Familiarizing the unfamilliar

During the first weeks in Bordeaux google maps was my best friend. Without it I would have found neither my way to university nor to the next supermarket. Google maps would guide me home after a night out in a bar or after the visit to a museum. Only little by little did I learn which route I could take to get somewhere. It was particularly challenging to gain orientation for travels by bike, since there are lots of one-way roads in the historical center of Bordeaux as a result of the narrowness of the streets. A route, that takes you somewhere, is therefore never the one that takes you back home. Unless you like to ride on the sidewalk, which you do not, because it is bumpy and small.

Yes, it took a while to turn the beautiful but foreign city in a well-known town. This process was not only about the orientation for travels but about knowing where to buy food, where to go to the hairdresser or where to drink a nice cup of coffee. Especially buying groceries was a difficult thing to do. Usually this would just be a matter of custom and your supermarket is like your living room in which you know exactly where to find bananas, bread and tea. In a new supermarket in a new city, in contrary, you have to look for every single product. You have to evaluate, if you would like the taste of it, if you can trust the brand. Where are the bag to put in fruits and vegetables? Do I have to weigh the products by myself or will the supermarket cashier do it? After this nightmare of looking for needles in a haystack, things get easier rapidly and your eyes see virtually only those products you need. And you know that the baguette from the bakery Dorin is a great deal more crunchy and tasty than those of the supermarket.

About six weeks after my arrival I knew Bordeaux well enough to consider the city a fairly well-known place to me. I knew where to get a replacement bicycle tube, where the locations of the apartments of my friends were and which tram line to take to get there. Long story cut short, for every day to day need I knew a place where to meet it. The citymap in my head became clearer and clearer every day (to which the view from the stipple of the cathedral Saint André contributed particularly). I lived my daily routine as would in Bern – without an online research every time I wanted to buy or to do something. Bordeaux became little by little my second hometown.

What I learned from this experience is firstly that familiarity is a in a way just a matter of time. When you arrive in a strange city you may have the feeling at some point that you will never feel at home there. Yet, sooner or later you will do so.

Secondly, the process of familiarization is  a continuous one. A strange place doesn’t become familiar in a tick, nor does it stop getting more familiar at certain point. At any rate, with every day I spent in the city, it would become a little bit more familiar. However, logically, the five months I spent in Bordeaux were not enough to reach the same level of familiarity as I have in Bern.

Above all, familiarity is probably the most important condition to feel at ease and at home somewhere and it facilitates your day to day life distinctively.

Timon Stuber

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