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A Study Abroad Story

When I was asked to write this article about studying abroad, I really struggled to figure out what to say. I could speak about the immense culture shock of moving across the sea, the child-like feeling of not being able to read anything and only having a rudimentary understanding of how to get around.

The Berlin Cathedral in Berlin, Germany. Photo taken by Abby Rose ’25

I could describe the difficulty of navigating a secular learning environment that feels so strange after growing up in mainly Christian institutions. I could warn about the fear of traveling, of strapping yourself into a glorified tin can, hurtling through the sky at five hundred miles per hour, only to land in a completely foreign place. I could praise the benefits of studying abroad and how it is a life-changing, transformative experience. However, I am not going to talk about any of those things. Instead, I would like to talk about smiling.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Aix-en-Provence, France, I noticed something strange as I walked through the cobblestone streets. Out of everyone I walked past that first day, not a single person smiled at me. No one even made eye contact. Over the next week, I continued to look at people as they passed me, expecting to be acknowledged and to exchange smiles, but it never came. Eyes were either glued to the ground or concentrated forward on some indeterminate point. I felt simultaneously unnerved and freed.

In the States, I had experienced the complete opposite of this moving from Maryland to Georgia. Within a split second of making eye contact, a Southerner would latch on target and make a beeline towards you, like a well-meaning missile. You cannot go anywhere without making eye contact, which leads to a smile, which leads to the obligatory “How are you?” followed by the immediate and expected response, “I’m good, how are you?” In France, I got the distinct sense that none of the strangers around me really cared what I was doing. I could have laid down in the street and no one would bat an eye.

But if the French do not smile, do we assume that they are all mean or unfeeling? Of course not, the French do not smile at strangers because it is not part of their cultural code. They have never needed to smile at strangers. From the inception of the United States, Americans have been a melting pot of different cultures and different languages. If you were an immigrant in New York City in the 1600s and you met someone on the street, there was no guarantee that you would know the same language. So what would you do? You would smile at them and use your physical body language to express friendliness and solidarity. The French were never forced to do this as a culture because they have a much longer history of shared heritage and language. French people’s lack of smiling to strangers, like many other things, is not a matter of personality, just of cultural norms.

At the same time, French culture prioritizes very close-knit families and intense loyalty to their communities. During orientation, the dean of students explained that French locals would not want to get to know us. Because of their commitment to their locale, the French are invested in long-term relationships. If they knew that we were studying abroad for one semester, they would not waste their time. If you wanted to become friends with French people, you would have to pursue them because they would not try to initiate with you.

However, I experienced the complete opposite of this in the church. There, where not only French people but those from each of the inhabited continents gathered to worship, people would reach out to me and each other. They understood that they had been pursued by Christ and now they were dedicated to pursuing others for Him. Any cultural differences we might have had would melt away in the face of Jesus’ love for us.

This is not saying that everyone is the same; on the contrary, everyone brings their own unique background and perspective to the body of Christ, enriching the fellowship that I was blessed to be a part of. Both Southern hospitality and the French commitment to long-term relationships reflects their unique image bearing, despite their inherently fallen nature. The universal church has the opportunity to celebrate these cultural differences while also recognizing the areas in which they are more prone to sin. This is the beauty of Christian community in a multicultural context. Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” While I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, I would argue that this transformative effect is not just brought about by travel, but by experiencing the unifying love of God and joining the universal body of Christ.

So get out there and travel; smile, or don’t smile. See you next semester!