The French have a verb, assimiler, that has a literal definition of, as one may guess, “to assimilate”, but a figurative one also of “to absorb” or “to learn”. Since I packed my bags and found myself a studio in France, that’s what I’ve been trying to do with regard to French culture, to assimiler dans ma tête what is different about life in this country as compared to life in America.
Here’s what I’ve discovered:
1. I love bises!
Imagine it: the late-afternoon sun lights the sky in warm tones of daffodil yellow and clementine, the Eiffel Tower stands iconic in the distance, and against this meet the silhouettes of two people, both of whom give the other a swift air kiss beside both cheeks, allowing their cheeks to brush as they make a bright, puckered kissy noise with their own lips.
Though but the French equivalent of a hug or handshake, bises conjure up daydreams of Paris, where romance saturates the air like the fragrance of soft pink rose petals, and so gives to every French encounter an element of freshness and spontaneity. Both friends and acquaintances, especially two women or a woman and a man, may give one another bises. It may also be said when saying goodbye or written in the closing of a letter. Similar but more playful, bisous are kisses on the cheeks or lips given between lovers and friends.
2. La politesse is deeply ingrained in French society.
If you don’t faire la bise, you must at least say “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir” (depending on whether it’s day or night) to everyone you meet, from friends to coworkers to the person at the checkout at the grocery store. If you walk into a room of people, you should greet the room upon walking through the door. And don’t forget to wish people a good day or evening (“Bonne journée” or “Bonne soirée”) and to say goodbye (“Au revoir”, pronounced “ah-vwahr”) as you leave!
3. The pace of life is slower.
France’s café culture exemplifies this perfectly. People go for drinks—café in the morning and alcohol in the afternoon into evening—just to socialize, because one’s social life is of more importance in France. People may invite friends over for the apéritif, drinks and classy snacks before dinner (there’s even a whole apéritif cheese section at the grocery store), and if they take it out, there are many apéritifs, usually liqueurs, listed on restaurants’ drinks menus.
Meals are more important too, as they provide the day with structure and the French value ritual more highly. Lunch is an hour and a half, so many people go home to cook or go to lunch with coworkers, and after dinner, you can hang out, finishing your wine or smoking, if that’s what you like to do; waitstaff don’t push you to leave (though this goes both ways: you can’t expect speedy service from them, especially since tips are included in the bill). Plus, people converse at the table! If you see someone on their phone, you can be 99 percent sure that person isn’t French.
4. The French are more proud than are Americans.
The phrase “proud to be an American” has nothing on French pride; the difference is that French pride is less openly expressed. Nevertheless, the French are extremely proud, both as individuals and as a people and, as such, they are easily bothered. You can tell when a French person is upset because he or she will adopt mannerisms one doesn’t hear in the U.S.; this manner of speaking is about resolution, and sometimes feigning discontent in order to get one’s way. It’s an inflection of the voice accompanied by gap-fillers (especially bah, “well”); widening of the eyes; and air blown out to fill the cheeks, momentarily rendering the person a chipmunk before being released. While French is a romantic language in which the words flow one into the next, enunciation of certain consonants and phrases sounds sharper, and the words en fait (in fact), voilà (there you go), and C’est tout (That’s all) may be heard a lot.
5. The women are more feminine.
French femininity is subtle, and it’s individual. The French woman doesn’t flaunt her femininity but rather takes care to show it in whatever way she can. She doesn’t wear heels every day, but she does wear skirts and dresses, and underneath those, lingerie—a matching bra and panties that make her feel that she deserves to wear pretty things, even if nobody sees them. She maintains good posture and carries herself with poise. She’s not perfect, but she’s interesting and in command of herself, and that makes her alluring.
6. There is no such thing as “overdressed”, in either sense of the word.
You have to hand it to the French: they really do have a certain sartorial savoir faire. In their trench or wool coats, ankle boots, and endless scarves, the women sparkle with confidence that simmers in the simplicity of a few go-to pieces. The men wear sweaters, pullovers, and button-downs. Nobody takes off his or her coat while riding the métro or tram. That took me a little getting used to at first, but now it just seems easier. It would be too much of a hassle to remove your perfectly-wrapped scarf, coat, and pom-pom hat every time!
