Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Give me a break

I'll be hanging out around here for the next month, so French posts will be on hiatus until I move to Lyon at the end of September. Till then, enjoy some Lake Tahoe pics, and if they make you feel so inclined, come visit me :)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Space and the Cultural Divide

Everything is relative. Even something which could seem as universal as the difference between the public and private spheres. There are some things that we all have been socialized to keep in the private sphere, knowing that not all things are meant to be shared in public.

This socialization however, entirely depends, like everything else, on the culture you in which are raised. Confrontation with the practices and mores of another culture can be anywhere from funny, to unsettling to shocking. France, naturally, has its own codes of conduct, and an especially strict line separating the public from the private sphere, a line that is much less permeable than in the US. As I mentioned in my entry on Rue des Rosiers, eating, for example, is absolutely considered part of the private sphere. We do not share our crumbs with our neighbors on the sidewalk. Besides that, as eating forms a very important and essential part of the French culture, it is an activity to enjoy, to spend hours over multiple courses and endless wine. Shoving a sandwich in your face as you run to catch the metro to work may be an acceptable sight in NYC, but in Paris, it elicites disapproving glances and sarcastic "bon appetits."

This line affects much more than eating habits. It is even in great part responsible for the fact that women didn't get the vote until 1944, and only recently began entering politics in large(r) numbers. Women were traditionally and strictly considered part of the private, domestic sphere, thus excluding them from politics, considered strictly part of the public sphere. The idea of women entering the sphere reserved for men--the public/political--was nothing short of revolutionary.

Their more reserved behavior--which can sometimes be mistaken for coldness--is also related to this public/private division. Just because they aren't yelling to each other across the metro car or smiling at every passerby doesn't mean that "the French" are any more unfriendly than anyone else, and I personally have had many more positive experiences with les Francais than negative. As the authors of 60 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong observed: "Oddly, Anglo-Americans can see that the Japanese, Chinese, and the Indians are different, and that these fundamental differences shape the way things are done in those societies. Why can't we do this with the French?" A little cultural relativity never hurt anyone.

After being immersed in all things French for the past year and spending two months straight in this country, three days in the Netherlands presented a number of striking contrasts (besides of course the pot-filled coffee shops and scantily clad prostitutes decorating the windows of the red light district), one of which stood out, something seemingly small that in fact represents fundamental cultural differences. I began noticing the large, often un-curtained windows that make up much of the Hollandaise architecture. The fact that I could often quite easily peek into someone's private apartment started to surprise me and I realized that was because I had gotten so used to the French public-private mentality. It was when, on our way to the Anne Frank house, Ahjin and I passed by an apartment, windows wide open, into which we could have easily climbed and sat down next to the Dutch girl reading on her bed, that I really became conscious of this contrast. In doing so, I recalled a story our Colonial Algeria professor told us earlier this summer on this exact subject. She had spent some time living in Belgium, and this kind of public living--large windows allowed just as much looking in as looking out--both unsettled and shocked her French sensibilities. Coming from a society constructed around a very strict dichotemy of public-private space, she couldn't understand this Northern European mentality. As pictured above, the apartments tend to have large, shutter-less windows that seem to welcome outside world in. In France, the apartments are often higher off street level, with skinny shuttered or curtained windows. In Paris especially, they are often set back and even will have a little balcony gate in front of them. Next time you're in France, see how many windows you can see through. My guess would be not many.

To get back to those prostitutes--in the 19th century, France decided to get prostitution out of the public view by enclosing it in houses that looked bourgeois on the outside with only a little red light indicating what went on inside. One quick walk through Amsterdam's "Red Light district" will show how this culture chose a very different approach, putting prostitutes on display and giving "window shopping" a whole new meaning.