A long, long time ago – by which I mean, actually, twelve years – I sort of moved to Paris. I say sort of because, while the intention was to complete all four years of college there, I only ended up staying for a few months.
It was a really fun time in my life. I had just graduated high school and had very lofty, idealistic goals to move to France, become a writer, and get involved in all sorts of cool, social justice-y activities as an international citizen. And you know what? Even though I didn’t end up staying there, I actually came pretty close.
During my time in Paris, once again I got hit with the “culture shock” stick. The US to France isn’t nearly as drastic of a change as we often make it out to be, but it’s always the subtleties of culture that put a spotlight on foreigners. It’s like a great big neon sign over your head saying “I don’t belong here.”
In Paris, one such subtlety was at the movie theater.
I love going to the movies. I’ve often found time on many, many, many of my travels to make a pit stop in a local movie theater to watch films in “exotic” darkness. Going to the theater, after all, is a cultural process, from where and how you order your tickets to the food you eat inside.
In Paris, there was a tiny, little theater not far from my college campus that often showed classic films. As I passed by one day, I saw a poster for the movie “Hair,” which is one of my favorites. A musical about the Vietnam War and a group of hippies in New York, it never fails to make me cry by the end.
My mother and I grabbed tickets and sat down to watch. With a lot of inside jokes between the two of us, we have a tendency to whisper from time to time when we’re watching a movie – especially if it’s one we’ve seen before and one we like. In France, I learned, this is the biggest no-no. Barely had a syllable escaped from my mouth before the person behind us leaned forward with the most aggressive “shhh!” Wanting to apologize, they shushed me again before I said anything else.
It was very awkward as they stared angrily at the back of my head for the next few minutes.
As we sat through the film, we realized no one was speaking. Not even a whisper. Not even a cough. It was dead silent in the theater. So then we understood: in France, one does not utter a single sound during the movies.
With that experience in mind, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see my first movie in Brazil. To say that Brazil is more relaxed than France is like saying the Rio is warmer than Antarctica. There’s no comparison.
First, you’re allowed to bring whatever food you want into the theater. Not technically, of course, but no one enforces it. So in our local mall, it’s not uncommon to see groups of teenagers make a stop in the food court first and then cart in bags of McDonalds, Habib’s, or even Dominos.
Second, because there is no order by default in Brazilian culture, there’s no escaping the attempt to introduce at least some sort of system. In other words, even at the movies, with a schedule and assigned seating, people still stand in front of the door in gigantic lines well before they need to and without any apparent benefit.
Once everyone is filed in, there’s no such thing as quiet. Unlike in France, where movies are an intellectual exercise, Brazilians approach movies like any other activity: as a social experience. Friends, families, dates, children, grandparents, parents, and so on all join together in the theater. There’s talking, there’s meeting new people, reacting to the story, laughter, and, in my experience, plenty of kicking the seat in front of you – it’s only intentional in the sense that it takes a lot for someone to think they’re in your personal space in Brazil.
The US, I think, is somewhere in between. A few whispers are okay, but you will get scolded if you interrupt the dialogue. People try to keep as much space as possible between themselves and others when selecting a seat. There’s sneaking in extra food, but you have to bring the big purse for that. And, contrary to Brazil, there’s only savory popcorn, rather than the sweet kind too. (I’ve learned that this is actually a big surprise for a lot of folks coming from Brazil to the US!)
It’s always funny how the smallest things are cultural. I spend so much time trying to convince people that, quite literally, just existing in Brazil is different for me. There’s so much that’s invisible to us unless we have something deep to compare it to. Whether that’s a movie theater where you can hear a needle drop or one in which it’s a smorgasbord with an audience soundtrack layered on top of the film itself, it’s all cultural.