Anonymity Abroad: Discovering a Sense of Place

Hey everyone! Happy autumn! Definitely my favorite season, autumn in Paris features strange weather, scarves, and sighs of relief as hordes of tourists return home. For me, this time of year always includes time for reflection. Maybe it’s the coming of winter or the start of a new school year, but I always find myself thinking about how my year has gone, what I want for the upcoming school year, and, well, what it all means.

Places for reflection: A bookstore!

So this week, I’ll throw in some flashy photos for sure, but my topic goes a bit deeper: Anonymity (and lack thereof). In my tiny hometown, everyone knows everyone, and I’ve always felt like part of a real community. Pomona is similar, and perhaps even more extreme. But here in Paris, everything from walking along the boulevard to sitting in a Paris university classroom conveys a sense of anonymity. As I sit in the metro and observe, I know that this is the first and last time I will see any of these people in my life. For the first time, being anonymous is easy.

And it’s very, very important.

Let me try and summarize why. As an introvert, I place the same importance on alone time as I do on social interaction. Back at Pomona, alone time meant a morning at Frank or an afternoon studying at the SCC. Though I was choosing to be alone out of personal necessity, sometimes this alone time also felt lonely. I would ask myself, shouldn’t you be with friends right now, enjoying the wonderful community that is Pomona?

I can now attribute this urge partly to the lack of anonymity I felt at Pomona. Even when I was alone at the library, chances were I knew someone a few desks down, and running into friends was almost guaranteed. The constant reminders of community meant that my alone time could feel lonely and sometimes even wrong.

While here in Paris, I’ve enjoyed finding myself alone in cafés, the metro, libraries, you name it. But so far, I’ve never felt lonely. This is because at the same time, I am also anonymous. I can relax and know that there is a 0.01% chance I see someone I already know, and that I am embracing an aspect of life outside of community. For me, this brings out a strong sense of autonomy. I have the freedom to spend as long as I want at the library, the freedom to smile and watch the Eiffel tower glide past on Metro line 6.

Places for reflection: A church!

Anonymity can also lend itself to a greater sense of place. When you are completely anonymous, you are removed from the social atmosphere around you, and you are free to wonder and observe. At Pomona, I feel strongly connected with the Pomona community, a feeling I still wouldn’t give up for anything. But here, I also feel connected to something greater, whether it is the massive machine that is Paris or the incredible and diverse people of France. Equally as important, anonymity in the city has given the few communities I have found here a new significance. When I meet up with friends after a solitary lunch, I am simply shifting from an anonymous space to a community space, and both are entirely welcome.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks! I hope this post inspires some reflection on the importance of finding an anonymous space in your life at Pomona and elsewhere. For me, anonymity brings out a sense of place, a feeling of freedom, and a greater appreciation for the communities I’ve discovered abroad. The implications of this aren’t quite clear yet (it’s still September after all), but I already know that upon returning to the United States, Pomona will feel different. My hometown will feel different. My sense of place and what it means to truly live somewhere have forever changed.

Now that fall is here, take time to reflect not just on anonymity, but more generally on how studying abroad could shed light on aspects of your life you hadn’t previously considered. Because, after all, there’s nothing better than sitting down with a warm drink on a fall day and losing yourself in thought.

Places for reflection: A garden! (Monet’s garden in Giverny, if you really want to go deep).

À la prochaine,