Staring: A Cultural Curiousity

The older I get, the more often I seem to reference the "golden rules" from my kindergarten classes. I had always assumed that everyone was privy to such rules. For example; don't talk to strangers, do unto others as you would have them do unto you and don't stare. Yet after spending nearly a week in a foreign country, I am now unconvinced that French children learn the same lessons as I did. Perhaps the infectious 'je ne sais quoi' chic of the French begins early in life and counters out the golden rules and instead of reading "Cinderella" at bedtime, French children are rocked to sleep by the writings of Camus and Sartre. Whatever the reason, these children of France grow into adults who hold a very different understanding of social etiquette as I do. In particular, staring.

The first day we arrived, I was positive that it must be because of our obvious tourist appearance. We were parading around Perpignan with our cameras, taking pictures of everyday buildings, restaurants and bridges as if they were all relics from the Holy Crusade. In reality, (at least to the people of Perpignan) these structures aren't anything new or spectacular in the least. Moreover, we were loud – louder than I would like to admit. Even more importantly to the French, much louder than your atypical fashionable man/woman would ever dream of being. And not only were we loud, we were all speaking in English, the much uglier and plainer distant cousin to French. But on the second day, the stares continued, whether we were loud or not. I've walked by myself, in groups of 2 and 4, but the stares are always there. We talk amongst one another and laugh at the occasional joke. I can find no explanation for such glares and my logic fails each time I try. I would like to believe that these stares are out of admiration. Perhaps we are seen as unknown beauties, to whom such elegance and charm has not been seen before. Yet as I lug my backpack through the stylish delicatessen and patisserie patios of Perpignan and wipe the sweat off my upper lip, I know this cannot be true. The women who sit poised and presentable before me look far more exotic in their homeland than I do anywhere. Next, I consider that perhaps the stares are the result of some abnormal quality to our group. But no, that can't be it. I haven't noticed any bearded women, no abnormally tall men or conjoined twins. So what is it?

My best guess is that this is a classic case of culture clash. It isn't that people stare because of the way we look – more so, it is because of the way we act. That being said, the staring is still unjustified. The citizens here have a culture that surpasses any resemblance to most North American ones. Yet still, some tolerance and gentle guidance would be greatly appreciated. I would much appreciate it if men would stop staring at me as if I were a new exhibit at the zoo. Yet I have learned my lesson – when in a foreign city, keep your volume to a minimum. And please, remember kindergarten.

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About the Program

Fifteen college students came from North America to Perpignan, France, in June 2011 to produce these videos and stories. To find out more, read a welcome letter from program director Rachele Kanigel, meet the program faculty and explore the 2010 website.