Dressing the Part

There are a thousand differences between packing for France and packing for Botswana. It was fall in France, and it’s now summer in Botswana. Last semester, I made sure I brought one of my French grammar textbooks because I was so worried about living with a French family and taking courses at the local university. Now, I have to pack three types of pills to ensure that I can fight off traveler’s diarrhea in Gaborone (which conveniently no one tells you about until after you agree to do the program). I had to buy hiking boots for my program in Botswana, while in France the closest I came to hiking was my treacherous one block walk to the nearest boulangerie.

However, despite the distinctions between France and Botswana, there is one unexpected similarity that has plagued my packing process: the importance of fashion. I’ll let you read that again, because I’m sure you think I made a typo. It’s no secret that French women are fashionable. Countless books, magazines, and movies have documented this fact. But, you probably don’t associate Botswana and high fashion. That’s fair; I already told you I had to buy hiking boots. I personally assumed I’d wear workout clothes all the time. So, you can imagine my horror when I read the program handbook and found: “Batswana society places a premium on looking neat and presentable. Many previous students have said they did not bring enough ‘fashionable’ clothing.” Great! I had to spend another semester trying to look nice everyday! Only this time, I’d be in a more conservative culture in the summertime (aka no shorts to combat the 90 degree heat).

Worrying about what I am going to wear may seem frivolous after I mentioned traveler’s diarrhea; nevertheless, during my semester in Strasbourg, I learned that clothing is one of the easiest ways to assimilate yourself into a new culture. If I dressed the part (a motorcycle jacket and a blanket scarf, in case you were wondering), people assumed I was French. This illusion allowed me to traverse Strasbourg gracefully, until, of course, I opened my mouth and used my thoroughly American accent to order a baguette. One of my favorite memories was when my friend and I were in a shop buying presents. We asked a salesman about a product, and he in turn asked us where we were from. He could tell we weren’t French (again, those delightful accents) but when we told him we were American he was totally surprised. “You don’t dress like Americans!” he said. This is one of the biggest compliments I received.

Even in Gaborone, where I will stick out no matter what I wear, my attempt to dress nicely will hopefully show a respect for the people and culture. I know, I know; it’s a lot to throw around the word “respect” when I’m talking about what shirts I’m going to pack. Still, I want my effort to demonstrate that I’ve done my research and that I want to immerse myself in the culture.

I’m off to Gaborone tomorrow, so I will let you know how my wardrobe is received! And how the traveler’s diarrhea pans out! Can you tell I’m really nervous about that? Okay bye!

(Photo is of me at the travel doctor, where I spent a significant amount of my time this past month. I would definitely recommend visiting a travel doctor before going to Gaborone.)

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