Being with a Frenchman

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Me with my Frenchman in Washington state (I’ll stop with the cute pictures soon I promise)

There are more than a few articles out there about being with a Frenchman. If you type “dating a Frenchman” into Google you’ll get pages of mostly funny articles about quirky or startling cultural differences, that are more or less stereotypes of The French Man. Here’s one in slideshow form (annoying), and here’s another with the reassuring caveat that cultural differences don’t excuse all annoying behavior. Phew, thanks.

But these funny, surprising differences are not really what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what it’s really like being with a person from another culture. I’ve been reading the articles at A Practical Wedding during my sick leave. The site was recommended by my sister-in-law and doesn’t apply much to the wedding we’ll do in France but the articles are very interesting. I recently came across this one: What Happens When Your Friends Don’t Like Your Partner. So, my friends like my partner; that’s not the point. But Anna also writes a little about what it’s like to be with someone who doesn’t heave to your cultural expectations or for your personal expectations for your life.

Unlike the stereotypical French Man, J did not say “I love you,” within two weeks of us getting together; he didn’t introduce me to his parents right away; he never sends me text messages (thank God, I believe they are a curse for new couples). We were, I guess, immediately “together” upon our first romantic encounter, but since we had all the same friends and had known each other for nine months, I think this would have been the same in the States. J does not have five different colognes lining our bathroom shelves, there’s no hair gel for his cow-licks in the morning, and he’s only started dressing well since he started dating me, really, though he is interested in what I wear and does enjoy shopping.

In terms of daily life and other boring stuff, the cultural differences are pretty livable. J has that French repartee that I don’t really have and that I sometimes find annoying. He cuts to the chase and isn’t nice just for the sake of being nice when there’s a problem. He’s frank with restaurateurs when they ask us how our meal was. He believes there is one way to drive and it is his (but isn’t that all men?), which he learned in a hilly town with a stick shift. He is friends with almost all of his exes, and consequently, so am I. He believes that French rules about eating are real rules with nutritional value behind them, always (no fruit juice with dinner! no salty snacks in the afternoon!). None of this causes too much trouble, and most of it I appreciate or at least can learn from. But it is funny that I’m able to recognize things as cultural differences when for him they are set-in-stone rules. Fortunately he is open-minded enough to travel and see the way things work in other places (Texas, Canada, India) and enjoy that without judging. Not having that, I think, would have been a deal-breaker for me!

He did find the two-liter coke bottles hilarious.

He did find the two-liter coke bottles hilarious (also, see cowlick partially evidenced here.)

In terms of the relationship, it’s hard to say whether our differences are cultural or are simply the effect of growing up and having a different take on life. J has never played games with me on any aspect of our relationship: getting together, moving in, PACSing, buying a house, deciding to get married. I don’t think that’s French though, just the sign of a good person. He wasn’t convinced we needed to get married and I don’t think he would ever have asked me. This, for me, is completely French, and I’ll try to explain why, since it’s not like American men are all popping the question at 28 years old. But it’s true that in France, marriage is a bit démodé. His cousins have kids but aren’t married, and I have plenty of colleagues in that same situation. I’ve adjusted my little girl expectations so much over the years, and been so happily surprised at so many other things in our relationship, that I could almost have lived with this one. On the other hand, J and I are both in agreement that we find the idea of a “proposal story” ridiculous (for us) and when people ask us about it we’re tempted to answer, “We talked about it together like grown-ups.”

Culture is macro and micro: I’m American and he’s French, yes. But I’m also from a family of scientists while his is working-class. We like to read books and go to museums, and they like to play sports and climb mountains. I’ve played the violin since I was seven, and he can barely clap to a beat. I grew up in Texas, and he grew up in Poitiers. All of these things are our cultures, and so far we have been very good at bridging and combining them. I try to play tennis and go climbing; he goes to museums and monuments with me. He agrees to marry me and I agree to the five-course meal.

