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I’m just a girl

Filed in Blog, France by on February 1, 2018
by Kathryn M.

I’ve never really thought much about how much being a girl impacts me daily. I’m aware of the big picture things — the wage gap, sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. Of course, I hold my keys between my fingers when I walk to my car in the dark and call my friends and make them stay on the phone with me until I get home if I don’t feel totally safe. But, at least in America, I know what and who to look for. I know what society deems normal and safe. I know what to do (to an extent) if I do need help. However, being in a different country alone has highlighted how much being a woman constantly impacts me.

Today, I was waiting for a bus and I noticed a man a couple of feet away from me kind of wavering and inching toward me a bit. He didn’t seem like a threat, but I instinctively took note of my surroundings; it’s still daytime, I’m in public surrounded by people, there are women across the tracks and near me. I took a casual step away from the man and continued to avoid directly looking at him, but he moved closer (still a respectful distance apart), but he said “bonjour” and asked me some question about the weather that I didn’t fully understand and it was suddenly clear to me that these kinds of interactions are a completely different story when you’re in a completely foreign place.

The man continued to ask me my name, where I’m from, why I’m in Lyon and for how long. I tried to be as vague as possible when answering. Then he asked me where I was going and I said, “the museum” and he said “alone?” to which I said, “No, I’m meeting a friend” (I then immediately texted that friend to tell him that I felt like I was in a bit of a situation should anything go wrong.) The man continued to talk to me until the bus came and I was able to be far enough away from him that I felt comfortable. However, during the ride I kept thinking, “He knows which stop I’m getting off at, he could just follow me there” and running through worst case scenarios and what I would do.

He wasn’t an intimidating guy and did seem genuinely nice and a normal-person amount of interested in the foreign girl at the bus stop, which was very not-French of him. Also, through all six years of my French studies, I have been told that French men are more likely to take casual eye contact as an invitation. This man was close to the sign saying when the bus would arrive — had he maybe misread my impatience for the bus as interest?

When I arrived at the museum, I told my (male) friend about the interaction and he just shrugged it off with a “huh, that’s strange.” As our day progressed, I noticed that he really didn’t share many of the concerns I had about being alone in another country. When I told him that my professor last semester had dedicated at least 20 minutes of a class to a conversation about different ways to tell French men to leave you alone with the right amount of anger and seriousness that they might respect it; my friend said, “That’s awesome.” However, when we were having that conversation in class, I remember thinking about how scary it was that I very well might need these phrases one day.

I realized how much different being abroad as a woman is. I am always worried about getting back to my house at a reasonable time and making sure that I know exactly where I’m going, especially at night, so I stick to areas that I know. However, he feels safe exploring new places and going where the wind takes him, anywhere, anytime, with very little fear of danger. Traveling abroad comes with some danger involved — that is given. However, being alone in a city far from home has made it abundantly clear to me how different the experiences of men are at home and away.

Especially in light of movements like Me Too and Time’s Up, these extra dangers that women face are things that I am becoming constantly aware of. Whether walking home from a parking garage in the middle of Missouri, or taking 40-minute transit rides to a French natural history museum, the experiences of men and women are simply different and this is why these types of conversations are happening now — raising awareness and promoting change.

Note from the International Center

As Kathryn highlights in this post, being in a new environment can alter your sense of personal safety. The MU Study Abroad Orientation offers a few helpful tips for staying safe abroad.

About the blogger

Kathryn M. is studying abroad at the Université Jean Moulin-Lyon III in Lyon, France.

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