Entering a Cosmopolitan World: L'Auberge Espagnole

by zhixin on May 22, 2014 - 8:38pm

Few weeks ago, I learned in my anthropology class that cosmopolitanism is defined as an ideology that all human groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality. Rosabet Ross Kanter (1995), a professor at Harvard Business School, describes the people following that philosophy with two main characteristics. The most attractive values of cosmopolitanism are the emphases on peace over war and tolerance over conflict; thus, these components allows for better communication and better bridging over dissimilarities. Secondly, cosmopolitans transcend places due to their weak community affiliations; “they are not defined by particular places as locals are” (Kanter 1995). They lack of local attachment while simultaneously accepting multiculturalism and their ability to detach from their daily lives makes Kanter conclude that cosmopolitans often value choices over loyalties (pp.23-24). Likewise, Calhoun mentions that cosmopolitanism is often presented as global citizenship (p.873) where cosmopolitans –he calls them “frequent travellers”– embrace democracy, but also differences, equality and responsibility.

Previously presented as a philosophy, it can also be described through lived experiences. The movie “L’Auberge Espagnole”, translated as “The Spanish Apartment” was introduced to us, in class, as a cosmopolitan movie. Is a comedy that portraits perfectly the idea of cosmopolitanism. In fact, it is a typical coming of age movie that describes the story of a young man, Xavier, in search of his identity. The movie starts with the protagonist taking the decision of going to study abroad in Barcelona, for a year, under a program of student exchange, Erasmus. From this choice, Xavier already presents many cosmopolitan characteristics. To explain this, he loves to travel, and searches for new experiences. He leaves his hometown, abandoning his family and girlfriend behind and arrives in a completely new world for him, where he does not even understand the language. Yet, he quickly learns to adapt to the environment and finds himself with seven other students all from different countries with varied personalities. Explaining the connection with cosmopolitanism, he is able to make himself comfortable in a new location as he adjusts himself quickly to new environments and there is doubt that he is valuing choice over loyalty as he abandons his girlfriend behind. He choses to explore the world and detaches himself from his daily life.

Additionally, he finds his place in an apartment with a mix of cultures where everyone tries to cooperate in order to live confortable together. Thus, despite their differences in languages and culture and the confusions that sometimes take place in the apartment, the students can still get along with each other and have fun together, allowing viewers to identify them as cosmopolitans.

It is earlier mentioned that cosmopolitans embrace democracy, but also differences, equality and responsibility and the political structure of the “Auberge” is an accurate example of those qualities. First of all, the recruit of new members in the apartment is done under the presence of everyone, giving the audience that a sense of democracy is present among them. Then, even though the apartment seems to be in a total mess at the beginning, as the number of roommate increases, each individual takes part in the household chores. Moreover, I found that the most important scene in the movie describing their cosmopolitan relation and sense of solidarity is when they all cover up for the infidelity of the British roommate Wendy that is in bed with her lover when her boyfriend arrives from England to visit her. It is their complicity and shared moralities that unite them together despite their differences.

Conversely, what makes the movie interesting to watch is the existence of a character that isn’t always following the cosmopolitans’ values. Wendy’s younger brother is especially portrayed as the least cosmopolitan individual in the apartment. He stereotypes every single members of the group and is not always respectful to people that live with him under the same roof:  he makes dirty jokes about their country, their cultures and finds all kind of ways to annoy them. Yet, it does not seem that he does this under the purpose of hurting anyone, but it looks more that he just isn’t as open and as cosmopolitans – the other members – are.

Finally, under a more general perspective, the idea of cosmopolitanism is strongly present through the movie. People travel from place to place, meet new friends, aren’t judged for who they are, for what they do and basically just enjoy life. However, is it possible to live as a cosmopolitan all your life? Can we just see cosmopolitanism as a possibility, an ideology, that helps young people to find their way in life and what they really enjoy as Xavier did in the movie?

Works Cited

Calhoun, Craig. 2002. "The Class Consciousness of Frequent Travellers: Towards a Critique of Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism." Society of the World: Mediterranean Poeple and Societies By Jennifer Campbell. p. 155-181.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. 1995. World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy. London : Simon & Schuster.

Moore, Fiona. 2002. "Global Elites and Local People: Images of Germanness and Cosmopolitanism Among German Transnational Business People in London." PhD thesis, University of Oxford.