The one thing I remain curious about is the fact that we always speak French. I believe that, especially when I first arrived in France, I don’t have exactly the same personality in the two languages. French me and English me are getting more and more similar. But I’d like J to know the English me some day and I have no idea when that will happen. I have no patience to be a teacher with him, and he doesn’t have enough motivation to go out and work on it himself.

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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?

How I eat in France.

Eugh

Eugh

I remember when I first moved to France having trouble understanding what to buy at the grocery store. On the surface, French food and American food are nearly the same: aisles of dairy, meat, canned foods, fresh fruit and vegetables… yet somehow it was still very confusing. I didn’t get what lardons (=chopped up bacon) were used for. I came home with things I wouldn’t eat today, like pre-packaged croques monsieur.

Anyway over six years my diet has more or less settled, and living with a Frenchman has given me some insight into French food rules, and made me miss and wonder about some American ones.

So here are some things I’ve learned and/or adjusted to…

  1. Cheese after the main dish. In Poitou, this is very often goat cheese, and though the cheese aisle still overwhelms me a little bit (J accuses me of buying three new cheeses for every one left in the fridge), I’ve become a big fan of the cheese course.
  2. A warm or cold entrée before the main dish. J likes to cut open an avocado or tomato, and every once in a while we buy something small and hot from the butcher or the grocery store. Something with lots of flaky dough and meat or fish on the inside. Things I’d definitely never seen in the States.

    Miam

    Faisselle. Miam.

  3. Yogurt after the meal (though not always if I’ve eaten cheese). Like the cheese aisle, I’m also a fan of the yogurt aisle, and all the yogurt-like dairy products: faisselle, fromage blanc, yaourt grec.
  4. Apéro! The apéro is such a wonderful part of French eating, yet it’s also possibly the least healthy. J managed to shed weight this year just by quitting all those gateaux apéritifs. We call them gateaux but they aren’t sweet, and they aren’t even remotely cake-like. They’re typically store-bought things like pretzls and chips, and we’ve tried to switch to cherry tomatoes and humus over the past year.
  5. Le petit quatre heures: This one I have trouble with. When kids come home from school, they have their goûter: normally cookies or something to carry them through to dinner. So French afternoon snacks are sugary and not salty. In fact J told me yesterday that what you need in the afternoon is sugar and not salt. I have no idea if that’s true, and I hope not, because I love salty snacks. Sweet food at 5 pm will never tempt me. I’ll always miss my American snacks: Pirates’ Booty, cheese puffs, flavored pretzls, veggie chips… sigh.
  6. A hot meal at lunchtime: Though I take a sandwich to school (I can’t be bothered to prepare a hot meal in advance), when I’m home, I never eat a cold lunch.
Breakfast?

Breakfast?

And here are a few American rules that no one observes in France:

  1. A glass of milk with dinner, for kids.
  2. No cookies for breakfast. Though J hardly ever eats breakfast, contenting himself with a coffee, when he does, he often goes for cookies. In fact breakfasts in France are always sweet, even if the cookie-eating is maybe a bit extreme.

Know any other “rules” out there that are totally different from one culture to another?

Public Hygiene and Cultural Differences

handwashingSince I got mono last summer, I’ve been a lot more attentive to public hygiene. It occurred to me that there was no way to know who I got it from because in France, no one hesitates to taste something off your fork or from your glass. As a result, I started hesitating to share things and tried really hard to wash my hands well and not touch bathroom surfaces unnecessarily. It’s gotten me thinking and noticing things.

1) Most French people seem to believe that being cold and getting sick are linked. THEY’RE NOT. I finally yelled at someone about it the other day and then felt really bad. It wasn’t his fault he was the fifth person in a week to say such a thing. But I honestly can’t believe so many people are so misinformed.

2) Hand washing habits in France have shocked me since my arrival in 2006. First, in people’s homes, the toilet often is not in the same room as the sink. Imagine: first you have to ask where the toilet is, use it, and then wander around looking for the bathroom because it doesn’t occur to them to tell you where to wash your hands afterward. Sometimes you end up in the kitchen, where often there is only dish soap, and no dish towel to be found, which is fine—but it does make me wonder how often people in the house can wash their hands. In public bathrooms, including at work, it shocks me the number of times I’ve seen colleagues and strangers stroll straight out of the bathroom without glancing at the sink.

