Can we please stop glorifying France?

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?

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19 thoughts on “Can we please stop glorifying France?

  1. Jess says:

    Totally agree with all this! I saw those same changes living in the centre of niort and then moving to the suburbs of niort.

  2. Totally agree – France is wonderful, but not necessarily for the reasons that outsiders tink it is! I’ve also often been struck by how much of a car-and-hypermarché centred country France can be – even in Paris we’ve got the choice between small but expensive local shops and the big Carrefour and Auchan on the other side of the peripherique … and not much in between!

  3. Great post! I agree!

    The French bise drives me nuts. I don’t mind it when it comes to friends and family. But walking into work? I do a generic “Hello!”. I just can’t bring myself to go up to all of them (all men). If they walk in and do the bise with me, fine. Other than that, nope.

    I have seen some real gross things when it comes to food. Ketchup with pasta or rice (gross). And some of the “American” (i.e. not at all American) things they love, just no.

    And as we’re always walking our dog, I can validate the fact that no one cares for pedestrians. Sometimes we have to wait at a crosswalk until there are no cars in order to cross! Hardly anyone stops!

    Even though we still live somewhat central, we only go to the store once a week. We can’t fathom the craziness, the crowds, and the lines more than that. And when we are at his parents’, life is way more American-ish. We have to take the car everywhere – no other choice!

    • I do try to make an effort be a good driver and a good pedestrian—cross at the crosswalk instead of five yards away, stop for a pedestrian who’s actually at the crosswalk… although I have gotten used to sort of forcing my way into traffic as well!

      And yes, “American” food in France is usually pretty gross. Bread without any sign of a crust? Ew.

      • There’s a crosswalk that’s very well indicated right in front of where we live and people never stop. As the dark is small, I’m always afraid people won’t see him if he’s a little ahead of me.

  4. God, laicite is the most hypocritical thing I have ever witnessed. It is such an Islamophobic policy and it disgusts me. Everyone seems to want to deveil the Muslim women but no one wants to let the Muslim women speak.

    In the south many people are racist and I am catcalled on a weekly basis.

    Many French people are afraid of change and follow a very specific path in life. Kids are expected to know their future at 15, and then they do NOTHING but school until they get their first job in their twenties.

    I love France and the French and so many things about this country, but lately these specific examples have been getting to me. bises

    • Yes, the veil law is something I’ve never really understood. And I certainly would rather live in Poitiers than the south of France as far as racism and sexism goes.

  5. mom says:

    so everything we loved about Spain is artificial? Meandering through historic plazas, buying the next day’s bread and muffins, going out for beer at the corner bar? Guess we won’t move there then. Spaniards DO stop for pedestrians though

  6. Your post inspired me to write a similar post of my own.

    Whenever I tell people back in Canada that I live in France, they often look back at me all starry-eyed. If they only knew how difficult it is to live here…

    • I just zipped over and read it! I guess what gets to me the most is the “oh those French have it all figured out!” attitude. Really, they have their own problems!

  7. Great post! I hated doing the bises at work with my old colleagues. Three of them cycled to work and having to bise their sweaty faces still makes me shudder!

    As for the pedestrian thing, I just stride out in front of cars if they are at a safe(ish) distance. I have a theory they respect you more if you take matters into your own hands rather than waiting for them to stop 😉

    Too many of these trend pieces and even books are written from a very narrow perspective (expat Parisian bourgeois or college student, usually). Not necessarily wrong, but often not reflective of France as a whole. (I don’t claim to be an expert on France as a whole either, but I’ve at least lived in different environments, held down “normal” jobs etc.)

  8. You’re definitely not the only one to feel like this! Though I have maybe started to glorify the states in my mind (shopping on Sunday! Friendly strangers! After school clubs! Bread with butter in restaurants!) and forget all the craziness that happens there too . . . I have Fox News in English, so whenever I start feeling too nostalgic, I turn it on for a few hours, lol.

    I honestly don’t feel like laïcité is even possible here. If most national holidays are Catholic feast days, how can you say that the country separates church and state? You’re basically telling people that only one religion matters. When I told people my sister’s Muslim wedding did not have any alcohol, they said she was “forcing” her religion on her guests (though messing with wedding traditions here are a whole separate can of worms!).

    We live a two minute walk from the center, and still use the car to go grocery shopping! I think it might be generational to a certain extent; my MIL still goes to the outdoor market (though has to drive there) and hits up the boulangerie and boucherie a few times a week.

  9. There are plenty of things that make me thankful I don’t live in the States, though none of those feelings had anything to do with me coming to France! And I do really love Texas, despite its flaws. But yeah, Fox News…

    What an incredible reaction to your sister’s wedding. Weird.

    And we do actually go to the butcher’s every week. It’s a rhythm we picked up because we live five minutes away (by car!) and because J’s dad is a butcher, and the meat at the supermarket is sub-par while not being any cheaper. I don’t even bother buying pork or beef in a grande surface.

  10. I used to blog about how I found real life in France….I spent about twenty years there….and regularly had comments from ‘living the dreamers’ about how I had to be mistaken….this from people who had no idea of what was happening in their own neighbourhood.
    I was in the country…but we had a drug dealing bar in the village, burglaries galore in the area and a totally supine gendarmerie….

    • Thanks for the comment about your experience. We live in a pretty safe area so I can’t really speak from experience about neighborhood problems. Personally I have to say I do still feel like I’m living the dream, but the dream has become much more realistic.

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