thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the tag “Avignon”

An introvert’s guide to settling in

When I was younger, I was unable attend anything that included an overnight stay without major bouts of tears and anxiety. In comparison to the familiarity of home, I never found summer camp exciting, wasn’t particularly interested in sleeping over at friends’ homes, and for the most part abstained from dabbling in anything unfamiliar, well into college. Even now, most trips I take away from home are considerably draining. I’m excellent at planning new visits and then finding myself extremely annoyed by them in the moment when I realize that I’ve put myself, yet again, in the place where I am most uncomfortable — somewhere new.

I just completed a month at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I lived in a dorm and studied French culture and gastronomy with 17 other students from across the country. When I arrived to Dartmouth in mid-June and said my first hello to the stranger across the hallway, I was surprised to realize that it’s been eight years since my study abroad experience in Avignon, France, during which I first spent four terrified and enriching months away from my comfort zone.

When our Dartmouth group parted tearfully on Tuesday, I was equally surprised to note that, since Avignon, I’ve learned a thing or two about finding home in a new space.

1) Explore your surroundings. When I arrived in France in 2007 for eight months of teaching, the first thing that I forced myself to do was to go for a long walk around my new town. During the process, I located the grocery store, the train station, and a bakery — and discovered that the quickest way to get comfortable in a new area is to understand where you are. Go for walks. Deliberately get lost. Usually, your first days in a new place grace you with more free time than you’re used to, and use this to your advantage.

2) Be deliberate in conversations. Familiarity and a sense of home do not grow only out of objects and areas; most authentically it blossoms from people. Invest in everyone around you, including the neighbors, the garbage man, the daily dog walker. Ask people questions about themselves (polite ones, of course) — about their job, their life, and your surroundings. For me, this meant that in Talange, the chocolatier was the first person to welcome me back from a Christmas trip to the US; in Pittsburgh, the first stranger who knew my name in town was my barista. These people may not become friends whose shoulder you cry on, but these people can become the framework of your new home.

3) Volunteer. For anything. I find that the most tiring part of travel is the constant need to make small talk, so when words fail, I offer actions. Give rides to the grocery store to people who need them. Hold the door open for those behind you. Swing a hammer. Be sincere. People remember. After all, actions speak louder than words.

4) Find the small things that make you comfortable. Over the years, I’ve developed a list of tried-and-true new-place items: a water bottle, granola bars, my journal, earplugs (for nap-taking near unexpected noises), Jolly Ranchers (for flights), flip flops (for communal showers), and instantly finding a good café in which I can unwind. Knowing these details about yourself allows you to better present yourself to the people who will eventually become your friends — the people who will eventually transform newness into warm familiarity.

Water, snow, sun, and sky: 8 people who define my memory abroad

The following people I met only once and will never meet again, but they helped me along, taught me lessons about generosity and about language — and define my memory all the same.

1) To the blue-eyed man on the Rue de la République in Avignon in 2005: I saw you begging for change every day in front of the Shoppi while I bought bread, and you were the first person that I ever dared give my spare coins to. (I have never met a homeless person before.) I didn’t even have to speak to you in halting French, for our eyes met, and you looked so grateful in a way beyond language. Thank you.

2) To Romina who robbed me in Strasbourg in 2007: Because of the blue-eyed man, I thought that trying to help you on a cold winter’s morning while I ate roasted chestnuts would have helped me understand something noble about me and love and poverty, but instead, you humbled me and made me grow up a little. I still wonder about you and hope you’re all right.

3) To French tourists in Avignon in 2005: A group of friends and I were standing among the cafés on Place Pi in the darkness of early evening when you approached and asked me in French where to find a particular street. You have no idea how much it flattered me that I could be mistaken for someone who knew, but the fact was, that I did know, and I directed you to where you needed to go. In the time of my life when I felt furthest from home, you showed me that I was already there.

Avignon, France, Spring 2005

Avignon, France, Spring 2005 (Katrina Charysyn, All Rights Reserved)

4) To the newspaper boy in south London in 2007: I know I asked you for directions three times in the growing dusk, and I’m sorry I kept trying to imitate your accent — and then kept trying to stop myself from imitating it — in a way that made me sound neither American nor French but German, as you properly pointed out. I was pretty stressed at the time. I hope you realize I really did have a bus to catch and was not intentionally blowing you off when you suggested we grab a drink. Anyone who was willing to help someone so flustered would have been awesome to know.

5) To the couple in the campground near les Chemin des Dames in 2010: Lynn Palermo and I had been hiking all day under the July sun on a road without trees, and I was slumped up against a shade tree next to your campsite with the summer heat press against my throat and cheeks like a fever, and at this moment you emerged from your trailer with two cups of ice and a full liter of water to share. I do not even know your name. This was the most singular event of kindness that I think I have ever received.

6) To the elderly shopkeeper in Greystones, Ireland, in 2007: When I walked up to you on the edge of the town to the sound of crashing waves by the sea and asked you if it was a far walk to Bray, you chuckled and said, “Nooo, tisn’t, as long as ‘ou gott two strong legs.” I’m sure you’ve long forgotten me, but I have been absolutely charmed — and I mean charmed — by your accent ever since.