Also, I find it depressing the number of new public buildings that haven’t bothered to put a hot water tap in on the bathroom sinks.

3) The flu shot in France is really not done, as far as I can tell. I remember getting it every season when I was little in the States, and my parents still get it every year. The French were even really skeptical about the bird flu vaccine (which to be honest I didn’t get either).

4) Sharing drinks is done without any hesitation. At least among the people I know, no one even hesitates a half-second to taste someone else’s glass. I used to not really care about this, again, until the mono. It shocked me especially when most people I was hanging out with KNEW I HAD JUST HAD MONO and still were surprised when I didn’t want to immediately let them taste my ice cream.

Stuff like this just seems to happen all the time. When I was in Lille before the CAPES, I was desperate for company and hung out with a friend of ours who was sick. She didn’t do the bise at first, but then I ate dinner with her and some friends and she ATE DIRECTLY OUT OF THE SALAD BOWL. Then when saying goodbye she said “Oh, I’ll go ahead and do the bise anyway….” I understand it’s awkward to not do the bise, but seriously, those were the last days I wanted to be sick!

I hesitate to say this is all French, because it’s been a while since I’ve spent much time in the States. But my one year in Austin, I did get the flu shot, I did work with and hang out with people who all washed their hands after using the bathroom, and I rarely shared drinks.

On the other hand, I did run across this article on the Huffington Post yesterday:

Flu Myths: 7 Common Beliefs, Busted

and also this on Boston.com:

With Boston undergoing a flu emergency, guess who’s not getting the flu shot? A lot of us

So, obviously, Americans can be total dumbasses about public health too.

Has anyone else noticed any of these things? Or did the mono make me hyper-aware?

French Pharmacies

When my brother and his girlfriend came to visit in summer 2011, he ran out of solution for his contact lenses and we had to go looking for some. I was skeptical that we’d find any in a pharmacy but sometimes it happens, especially for soft lenses (mine are gas permeables).

We were staying in Aix-en-Provence at the time, so when I saw one of the little shops marked with a flashing green cross, we went on in. I started looking immediately for signs of an “Opticien” section, whereas Frère immediately noticed some little boxes marked “Contact”. He was looking very seriously and thoughtfully at them, so I went over, checked them out, and informed him that they were boxes of condoms.

Frère let out a huge guffaw that freaked out the rest of the pharmacy customers. I shushed him and we went on with our business. Except that, once we found the contact solution, Frère went and stood directly behind the customer at the counter, ignoring the elderly man seated a few feet away. I threw a side glance at said old man who said nothing, and then decided not to get involved and let the situation work itself out. I came back a few minutes later and indeed, Frère was now waiting behind the old man, a few feet farther back.

French pharmacies are an entirely different animal from American ones. When I think of an American pharmacy, I think of something CVS- or Walgreens-style, even in the case of the few independent pharmacies I’ve known. There are rows and rows of snacks, some fridges with beer and soda, a few aisles of practical things like dish detergent, a couple rows of make-up and shampoo, and then, typically at the back, a few rows of medicines, eye and ear products, and toothbrushes. Behind that are typically the pick-up and drop-off counters for prescriptions. Only regulated medicines are kept behind the counter, and interactions with the pharmacist are typically perfunctory.

Picture something like this. (Photo from Yelp.com)

As for French pharmacies, they are much, much smaller—even among the biggest I’ve seen, nothing has ever compared to a warehouse-style Walgreens. The ambiance is much more intimate, and since all of the medicine is behind the counter, conversations with the pharmacist are to be expected. If you don’t know what you want to take for your cold, the pharmacist (and assistants) are there to advise you. You can even walk in with a bag of freshly picked mushrooms and ask your pharmacist if he/she thinks they’re edible.