7. Many people rely on public transportation.
The French don’t have to worry about earthquakes collapsing their cities, so the cities are built up, not out. This is great because it makes most French cities walking cities! The lack of earthquakes also makes public transportation safe. In Bordeaux, there’s a fabulous, modern tram system, but in Lille, the métro is primarily underground, and in Paris, it’s partly aboveground and partly underground. Since everything is close together, it’s quick, too.
8. People read!
Bookstores exist! There’s a seven-story Furet du Nord in Lille. I firmly believe that if America had more public transportation (which meant people would have free time during the time they normally spent driving) and if all of the bookstores hadn’t disappeared, we would be a smarter country.
9. People buy their groceries from open-air markets.
These marchés are everywhere, and unlike farmers’ markets in America, they’re year-round! The biggest ones take place on Sunday mornings, but you can find smaller ones throughout the week, too. At any marché, you can buy fruits, vegetables, and flowers, and at some of the bigger ones you can find honey, olives and tapenade, cheeses, meats and seafood, and roasted chicken (people queue for this!).
10. “Clean eating” is not a thing.
Before coming here, I rarely drank milk or ate bread and had no interest in butter. But here, you can buy organic milk for a little more than one euro (as compared to four or five dollars), and the butter. is. delicious. That’s to say nothing of the bread, which is baked fresh every morning and inedible after two days, as it contains no preservatives (so at least it’s a little healthier!). You can pick it up at an artisan boulangerie-pâtisserie on almost any corner for about a euro. My favorite breakfast is a tartine (any slice of bread, but I prefer an open-faced baguette) with beurre doux and Bonne Maman jam.
Unfortunately, salads are not too common—I make mine at home and bring them with me to work—while sugar is all too common. The French have a sweet tooth.
11. The French aren’t really ones for exercise.
Some guys go to the gym, and it’s rumored that some girls do, too, but that they only do cardio while they’re there. It’s more common to run outdoors—I’ve seen it both in Paris and in Lille—or, more still, to not exercise at all.
So if the French eat bread all of the time and don’t work out, how do they stay so thin? To be honest, I haven’t noticed a significant difference between body shapes in America and those in France. There is a feminine French figure and a masculine one, the former petite and very thin, the latter also small, with compact legs (though this surely is accentuated by the tight pants). However, just as in America, there exists a variety of body types, and there are plenty of overweight and obese individuals. That said…
12. Moderation is more widely practiced.
The French don’t overindulge. At the bottom of any French advertisement for a snack food is a statement that says that important to a healthy diet is not consuming too much of any one kind of food, whether sweet, savory, or salty. To this end, a family friend with whom I stayed in Nantes for a couple of days explained to me that when you’re finished eating, you don’t take seconds, and you can have dessert (sometimes after both lunch and dinner), but something small, and nothing more. This demonstration of self-control is the reason many French people have such tight bodies and look so amazing in skinny jeans.
13. The French are more inclined to use natural remedies.
Many items that are over-the-counter in America, such as aspirin, are behind the counter in France. If you have a headache, for example, you have to explain that to a pharmacist so she can decide the best treatment for you. This reticence to medicate is accompanied by the dedication of a whole aisle in the pharmacy to extracts (including cassis, or blackcurrant) and herbal teas.
14. The French government gives its citizens money.
Le revenu universel, also called le revenu de base, l’allocation universelle, and other names, is a monthly allowance of sorts considered to be an inalienable and unconditional right of every French citizien. It varies in amount according to the applicant’s age, work status, and salary, but it complements wages and covers living expenses in the case of unemployment.
