Don’t get me wrong, I love France. And I may write a compensatory article soon to make up for this one. But recently I read this quora article on Slate, and it made me want to express this recurring feeling that we (Americans) are unnecessarily glorifying French habits.
Articles and books seem to pop up all the time about how great France is and how the French do things better. French women don’t get fat, French parents raise their children better… none of it, to me, seems true, and actually seems more like just a way of exoticizing and romanticizing a culture that we don’t really understand.
I don’t want to tear apart this one article from quora, because quora isn’t really a site with articles, but rather contributions that people put out there from their own experiences.
But I would like to add my point of view to some of these comments that I’ve seen before.
1) The French bise. I really do like the French bise. I love that it varies all over the country and that Poitiers is in the only area where one bise is traditional (this is more so in the neighboring département les Deux-Sèvres—in Poitiers the bise is about half the time two and half the time one). But the bise is not always pure joy. With older men colleagues, for me, there is always the annoying doubt that they are doing the bise with you because you are a young woman and they want to take advantage of physical contact. I know, it’s just a cheek kiss, and typically not even that… but I resent it. And also, there’s nothing better for spreading colds!
2) Luke warm drinks. I will never get used to this and will never think it’s better than cold drinks. I will always love ice cold water and never understand people’s aversion to it, including bizarre “health-based” concerns about drinking cold water. Like the dangers of “courants d’air” (breezes), I think this is crap. Though to be fair, the French tradition of lukewarm water doesn’t seem to be based on unfounded health concerns, and your chances of getting served cool water in a restaurant are much better here than in neighboring Spain.
3) French people eat totally weird shit sometimes. French dining is a wonderful experience that I’ve grown to really love. That said, they are just as capable as Americans of eating weird stuff. Most shocking to me has been ketchup on pasta. I’ve found it hard to buy the idea that all French people somehow have an innate superior sense of taste after watching plain pasta be mixed with ketchup so many times.
4) There is definitely a bigger distrust of strangers. Though my sense of this has lessened in the years I’ve lived in France, I will never forget the true surprise that was returning to Austin in 2009 and noticing that people were just NOT afraid of strangers. Conversation didn’t need a pretext, and didn’t make you nervous. In France, there are many situations where I feel the ice is easily broken—your train is late, some bizarre catastrophe has arisen in the supermarket—but in normal circumstances, people ignore each other.
5) People don’t care too much for pedestrians. I know, in the States, they are an endangered species and so we feel the need to protect them like if we scare one off they will all disappear. But, though I’ve gotten used to it and I’m sure it’s nothing like walking around in Italy, pedestrians are seen as much more of an annoyance here to drivers and people are generally much less patient with them (though of course, sometimes I think they’re right to be impatient!).
6) French laïcité has its own particular problems. Yes, having lived in the Bible Belt, I absolutely do believe that the French separate church from state better than we do. But I had a conversation with my brother-in-law last year that colored my perception of French laïcité a little differently. He was 15 at the time, and was talking about how in some French village someone had complained about the local school celebrating Christmas—for him, it was ridiculous, how could some complain about celebrating Christmas (probably a fairly secular celebration, as much as it could be) at school? I mentioned to him and my in-laws that there are actually other religious celebrations in December that could be included, like Hanukkah, and they all looked at me blankly. None of them knew what it was.
7) Life in the historical city center is not representative of life for most French people. I think exchange students and language assistants get a romanticized view of life in France just from the fact that we typically live in the city center of villages, small towns, of big cities. Poitiers’ city center is very charming and living there could lead to believe many things about life in France:
- people do their grocery shopping multiple times a week in pull-caddies so that they can walk to and from the supermarket
- they live in historic apartments with compact, well-maintained gardens hidden behind apartment fronts (the case of Grand’Rue in Poitiers where many homeowners live just behind the student apartments)
- people do their clothes shopping on foot in cobblestone streets rather than in malls
- they shop at least weekly at the covered market (Les Halles) or the weekend open-air market
If you live outside the historic downtown, French life starts to resemble American life, a lot. You drive to the supermarket where there are at least ten different stores surrounding the grocery store. You drive to work and to the bank, and avoid the places where parking is too tight. You buy your clothes at shops that have parking and where rainy weather won’t make a difference. Granted, some people do go to the market every week, but J and I don’t go to the one downtown. The market we like is in the cité (among the high-rises) in the north of Poitiers—it’s five times as big, less expensive, and way more diverse.
Bref, people in France are guilty of the same trends as Americans. Poitiers’ centre ville has suffered since it became more pedestrian four years ago, and as much as I love it, I have to admit I am just as guilty of going to the Auchan fifteen minutes away from my house rather than spending thirty minutes driving through the maze that is access to Poitiers central parking garages.
Of course I think some things are better in France, but every generalization about the French lifestyle needs to be tempered by the understand that habits here are much more nuanced. And I personally really wish we would stop glorifying them.
Anyone else out there have this feeling?