Bridging the gap between cultures with books while studying abroad

By Simran Gupta

Staff Writer

Oftentimes, in the situation of balancing cultures that seem to be at odds with each other, the key is to find a common ground. Such attempts to make cultures meet can take the form of music, film, or cuisine. For me, however, that common ground has always been in the form of one constant: books.

Source: Simran Gupta

American culture, Indian culture, and French culture all have a deep respect and love for the written word. In all three examples, that respect certainly manifests differently. The French take pride in their small, independent publishing houses and their cozy indie bookstores. Bookkeepers take their work seriously, often seeing themselves as a kind of literary apothecary. It is not uncommon for many apartments or houses to have a library, large or small.

It should be no surprise, then, that bookstores are my source of comfort to cure my homesickness during the first few weeks of my study abroad experience. Living in Paris has resulted in a mix of emotions: a sense of displacement, fear, excitement, and happiness as well. I miss my Indian food everyday; I miss my Nani’s hugs and holding my boyfriend’s hand. I miss my Simmons family, and after experiencing French professors, I miss the English and Modern Languages departments even more than I thought I would. Visiting bookstores multiple times a week has been a way of creating a new constant for me, in this city that is not quite my city yet.

What I considered to be my official welcome to France happened this past Friday, in a tiny bookstore in the equally small town of Amboise. After visiting the historic Chateau d’Amboise, those of us on the trip were given free rein to explore the downtown until our meeting time back at the buses. After exclaiming over old-style buildings, tiny patisseries, and narrow streets, I led our group into a bookstore.

What caught my eye was the books on the table: they had all been written by the prominent Moroccan author Abdellah Taïa. After having read excerpts of his memoir in a French literature class, I was dismayed to discover that I was missing a talk he was giving at that very bookstore by just two hours! Nevertheless, I picked up a copy of one of his memoirs to read during my spare time. While the shopkeeper was checking me out, she asked how I knew Taïa’s work, and we ended up having a long conversation about francophone literature, particularly that from West Africa.

We discussed work by a prominent Algerian author, Assia Djebar, whom we both look up to a great deal. We discussed the difference between the American and French university systems, how long my semester in France was, and I even learned the story behind the very cutesy name of the store (it involved Voltaire himself).

This was by far the most spontaneous and positive interaction I’d had with anyone French (except perhaps my host mother) since arriving in France. For a few minutes, I got to laugh and bond with a complete stranger of the common ground of books, and that gave me a glimpse into the role of writers (especially queer writers and writers of color) in French society.

At a time of unrest, fear, and distrust in the U.S., I have found that my greatest source of strength has been books. In a moment of homesickness, I found the perfect cure to be books. Whether they’re memoirs, essay collections, poetry anthologies, or novels, books have a power like no other. They’ve helped me create a home in Paris, and I think that once again, they’ll be the tools that will help me bridge the mix of cultures I bring with me to the French culture.