15. French bureaucracy, however, is agonizingly slow, as anyone who has ever had to deal with it knows.
My initiation into French bureaucracy was a dramatic one. The night before my visa appointment at 9:00am the following day, I went to sleep without knowing if I would be able to obtain my visa; five months after having been accepted into the program through which I’m teaching, I still hadn’t received my work contract. Luckily, it was sent to me during the night and was sitting in my email inbox when I woke up the next morning, and I’m here now! This is but one example, however, of it taking a long time to get anything done.
16. School is harder.
The French school system is demanding: a school day can last from 7:00am to 5:00pm, though most students only have to go from 8:00am to 3:30pm. Students must pass an exam to culminate from collège (middle school), though I’m told it’s not that hard, and they’re expected to have some sort of idea as to what they want to do with their lives by that time; I doubt there’s any such thing as taking a courseload of GEs freshman year to find out what you like. Students who earn good grades in lycée (high school) go to university, while those who earn not-so-good grades go to professional (trade) schools. There are even some professional lycées. I thought all of this would mean that students would be more serious, but in collège, at least, they’re still a mix of attentive and disruptive, hardworking and apathetic.
The teachers, however, are definitely stricter, and they demand more respect: the class must line up outside the door, say hello upon filing in, and remain standing until told to be seated. The slightest misconduct may be reprimanded with a taking of the carnet de correspondance (like the agendas in American elementary schools that parents have to sign) or, and the students actually hate this, being sent out of the classroom.
17. France has upheld traditional attitudes concerning the relationship of a husband and a wife.
I’m not positive about this one, but I’m pretty sure the country is still tied to the institution of a patriarchal society. I noticed this while listening to an American who married a French man talk to me about her husband: she referred to him not by his name, even though I knew him, but as “my husband”. Maybe she loved reminding herself that she was married to him, or maybe it was simply her preference to refer to him in that way, but to me it rang as deferential. I wonder if it’s this way throughout much of Europe; on a free walking tour of Prague, my boyfriend’s and my tour guide made a quip that went something to the effect of, “But we’re far past the notion that men are stronger than women, aren’t we, Americans?”
18. Racism is just as if not more rampant in France than it is in America, but the French are less willing to talk about it.
I’ve seen what may have been racial profiling on several occasions, yet under the French constitutional law of laïcité, it’s not allowed to discuss race, religion, or politics—any subject that could get touchy—in school. Furthermore, even noting someone’s race may be taken for racism. When discussing former president Obama’s presidency, I had to explain to my students that in America, it’s not considered racist to describe him as the first black president; it’s just a matter of fact. Regardless, they all think America is racist.
19. Christmas lasts for two months.
Globalization may have allowed Black Friday to infiltrate French marketing, but Christmas decorations start going up in early November. Fairy lights are strung across streets, Christmas trees go up in shopping malls, and you can find wrapping paper almost anywhere. Come December, the marchés du Noël, or Christmas markets, start popping up; every city has its own, and some towns within cities hold their own marchés in miniature. There’s so much Christmas spirit!
The wine is amazing. I haven’t had enough California wine to definitively say whether or not French wine is better, but you can easily find an inexpensive bottle that’s pleasant to drink. Plus, there are more types of French wine. There are so many regions and so many varieties of grapes that it’s impossible to be a connoisseur of them all!
In spite of all of these cultural differences, I periodically have flashes of realization in which it becomes clear to me for but a moment that life here is quite the same as it is back home. All of the above differences, they’re little things.
Toddlers still go through their terrible twos. Dads still scold their children for burping in public (I actually witnessed this happen: as I was walking down the block, a three- or four-year-old burped, and his dad immediately said, only half-shocked, “Enfant!”). Schoolchildren still play sports, buy candy, and take the bus home from school. College students still go out Thursday nights. Young families still spend every day exhausted and in the love of one another. Most everyone still listens to American music and goes shopping on Saturdays (everything is closed on Sundays).
France and America are both Western first-world countries. We’re both lucky to have clean water to drink and to not have to live in fear of losing our lives and families at any second in the place we call home. And yet I wonder if on some level, the foundations of life aren’t the same for people throughout the world, if we don’t care about the same things, if we all wouldn’t be happy to simply be alive and loved.