Story and photos by Anaïs-Ophelia Lino
“There’s a bar around the corner,” my hostess told me a few days after I had been living with her in the south of France for my study-abroad program. “You’ll see a lot of men outside, but I’ve never felt unsafe walking past at night.” It was the first time I thought about how safe the neighborhood was.
When I prepared for my trip to Arles with ieiMedia, I researched the little town next to the Rhône and its culture. I learned that French cafes close between lunch and dinner. I worried about making a fool of myself when ordering iced coffee because it isn’t popular in France. But I never considered how I would get home at night, let alone how safe I would feel, even though it’s ingrained in my routine back home.
The night before my conversation with my hostess, I walked from a pub to the apartment pretty late down the skinny streets lined with old houses and apartment buildings. Of course, harmful situations for women can happen anywhere, but I didn’t feel at risk.
I didn’t consider why I felt this way until I had walked home with another student who said her route felt “sketchy” to her. And when a third student agreed, I began thinking about the differences I saw on her way home. Her route was sparsely lit with big, wide streets more suitable for cars.
Her walk home is very similar to my walk in California. I also have to go under an overpass and walk through a dim street. I walk on the opposite side of incoming cars and always call my mother or a friend as a sort of safety net. I change my routes and make sure no one follows me home.
There could be many reasons why I feel safer walking in my neighborhood in Arles. It doesn’t get dark until 10 p.m. and the buildings are much closer together compared with the wide open car-oriented streets of San Francisco. Cars barely squeeze by in my Arles neighborhood, which dates back to the medieval era, and when the sun does go down, lamps illuminate most, if not all, of the street.
When I walk in the morning, I see parents greet other parents as they take their toddlers to school and I watch friends chatting over their morning espresso at a little cafe. Seeing all the Arlesians meet for dinner or drinks while I walk home makes the neighborhood feel like a community, and I myself encounter acquaintances on the street. I also feel more efficient because Arles is so compact that I don’t have to carve out time to run across the city for a single errand.
Meanwhile my colleagues back home talk about how American cities are so car-dependent. Anytime I encounter friends spontaneously, it seems like an outlandish coincidence instead of just a probability. If my city was as walkable as Arles, I think I would feel more calm there as well.
This is a personal reflection and does not necessarily express the opinion of The Arles Project or program sponsors ieiMedia or Arles à la carte.