Last Saturday, a few friends and I boarded a bus to Marseille, which is roughly a half an hour drive from Aix-en-Provence. On the drive, the bus wound its way through the narrow streets of small, sparsely populated towns on the outskirts of the city, in the lower foothills of the mountain that looms mythically on Aix’s horizon, pasted to an often overcast, celadon sky. Once we hit the highway, the small country towns turned into slummy suburbs, project-looking apartment complexes tattooed with graffiti and the squalor of time. There was a hollowness to these buildings, an emptiness we couldn’t possibly see from the bus but could feel in the poverty of dirty concrete and broken windows, the rugs and clothes hung out to dry in the wet gray of the late-morning fog.
Walking down the stairs from the train station where the bus let off, we hit the streets with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. For the first time since my arrival in France, I felt lost, and not just a little bit uncomfortable. Still, there was a rush in not knowing where I was or what I was going to do, something I hadn’t really felt at all in Aix. Maybe it was fear, or shock, or the freedom that comes with unknowing, but I felt more alive in that first hour in Marseille than I have in my entire time in Aix, and, exploring the gritty streets of what appeared to be a realer, more diverse, lived-in city, surveyed my surroundings with a newfound sense of wonder.
Responding to the first pangs of culture shock, my friend began keeping track of tourist points, which were dolled out in varying amounts if someone in our group did or said something particularly touristy. (Some examples: saying, “Look at the pigeon over there”=2 tourist points; stepping in dog poop=3 tourist points; almost getting run over by a motorcycle=1.5 tourist points; walking into a café and immediately walking out after realizing the only people inside are men over 50 chain-smoking cigarettes=5 tourist points; attempting—and failing—to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an Algerian in our hostel=negative 1 tourist points; going to McDonalds after spending 15 Euro on two shrimp at a Guadeloupian restaurant=game over.) In spite of our first impressions, Marseille actually turned out to be a beautiful, dynamic city, complete with streetcars and blinking lights strung out between buildings. Situated on the Mediterranean Sea, parts of the city (like La Vielle Port) reminded me of the harbor-esque qualities of New Orleans, in particular the French Quarter (or rather, the French Quarter reminded me of Marseille). I stayed in my first hostel too, in a room with some of my friends and an Algerian accountant named Jody. While resting, I witnessed Jody deep in prayer, another first. (15 tourist points to me, though, for immediately thinking of the show, Homeland).
In all, my trip to Marseille was exciting and eye-opening—by comparison Aix, though lovely and comfortable, is sort of childproofed. It was also my first real exposure to culture shock, and in the days following I’ve found myself wondering if maybe I haven’t been experiencing it along, albeit on a subconscious level.
One trend I’ve connected to culture shock is the dramatic increase in Facebook usage, not just by me personally, but by those around me as well. I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t go on Facebook at home, although I’d consider myself a modest user at best; here, it seems like I’m literally on Facebook all the time, noticeably more than I ever was at home. My roommate has experienced a similar phenomenon, and every time I walk into a room where someone’s on a computer, he or she’s most likely using, or about to be using Facebook in one way or another.
All of which begs the question: in the age of social media, is Facebook the way we cope with, and adjust to, the shock of being in a foreign country?
I sure think so. In a place where you aren’t nearly as familiar with your surroundings, with the culture, with the people, and oftentimes, the language, I think there’s a certain comfort in the constancy of one’s Facebook community, of an online world that, despite the changes occurring in one’s physical world, always remains the same. We know our place within Facebook, and we know the people who populate it, even if it’s just the guy you met once on vacation who will not stop posting statuses about musical theater, or Yelp reviews of Vegan restaurants (you know who you are).
On a similar vein, now is as interesting a time as any to be on Facebook. Since I’m a junior from a relatively upscale suburb of Chicago who attends a Big Ten school, at times it seems like every one of my friends is studying abroad, too—in Barcelona, in Rome, in Israel, in Paris, etc. For this brief window of time, I can take advantage of Facebook Tourism, living vicariously through the pictures of my friends doing the same things I’m doing, except in different locations in Western Europe. It’s like looking through tourism brochures, but instead of stock strangers posing in front of the Eiffel Tower or skiing the Swiss Alps, it’s that guy who threw up at my house party once, or the girl I know mostly through mutual friends and her excessive proliferation of selfies. Ask yourself: why go to Rome when someone you know has already Instagrammed three pictures of herself in front of the Coliseum, or rendered her Spaghetti Bolognase in varying shades of nostalgic sepia? More importantly, how are you supposed to name an album title for you adventures in Florence when all of the clever bi-lingual puns have been taken? (My potential album title for Aix-en-Provence, you ask? Aix and the City).
In all seriousness, I’m just as guilty as the people-that-don’t-really-exist-but who-I’ve-used-for-the-purposes-of-this-blog. Yet, at the end of the day, isn’t the point of Facebook to show how much better a time I’m having than you are, you stupid dumb idiot who went to Spain without knowing a lick of Spanish (just try immersing yourself into the culture! Just try!) And given that I’m estranged from the community of people I see on a regular basis in school or at home, isn’t it just as important to record my trip for the sole purpose of proving it actually happened? (If a tree falls down in the woods and it nobody’s there to hear it, did it make a sound? If I eat beef tartar at a café in Paris, and no one’s there to photograph and post it on Facebook, did I really gain negative 5 tourist points for being outgoing and eating beef tartar?) It’s important here to recognize the second aspect of Facebook Tourism, which is making decisions on what you do and see based on whether or not it will look appealing when you post it on Facebook. Personally, I’m doing a pretty crappy job so far; as several of my friends have pointed out (through Facebook) it seems like all I’m doing in France is eating dinner (which is more or less true, sadly).
Alas, this is studying abroad in the digital age. No reason to feel bad about it—it’s simply the way it is. But if you do find yourself suffocating under the weight of technology—as I often do—just try likening our perpetual recording and rerecording of experience to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, if the book’s heart was ripped out and replaced with an Instagram of Neal Cassidy leaning nonchalantly onto a busted car, with the caption “Keepin’ it Neal.”