The English Channel between Greystones and Bray, November 2007

The English Channel, viewed from a coastal hike between Greystones and Bray, November 2007

7) To the Swiss farmer outside of Grindelwald in 2008: You leaned on your pitchfork inside a warm barn while snow flew across the Alps outside, and you listened to me as I translated my father’s questions about dairy farming into haphazard German. When I spoke the words for “I see one cow, two cows, three cows…” and then gestured toward your herd, your eyes lit up and you said, “Ahhh, ich habe fünfzehn Kühe,” and I understood you. We somehow talked in German for an hour during which I managed to grasp that you had a neighbor farmer with our ancestors’ last name, and that you took your cows into the mountains in the summer and let them roam free because of their bells. Your patience — despite the fact my father and I had simply parked the car in a blizzard and walked into your barn — still stuns me.

8) To the man in the sea near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, in 2010: I was swimming at dusk with friends in a little alcove near the bay, and you bobbed up behind me and said, “Welcome,” in a voice as deep as the sea. I learned for the first time what it was like to be known as a foreigner by the color of my skin, but when you welcomed me in, you were smiling, and that made all the difference.

Swimming at sunset, near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, July 2010

Swimming at sunset, near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, July 2010

Friday Photo: Placing an order, Primanti Bros., Pittsburgh

Primanti Bro's., the Strip District, September 2012

Primanti Bro’s., the Strip District, September 2012

When I was a student in Avignon, France, in 2005, a sandwicherie in the center city sold what they had dubbed “the American sandwich” — some kind of monster hoagie stuffed with French fries and made with bread that wasn’t a baguette. “That’s unfair, greasy, and stereotypical,” I said. And then I ate a sandwich at Primanti Brothers on a Saturday in the Strip District in Pittsburgh, when the lines were full and the timing was perfect.

There are twenty-one Primanti Bros. locations, but this one’s the original, brimming with Steelers’ fans, spot-on servers, and Toni Haggerty who has been working the grill for almost 40 years. (“Too long!” she grinned at me, then jerked her finger toward the friendly dark-haired man ushering customers to tables. “As long as I’ve been married to him!”)

Toni — as well as Primanti Bros.’s “almost-famous” sandwiches stacked on hearty Italian bread, stuffed with grilled Italian meats, provolone cheese, vinegar-based coleslaw, and a fistful of freshly-made fries — have been featured everywhere from Pittsburgh Magazine to Man Vs. Food.

Go for the food, but leave with the experience.

Primanti Bros.
46 18th Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 263-2142

Friday Photo: ‘Curiosity of their eyes’ – thoughts on seeing

Palais des Papes, Avignon, Spring 2005 (Katrina Charysyn, All Rights Reserved)

Whenever I’d beat my friends at the Tourist Game that we played on the Rue de la République, it had only been because I knew the Regulars of Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg. Having worked there for four years, I had the advantage of knowing the face of a Regular, and because of this, I could spot any tourist within a French crowd before my friends did by the way they held open their eyes—shameless, like French windows without shutters, trying to drink in the sight of the pastry shops and the roasting chestnuts on the square. Trying to notice people’s lack of familiarity with their surroundings—so that I could help them order a sandwich, taste the pasta salad, make life easier—had once been my job.

And so every afternoon, my American friends and I sat at the café on the Place de l’Horloge and watched the tourists, guessing the nationalities of the people who passed our table.  Tourists from the United States were the large, fleshy ones with white Nikes, crashing their laughter against the city walls.  Italians were always draped with neon-colored scarves, wearing their dark hair in a shaggy cut as they merged for photos by the Palais des Papes.  The Germans and Swiss always made me think of Rubbermaid containers, their bodies sturdy beneath plastic windbreakers and deep blue backpacks.  But then, there were the French—thin whips of people clothed in black who sliced through the crowds on the gusts of Avignon wind.  The French were always careful to freeze away their gazes from public intimacy, knowing that they already belonged to their country like a Regular belonged to my deli counter.  Whenever I played the Tourist Game, I remembered the Regulars of Kathy’s and distinguished the tourists by the curiosity of their eyes, for only a tourist would let their eyes give away the fact that they were not at home.

— “Making Change,” RiverCraft, Susquehanna University, 2005-06


I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in late August. It’s the largest city I’ve ever lived in with a population of over 300,000 within the city limits, at least according to the 2011 U.S. Census. (Harrisburg, where I moved from, has 50,000.) The University of Pittsburgh, where I am now a graduate student, has 24,000 students, which is three times more individuals than has my hometown. I grew up on a road that sliced between my family’s house and our farmland, but now, when I look out my bedroom window, I see a low city skyline. When walking down Forbes Avenue to go to class or get a coffee, I pass a seemingly endless stream of people that I may never see again while in Shippensburg, I used to be stopped on the street to be told: “You must be a Grove. I knew your grandfather.” Living in a world different than that in which you grew up often shifts your perception of the normal actions that you take for granted, such as the way that people show their awareness of those around them.

