Gretchen M. is currently a junior at SYA France and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Illinois.

In Chicago, with helpful tools like my neighborhoods Lincoln Park to Hyde Park 7AM carpool I had to make an extra effort to ensure the tiny step counter on my apple watch broke 10,000. Now however, with the 5 minute walk from the power washed white squares on Charles Nicolle to my bus stop at Ricoquais, the walk between the stop at Anatole France and the its respective metro station, paired finally with the 15 minute walk from the underground tunnel at Place Sainte-Anne, I usually accomplish 5,000 before 8:20 after arriving at the decorative green doors and French facade of 5 Allée Sainte Marie. 

I have discovered during my time in Rennes that French culture is a culture of walking. Perhaps not by any modern conscious choice, no matter what American diet and health magazines plaster on their covers but due to merely how old the cities are. France was designed to walk, or to trot through, small, easily barricade-able alleyways and short streets all for a time before petrol and Elon Musk. Chicago and New York, alongside many other notable American cities, all when viewed on a flat surface, have noticeable systems of wide and long lines that intersect neatly and squarely at crosswalks and city centers. The American urban plan, designed for a world post industrial revolution, caters heavily to the vapor producing traffic. Making streets become hardly as walkable with the same ease that you might find in Europe. Of course, families still have driveways and streets still have cars but the differences lie more in the mindset. 

 I first noticed the change during a reflection on our first school field trip as my friends and I all laughed over a concept that became a bit of both a trigger and an inside joke for most of us. That day we had hiked up a mountain, the Menez-Hom to be exact, under the false pretense that “nous allons faire une petite promenade”. Through our assumption-filled laughter I realized later that night that a 13.5Km hike really was a small walk for the French. This wasn’t an isolated occurrence, as the next weekend my host parents' proposed the idea of a short walk with their husky. Unfortunately I had plans in the city with one of my friends but upon my reentry two hours later I had found, based on the lack of shoes in the mudroom, that this ‘short walk’ wasn’t finished. 

With all the new walking came an interesting feeling of inoccupation. What should I be doing while I’m walking because I must surely be doing something? Productivity seems hard as it doesn’t seem smart on uneven stones to not be focused on your feet, eating is taboo, and phone calls are too personal even knowing that most won’t understand the rapid English. So I've instead turned to just walking. Appreciating the lack of noise pollution on rain glazed streets looking forward through archways and alleys instead of down at something I need to have done later. Taking time to be mindfully present. 

With this addition of savoring the in between, I have had a much needed respite from the hustle culture of the States. Perhaps even while on these walks reckoning of the falsity of meritocracy. Meritocracy, summarized with all my bias, is the concept that the degree you work immediately affects your income and therefore societal standing. Although I said many people drive in the states, that's a rather pointed assumption based on the accounts of my school friends. I am very privileged to wake up every morning in Chicago with the easiest commute possible from my neighborhood while also getting to use that with an extra half hour to study in the car. Time in the morning I am very aware not everyone has. Time as a resource is incredibly influential for students as I have begun to discover, through my incredibly slight encounter as my 30 minute commute has turned into an hour one filled with changing buses while I watch some of my other friends walk 5 minutes to school every morning. I must stress that this in no way detracts from my experience in France, but It has provided me with a new perspective. 

I had the privileged choice to walk and commute, others, like many in my hometown, did not. It has become incredibly clear to me how important resources like public transportation are as I have begun to rely on them daily. And so I have been motivated; motivated to return to my hardly walkable city and advocate for better access to transportation along with bettering the systems themselves because if we cannot change the deeply rooted foundation of the mindset which holds power, I hope we can at least even attempt to create access for people to fight it.  

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