Thursday, December 09, 2010

Limbic system

My new theory is that they are more in touch with their limbic system here. It’s not an either/or kind of thing where either you are an animal acting on your base instincts OR you are civilized. They are civilized AND, at the same time, in touch with their base animal instincts. Actually, thriving on the two together.

Every culture has to eat, sleep, work, love, communicate. It may not look like these things are getting done, like where is the PDA (public display of affection) in England and where is the work in France? But they are getting done because obviously the culture is functioning. It might look wrong and strange and illogical to the outsider, but somehow it works.

Even the language. It is amazing to me that people are able to communicate in this other language. How is it that they can be clear and unambiguous? Somehow a literal translation of the words is not enough, you have to know context, connotation, history. There just seem to be so many gaps when looking in from the outside. But the evidence that it works supremely well is all around.

There is so much more to learn!

There is a whole industry built up around what I see as the odd school hours---moms who share lunch duties or set up private lunchtime kids cafés, businesses that offer childcare on Wednesdays, Wednesday camps, before care, after care. So in the end it is actually pretty much the same. And the strange shop hours seem to be only an annoyance for me. It works.

But back to our limbic system---the animal, instinctual part of the brain. In American schools, for example, there have been studies and there is a widespread belief that fear and learning do not go together. If you are in fight or flight mode, the theory goes, the blood in your body is not going to your brain but instead is going to your muscles via an adrenaline response. Hence, learning is compromised. Here, that does not seem to be a problem.

And on the streets, there is just a different sense of timing in the traffic of cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. There is no hesitation or deference, you pretty much just go and stop at a much later second than I feel is safe. My “safer” cultural rhythm is about one beat behind and seems to muck everything up. If I defer and don’t take what they see as my entitlement, that is the only time when I see hands suddenly grasp for handlebars, graceful walkers falter, cars screech. People expect you to just go, they time their passage minutely to sweep in just behind you. It is very graceful until you hesitate and mess everyone up. There is a rhythm and a flow that seems much faster and scarier and more dangerous, but it works.

Walking home the other night in a fresh heavy snowfall on icy sidewalks, I saw a woman riding her bicycle (that alone seemed impossible to me given how slippery it was, I was finding walking in boots difficult) with ONE HAND because she had AN UMBRELLA in the other. Madness! But she was calm, cool, and collected and was doing fine. She was in touch with her limbic system.

And then there is the PDA thing. In America, passion is hidden. It’s seen as a bit of a crazy state where you aren’t in your right mind, something a bit out of control that you should hide because it might compromise your everyday functioning. Yet here, PDA is very common, accepted, an important part of life. No problem with people---mostly young people but also middle-aged people---being passionate with significant others on the streets, on the buses, everywhere. Again, a very civilized country that sees no conflict between intimate emotions and public functioning. The underlying instincts brought to the surface.

Or the whole smells thing, but I can't even start on that...too much to go into here...

So it looks miraculous to me but French parents ride bikes over icy street with 8-year-olds sitting on the back bracket, clinging to the seat. French shoppers calmly go back to the produce department to weigh their produce without a thought to holding everyone else up. They believe in love at first sight and make time for romance. Women walk all day in 6 inch heels, and thrive! They smoke, drink, eat high fat food, and are thin and healthy. They believe they can and they do. It works. Where I see an accident waiting to happen or playing with fire, they confidently and competently achieve.


Mom said...

I always feel like a bull in a china shop in England. Never know which side of the sidewalk to walk along. I watch to see what other people are doing, to see what I'm missing, and I usually get it wrong. These very tiny social clues are hard to learn if you haven't grown up with them.

Another aspect is that Americans are overly safety conscious. We are quick to blame when there's an accident, rather concentrating on fixing the cause. This generation of parents, especially, are far too physically protective of their children. I fear that these kids will grow up without the street smarts they need.

cda said...

I love this post. Thank you!
P.S. I want to be French.

Lisa said...

I remember being confounded by the traffic in Pune when we first got to India. But then an Indian woman friend explained her hesitation about driving in England to me: "Yes, both countries drive on the same side of the road (left) but in the UK there are all kinds of rules that you may be breaking. Here in India, we just do what is sensible."

Seen through this lens, I suddenly recognized the subtle choreography of the traffic patterns. I also realized that despite the "chaos," I rarely saw an accident. The sort of intuitive dance you saw in French traffic patterns sounds similar.

MinneapolisMama said...

We just returned from 9 days in Rome and this post of yours, which I read some time ago, kept floating in the back of my brain. Your analysis is so right on in Italy as well. The way everything operates there is just on a different level of connection between the brain and the body. In order to function well, we had to let go of our inbred fears and inhibitions, do as the Italians did, and fearlessly walk into oncoming traffic (among other counter-intuitive things)! It was so helpful thinking of what you had written...thanks!