The first city I in which I lived was Avignon, France (population 90,000) in 2005, where I was a study abroad student through the Institute for American Universities. Before I left the United States, we students had given a glossy brochure explaining what differences to expect between French culture and ours, including eating habits, TV watching, and electricity usage, but none of this could prepare me, a small-town girl, for the simple difference of being in a larger place than the one I’d left. I was shocked, for example, with the different way that people appeared to see.

When I walked down the street in Avignon, I wanted to look around. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid had trained me to key in my senses, to “be eyes” for those who were not there, and I wanted to drink in all the details on France so I could write them all into emails for my family. Look at these cobblestones! How old’s this church? How many flower shops am I passing? Is that really an H&M? The trees were different: scaly sycamore, scraggly olive shrubs. The sky was different, unclouded blue.

But when I turned my eyes to the people, I noticed an acute difference: nobody else was looking at all of this except for me. On my morning bus ride into the city, the punk rocker next to me stared out the window or looked at the floor. The elegantly-dressed businesswoman leafed through a copy of La Provence. All riders chimed a pleasant “bonjour” to the bus driver when getting on our bus and finding their seat, but then, I watched their gazes shutter back, fall inward. Observing this made me feel miserable. If I was to “become French,” in a sense, while I was there, how was I supposed to “see”? I had been told that white sneakers and low-cut spaghetti strap shirts could target me as a “tourist” — that dreaded word that equated to self-centered ignorance — but how was I to know that I could also express my foreignness by my eyes?


Eye contact in a variety of cultures means different things. In Shippensburg, eye contact means recognition and acknowledgement. In New York City, extended eye contact — a staring contest — on the subway is rude at best. Occasionally, eye contact can be a flirtatious invitation. And in Russia — as I recently learned when talking to a perfect stranger on a Megabus — eye contact on the subway is a power struggle. When on a Russian metro, you look other riders up and down and analyze them, discovering them, questioning them wordlessly, as shamelessly as did the tourists of Avignon.

What, then, is our relationship with seeing? It’s easy to acknowledge that sometimes our eyes don’t take in everything around us; all of us have been so deep in thought that one time or another, for example, that we don’t notice a friend who passes us on the sidewalk. Being so open to seeing all the details, as I try to do in moderation when I’m a tourist anywhere, is tiring. I never take more naps than I do when I’m in a new culture or a new place. A sign of cultural acceptance, or simply in feeling safe, is the fact that we have the luxury of stopping to see the details, or that these details cease to demand our attention because they have become normal.

But in terms of people, this phenomenon has a specific name. The avoidance of eye contact in certain cultures — whether Pittsburgh, New York City, and even France — is known as “civil inattention,” which is described by Wikipedia as “a process whereby strangers who are in close proximity demonstrate that they are aware of one another, without imposing on each other.” In The Art of Self-Invention (2007), author Joanne Finkelstein explains that civil inattention is “a sign of recognition that others have claims to a shared space or environment” and a signal of “boundar[ies] and self-enclosure.” This notion explains that the lack of eye contact is not the same as ignoring someone; it’s a gesture of being polite or self-preservation. In a 2011 article in the New York Times entitled “Look at Me, I’m Crying,” Melissa Febos echoed the same sentiments — that, in more populated areas, we have “train-faces,” or exterior faces that we sometimes don to preserve our interior sense of privacy. If eyes are the window to the soul, we sometimes avert our gaze not just because we don’t want to see someone else; we’d prefer that they don’t see us.

The rules are much more complicated, however, than choosing to see or not to see. In Harrisburg, there were still few enough people on the street that I could look at each of them individually and, with a brief glance, nod to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes we’d say hi. Sometimes we would not. In Pittsburgh, I have yet to make eye contact with strangers on the street or on the bus, although within structured contexts — asking for recommendations on teas at the Té Café on Murray Avenue, for example — people are deliciously willing to talk. When Lynn Palermo and I were hiking in northern France and were clearly not locals, we were carefully watched and spoken to with hesitant humor. Choosing to truly see with open eyes as well as an open heart perhaps is something that not only differs between areas of more or less population; it seems to depend on how accustomed an area is to strangers, and whether or not those strangers have hurt them in the past.

In the moment of looking at someone else, we unconsciously size them up — well-dressed or not, aged or not, capable of stealing our wallet or not — whether the judgements we make are fair. Walking amid strangers in public can be vulnerable business, and looking at those around us helps us find our relationship within the current social hierarchy. But it’s more than this. In walking on a street with those of a city or town that we share, we must acknowledge within our lack of seeing that we are not disconnected entirely — that we are still willing to reach out a hand to someone who trips on the sidewalk, to spare some change for the homeless, to point out directions to a father with an unfolded map and a furrowed brow. It’s maybe an act of self-preservation to do this selectively, but the day that our eyes see only inward is the day we miss the point of the community in which we live.

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