In many ways, living in my department of France feels like stepping back 50 years. Stores close early and often, the world stops on Sundays, and everyone drives a manual car. But there’s no stopping technology, even in rural France. And because of this technology, I feel like I’ve been able to get closer to France than was possible ten or even five years ago.
I’m talking about the sharing economy, the system where people share their resources with each other. We see it in companies such as Uber (people acting as taxi drivers), Lyft (people lending their cars to others who need to drive), and Airbnb (people renting their spare rooms to travelers).
Besides these services saving users money compared to more traditional means, they also have another benefit: forced interaction with others. The fruits of the sharing economy have proven perfect for a temporary French resident such as myself.
Let’s take my recent New Year’s trip to Lyon, France as an example. To get to and from Lyon, which is a three-hour car ride from Guéret, I used a carpooling website called BlaBlaCar, which allows car owners to advertise trips they’re taking, selling the empty seats in their cars. Last week, a driver drove me and another BlaBlaCar user to Lyon for about 25 euros each, meaning the driver made 50 euros during his Guéret-Lyon trip.
BlaBlaCar does more than generate gas money for the driver and save passengers cash and time compared to the trains. It also allows me as a French visitor to get to know people. With my BlaBlaCar trips to and from Lyon, I got to see what some French people do for a living, listen to others’ music, hear a few gripes about the government, and share friendly conversation with people to who I would have never had the chance to speak otherwise.
When I arrived in Lyon, I used Airbnb to stay in the apartment of a couple around my age for a few days. I was a solo traveler and had no plans for New Year’s Eve, so the couple invited me to spend the evening hanging out and playing games with them and their friends. Greeting 2015 in the company of seven people from not just France but around the globe, felt like the culmination of what Airbnb is about.
What would my trip to Lyon have been like just five years ago? I would have taken the train, which is two hours longer than a car ride and at least double the price — and I would have read a book the whole time in lieu of speaking to my fellow passengers. Instead of using Airbnb, I would have stayed in a hotel, where I would not have spoken with anyone who lives in Lyon, and probably spent New Year’s Eve watching television.
The sharing economy has so many benefits, but a great one for a traveler like me is the ability to get to know France a little better. It helps me to interact with a wider spectrum of the French population than those in my town, and further improve my speaking skills and comprehension of other accents. That’s definitely something that would have been more difficult 50 years ago.