and the week we were visiting the Island was the week of Pentecost, my father thought it would be special to see if the family who owned the chapel would be willing to let us use their worship space for a small service to celebrate the feast day. With these intentions, he approached the family and they said yes. So Saturday (the day before Pentecost) we went to their home expecting them to show us the chapel, perhaps participate in our service, and continue with their day.  But no. The family invited us into their home, provided us with ice cream, water and some delicious cookies and proceeded to share about themselves and invite us to do the same. Since only the nephew spoke English, at first meeting and sharing with everyone was a challenge. But soon the matriarch of the family, Madame Helen, revealed to me that she spoke French. Well, VOILA! I could speak French as well! Together, we chatted and shared a bit about ourselves and the lives we led. Initially, I was simply fascinated by our exchange of pleasantries and the level of hospitality this Greek woman, Madame Helen, and her family showed us.  But as the afternoon turned to evening and our conversations progressed, I began to observe more than just the differences between our lives and the values we held.  As we finished the Eucharist by the chapel and headed back for a few more cookies (desert before dinner is always a winner!)  not only did the true parallels between our Pentecost celebration and that of the biblical times become overwhelmingly evident, but also the cross cultural connections we all shared and celebrated as the evening wore on.  Here we were celebrating Eucharist and our faith in multiple languages. Though from different cultures and backgrounds, through Greek, English and French, we understood each other and shared our love of Christ together. After the service, I spoke with the matriarch, Madame Helen. She reminded me, and asked me to share with the family, to always appreciate the blessings God gives us in this life. No matter how difficult or sad things may become, she said, each moment is a blessing from God. Yes, it was very evident from our interactions that there were different social norms and values we each held. But transcending those were our similarities, our common threads: our shared religion, our love for life and our appreciation for the gifts we receive daily.
So fast-forward to France.  After all of the special trips to Belize, Costa Rica, Greece and Italy I am so fortunate to get the chance to live in France for an entire semester! My goal: to not only observe, but integrate myself into the culture.  I am here to appreciate both the differences and commonalities we share and to build on my knowledge of the French culture and way of life so that I may be able to better understand, appreciate and relate to "la communauté française." Starting off with this goal in mind was a little bit overwhelming. I was excited to be here, but nervous that the french might misunderstand my gestures and perceive me as rude or offensive. Coming from South Carolina, it took some time to adjust to not smiling at everyone who is walking in a five mile radius. I quickly learned that smiling at everyone you meet meant that you were "easy" or perhaps, a little absent in the head, if you catch my drift.  Through the curriculum of my program I began, and am continuing, to learn about the social norms in France.  These include the basics on how not to offend others, but also the deeper roots to behaviors and values of the French culture which originate in their long and complex history as a country.  Beyond studying, I have been connected to a school for French students of immigrant families and given the chance to tutor the children. Through this activity not only do I get to improve my French abilities and play fun games to expose them to English, but I get the chance to observe and participate in the French ways of interacting with children and learn more about the roles society plays in the development of the French child. My school has also introduced me to some very driven and kind French young women with whom I've had the chance to foster a relationship and learn a bit more about my generation of the French community.  Better yet, I have some new knowledgeable friends to hang out with on Fridays or when schoolwork gets me down! 
But today I took time to participate in another facet of the French lifestyle, Yoga (more generally, exercise).  Looking to understand more fully the differences between French and American social settings I joined this class.  I expected to really find the things which make American exercise/yoga different from that of the French, but I was surprised when what significantly stuck out to me were not the differences between us, but our similarities. 
At the end of the course today our instructor asked each person present to share what they experienced from the day and how today's exercises would impact them as they went back into their normal, everyday lives.  As she went around the room a theme began to appear: most of us were there for peace, to find ourselves again after a long day, to take time to gain balance in ourselves once more. After everyone had shared, our instructor bade us farewell saying Namaste and bowing, inviting us to do the same. When she finished, she explained the purpose of her farewell, "the heart in me recognizes the heart in you" (a French translation). With her words, I was struck, once more, by our similarities more so than our differences.  Side by side, each person in our class had shared in an activity for personal peace and balance. We did this not in the form of a French custom or an American one, but derived our activity from an aspect of a Hindu tradition (though adapted and changed a bit). Together, we shared our passion for our personal betterment and health through an activity of yet another culture, thereby celebrating our world culture and the underlying values which unite us. In ending the course with a Namaste, we all acknowledged and appreciated our common goal and demonstrated our respect for those around us, independent of cultural backgrounds. 
In my Namaste, I was reminded once more of my experience this summer with Madame Helen and the valuable words she had shared with me. Again, in the form of Yoga, I was able to experience the same commonality on a similar set of values: appreciation of our lives and the value each holds.  Taking time for ourselves to do an activity like yoga, and then honoring each other before returning to our lives, I again had been given the opportunity to share with others in a common thread of our humanity. During my time in France I will continue to search out the differences between our cultures, observe them and join in, but I will begin to actively seek out our similarities as well. To draw upon our common goals as a human race and to integrate myself not only in the French culture, but also into my common humanity with the people of America, France and the rest of the world.