Site Meter

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


     I was shopping at Trader Joe's this evening and as I finished putting my purchases on the counter, the cashier asked me in an oh so casual way how my day was going.   It took me aback.  I didn’t know how to answer.  He was approaching me like an old friend with good understanding of me, as if asking me how the whole scenario of US relocation was going.  But he had only known me for 30 seconds.
     As I sit at my computer, reflecting on this, the first frame that comes to mind is reverse culture shock.  I start to write from this perspective.  I start to contrast this experience in Trader Joe's to how I felt shopping in France, following a familiar storyline based around a simple binary between public warmth in the US and public coldness in France.
     On reflection, two thoughts emerge that complicate this story.  The first is that if I think back in more detail to my French shopping interactions, it is not a sense of rudeness that comes to mind (at least not in the majority of cases).  I actually remember how sweet the employees at Franprix were that I shopped at weekly in Grenoble.  No, they didn't ask me a lot of questions and get to know me personally, but they were certainly warm and welcoming to me.   It strikes me that they would not deign to intrude on my private life.  They would not assume familiarity with someone they have spent such a small time getting to know.  While it is certainly a more formal approach, it also leaves a lot of room for mutual respect, and a sense that one can navigate substantial personal difference within the frame of this respect. How do we deal with real difference if we start with this assumption that everyone is just like us?
     The second thought that occurs to me is that the way I felt taken aback by the employee at Trader Joes and other businesses in America is similar to the feeling I experienced with respect to the homeless people on the street in Grenoble.  They were sharp and impeccably friendly and polite and invasive of personal space.  These encounters actually really disturbed me because I felt like this person shouldn’t be on the street if they have the psychological accuity to peg me and my mood in 10 seconds and try to draw me in to a friendly conversation.  Why don’t they use these reserves of mental health and psychological strength to earn money in a more productive fashion? In contrast to many American beggars who often strike me as truly destitute and on the edge of health and sanity, I was not motivated to give money to many of the French beggars.
     In any case, I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from these reflections on public formality versus familiarity and similarities between customer service in the US and homeless beggars in France.  But it does remind me to pause and think for a moment before spouting off stereotypes.

Thursday, September 07, 2017


As I prepare to leave Grenoble and start up a new life in Boulder, Colorado, I think about the moving process and also about what it means to have roots.

We often think of having roots in a country or in a region as meaning that we have a history there.  Our parents and grandparents and perhaps even many generations further back may have lived in this region.  This is an important definition of roots, and a powerful basis for a sense of belonging and embeddedness in one's life.

I want to consider a different definition of roots which is more directly related to the biological notion of plant roots.  Roots are a network that allows the plant to be nourished.  From this perspective, we can think of creating new roots in a more directed fashion.  In some ways, this is what I have attempted during my time in France.  For example, learning French is part of developing roots because it leads to such an array of connectedness and ability to communicate for practical needs, emotional connection, and general cultural belonging.  Knowing which grocery stores to go to, how to apply for a carte de sejour, and reading train and bus schedules is also a form of roots.

This line of thought also allows us to think about which kinds of environments may be suitable for us to live.  Some city or region may have many resources available to those who live there, but without the appropriately developed roots, one won't be able to take advantage of them and be nourished by them.

Of course, people aren't plants, but we all need nourishment, in so many different ways.  I think it is a valuable pursuit to start to make our roots in the world more visible!