Community//

Culture Shock: France in the 90’s

Making friends from Germany, France, England, Ireland, Norway and the former Czechoslovakia, and how that helped to promote cultural awareness

It has certainly been a couple of weeks of unrest.

White privilege is getting a lot of attention, particularly by those who recognize it and are working to help others realize it is there.

And then there is the horrible death many have watched, and the unrest about police brutality particularly as it relates to race. Put that together with the agitation that people were already feeling with the pandemic, and times are rough for a lot of people.

When I think about when I first really learned about culture, and recognized not only white privilege but also the privilege I had from living in the US, was when my sister and I went to France in 1990.

We went to promote world peace. The Iron Curtain had just come down, and we met friends from the former Czechoslovakia, East Germany, West Germany, France, Ireland, England, Norway, and probably some others I am forgetting.

We learned to communicate, even when our languages were different and it was a struggle.

I think my first culture shock of that trip came on the plane ride to France from NYC. We had ridden a couple of connecting flights to get there (my first two plane rides of my then 19 years), where the flight attendants had been quite attentive in getting us drinks, food, etc (plane rides were a little different back then).

By the time we got onto our flight to Paris, after a 5 hour wait in NYC with suitcases that did not roll, we were tired, hungry and thirsty.

We were on Air France, which meant that the flight attendants were French, and the culture was different than in our previous flights.

We learned, on that flight, that pressing the button and requesting a drink did not necessarily result in one being served to us within an hour. As I think about it, the flight to Paris was more like a flight would be today, with overwhelmed, sometimes cranky flight attendants.

Once we landed in Paris, we needed to find tickets to the train to get to our youth hostel.

We learned to scramble for French words, or at least use a French accent when communicating about things we needed. We realized, fairly quickly, that our American culture was different than the French culture, and we were in France.

We spent about 3 days in Paris, learning the train system, visiting the Louvre and St. Michael’s Cathedral, walking along the Seine, and eating outside at Bistros. After some touring and sight-seeing, we headed to our site, which was near Lyon, within walking distance to Switzerland.

My sister and I were the two Americans, and we quickly made friends with the other 18-21 year old who were there with us.

We learned that everyone else there had learned English as a child, and that they were as equally fascinated about the American culture of waiting until high school to learn a foreign language as we were with their ability to speak English. Languages are most easily learned before the age of 12.

We worked to teach each other our cultural differences, as well as acknowledging our individual ones.

By the end of the two weeks we spent at the site working to clear a 5k trail, learning to get to know each other, and playing lots of card games, we had established some great friendships.

What that taught me, at the age of 19 nearly 20, was that my culture was not the only culture that there is.

We learned that speaking English, our home language, was certainly not the only language.

Our friends, who each had their own language as their home language, whether that was UK English, American English, Irish English, German, Czech, French, Dutch, or something else, learned we had lots in common.

I credit my experiences in Mexico the year before as an 18 year old, and then France as a 19 year old, both trips sponsored by my church, in helping me to recognize cultural differences and cultural values.

I have tried to raise my children with an awareness that we all have our own family cultures and values, and that their white privilege has given them opportunities that have been difficult to put into words.

As we all work to value each other, and recognize that there are those of us who started with a ‘leg up’, and those of us who did not, I hope we can work together to help some of the inequalities and inequities improve.

What can you do?

#weeklyprompt

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