Lessons From A Senior Citizen Semester Abroad

We’ve been home three weeks and I am still faced with culture shock every day. What did I experience that accounts for the feeling of disorientation I have here? Here are a few things that I think result in the feeling of being a stanger in a strange land here in our own home.

1. Cooperation versus competition. In Ireland, Great Britain, and France we experienced cultures based largely on cooperation. Despite the spread of capitalism and its competitive nature, Europe’s old world culture survives among the people. Streets are narrow, stores are small and crowded, sidewalks are often non-existent, lines are long, and money is scarce for most Europeans, but they continue to cooperate to allow traffic to flow smoothly, get everyone served in the stores, let pedestrians walk in the street when necessary, and wait patiently in lines. Despite low wages and a general lack of funds, they find inventive and inexpensive ways to have fun. Such a way of living requires cooperation. Cooperation arises from a sense of community. We rented houses or apartments and “moved in” to the community. What we discovered were vibrant communities of people who entertained, cared for, and supported each other on a daily basis. In Ireland one of our friends found out we liked spuds and the next day we had 15 pounds of freshly dug potatoes on our door step when we got home. In France we were readily invited to join in community activities. Personal human interaction was the most common entertainment. The sense of community also extends into how people behave toward one another. The older person is almost always offered the seat. People greet each other with eye contact, a smile, and kind words even if it’s a casual encounter or a customer and shopkeeper. U.S. style individuality makes most of these behaviors quite rare. Everyone is intent on their own business. People generally don’t take the time to consider what others are doing or what would be best for the community. When was the last time you were backing out of a parking stall and someone waited for you to go before driving by to pull into a neighboring stall? How often are you offered a seat by a younger person? Roundabouts work on European roads because people cooperate. These are small signs of a sense of community. People recognizing and caring for others.

2. Natural sounds or silence versus constance noise. We got used to no TV, no radio, no iPod, etc. Except in Paris and London most often we heard birds chirping, neighbors conversing, streams babbling, roosters crowing, and church bells chiming. Even in the cities the background sounds of traffic, church bells, and children playing didn’t seem shrill. We saw few poeple with iPods plugged into their ears. Televisions were seldom on in homes we visited. In pubs and cafes TV was used for groups of people to gather to watch sports or other events of common interest. People talk softly in Europe, even in the cities. The Europeans we heard were rugby and soccer fans in Paris and London celebrating a good match. Everywhere I go here at home it seems very loud. People speak much louder than necessary to be heard by their audience. Our TV digital converter no longer works and at least for the present we have decided not to replace it. Life without television – try it! I recharged my unused iPod and turned it on once. The music that once seemed pleasant felt intrusive. Perhaps its best use is to drown out the loudness all around us. Is that why we have resorted to being “plugged in?”

3. Food. The French value fresh food. Markets (meaning outdoor vendors) abound for a good reason. The French demand it. Yes, Europe is smaller than North America so food can be shipped faster to local fresh markets. However, frozen food stores and prepared items have established themselves in grocery stores. The cultural conflict over fresh food is just beginning in Europe. It seems to have been lost in the U.S. Even the “fresh” food at the local co-op or Whole Foods (they are in London now) are usually days or weeks old, having been shipped thousands of miles. Fresh has a completely different meaning to us than it does the French. We could taste the difference.

So I am suffering from severe culture shock. Driving no longer terrifies me as it did the first few days, but I cannot get comfortable on roads filled with individuals intent only on their own need to get somewhere as fast as possible. Crowds in stores make me edgy because everyone seems to be pushy and determined to get ahead of everyone else. Our home is a relatively quiet oasis. I need to develop some armor for those times I must venture out into the loud land of competition and individuality.

I also need more personal human interaction – visits with friends or coffee in a quiet cafe where you are not pushed to “turn over the table” for the next customer. (Yes there are a few of those places in Seattle.) Let me know when you’re available for a cuppa at the local cafe or to get together for lunch or dinner. If you live too far from Seattle for getting together, drop me an e-mail or connect on Facebook. I would love to see and hear you.


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About Paul

I'm retired, but working at painting, photography, and song writing. We like to travel and paint plein air in new places. Of course that's also where photography comes into the picture, so to speak. Sometimes I get inspired to write songs about the people and places we visit.
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6 Responses to Lessons From A Senior Citizen Semester Abroad

  1. Robin says:

    Yes the culture here is dehumanizing in so many ways. So, what can be done, I always say put on your best smile and great the world the way you would like to be greeted-kindness and treating one another like humans will never go out of fashion but each has to do their part. A smile and an open heart can go a long way. I look forward to seeing you soon!

  2. Patrick says:

    Thanks for the great insight into cultures that are slowly evaporating from our consciousness. Ours is a French lineage and when I was there I felt home. Living in rural America often helps me to get back to those root sensibilities. Going for a hike where no one has set foot for ever is an amazing sensation. It can be done here but you have to work harder at it. Communication by face to face is wonderful but I think our ability to connect the cultural dendrites using technology is also a marvelous invention and I am glad to see you are using those tools to help us evolve. Food….. growing your own, if nothing else……. herbs can take you to the taste of home. El

    • Paul says:

      Yes, I sometimes fondly remember life in the country before I moved to the big city of Seattle. There definitely is something to be said for nature as a balm to the soul.

  3. Elli Dumont says:

    Paul… what you say is quite true. There is much about the quality of life here in France that I really like. I just hope that people value it enough not to change. That’s not to say that the US does not offer much to admire, too. I also am spoiled by the slower pace, the friendliness of people… even in a busy big city like Paris. I know that people are pissed off about lots of things… mainly about losing some of the wonderful social benefits they have long enjoyed. Unfortunately, they just have to suck it up. The economy is a wreck, Europe may just dissolve, and that is frightening. But people are still, on the whole, smiling and polite, expecting to find fresh fruit that tastes like fruit, enjoying fresh bread warm from the baker’s oven, taking the time to chat in front of a leisurely cup of coffee or a beer, watching civil TV debates between presidential candidates and discussing real issues instead of always dwelling on personalities. I have had many great conversations about society and politics with taxi drivers. It is refreshing. JP is in the States for a month. I wonder what kind of culture shock he is having.

    • Paul says:

      I think the key to my impressions are summarized in your comment: smiling polite people, fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh bread from the neighborhood baker, time to chat, civil discourse, and discussion of real issues.

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