Service is first-come first-served but you certainly don’t stand directly behind another customer, because this person could be having a conversation about a health problem. Pharmacies are typically equipped with some type of seating for the elderly customers (or toys for children), who will sit and wait their turn there. You have to actually pay attention to who arrived first since sometimes the line is very informal.

Imagine something a little like this

In short, Frère committed a few faux pas during our brief visit, things that I had gotten so used to that it didn’t even occur to me to explain! I go to the pharmacy a lot in France, since I’m still on allergy meds, so I’ve grown pretty comfortable with these places. I like the different feel and no longer miss the aisles of contact solution (which I order online now anyway) and over-the-counter drugs.

Has anyone else ever made these same mistakes? Or had visitors to France make other mistakes?

Christmas in France

Christmas in France is weird. We celebrated the evening of the 24th, which isn’t in itself so weird. But everything is still open on the 24th : supermarkets, shops, restaurants, etc. We got to J’s aunt’s house at 8 and ate a yummy French Christmas dinner (duck, oysters, salmon feuilletés, bûche de Noël) which ended around 11:30. Then we brought out the card games, and around 12:30 before we left, we exchanged gifts with his aunt and uncle and cousins. Then we went back to J’s parents house where we exchanged gifts with the immediate family (little brother, sister and her boyfriend, J and me, his parents). Of course the teenage brother received video games so they had to be tested. By this point it was after 2 and I was about to fall asleep. So J and I went home and on the drive home he said, “Why don’t we open the gifts from your parents now?” So we did, and ended up finally going to bed around 3:30 in the morning.

So then on actual Christmas there was nothing left to do and everything was closed! We went over to a friend’s house and played an epic game of Risk.

I asked J how all of this works when you’re little and obviously can’t stay up till the wee hours of the morning. Plus there’s Santa Claus to account for! He said you go to bed after the meal and open the presents in the morning, and that often there’s a Christmas lunch with more family.

But the big surprise is that J bought me a bike for Christmas! I’ve been putting off buying a bike (and a car radio) till I have a little extra money (not there yet, thanks U of Poitiers who still owe me 700 euros!), and wasn’t sure when it would actually happen. Here’s the model he got me:

It’s called a “vélo tout chemin” (VTC) which I’m pretty sure is the equivalent of some sort of hybrid. I tested it out in the village yesterday because it was really nice out.

What is it I love about France?

A few people have been nice enough to ask me this and I can’t for the life of me figure out what to tell them. I guess people are just interested and the interest is a real compliment. It means they assume that I’m still sane and that I have a reason that they can understand. But it’s hard to explain if you’ve never felt that way about a place.

I miss a lot of small, daily, barely noticeable things. And then I miss the bigger sense of accomplishment that I had from living there.

I miss the unspoken social rules between people and the comfort of knowing them. Something said without a smile isn’t necessarily unfriendly. If you respond correctly, at the end of the conversation you’re usually rewarded with one and it comes as a compliment.

I miss, stupid as this sounds, asking where the bathroom is in French. It was the only thing, I think, that I always had to say in French in France. Wherever I was, whoever I was with, I was never in an establishment where I would have dared to speak English to a stranger, and I almost always needed a bathroom.

I miss the closeness of the streets and the buildings, and the smallness of the rooms and the cars. It was like we had learned to use the space around us, and what’s more, we had done it, for the most part, years ago. I miss the ordinary buildings, sometimes full of shitty apartments, that were extravagantly old. I miss the dull, ugly garage doors that led the way into beautiful or simply cozy apartment buildings. I always felt like I had been let in on a secret when I got to enter one. I miss the way I could arrive everywhere by walking and never walk through empty lots, even in Bar le Duc.

I miss the escapes into the countryside, where there was more space but the same rules seemed to hold. Every house seemed to be old and every family who owned one was in the process of renovating it. Houses seemed to hide themselves, behind gardens, or down tiny roads, as if waiting to be discovered, and they were always worth discovering. I miss the white lines in the middle of the roads, and how they hardly ever had a shoulder, and the signs that announced the city limits by crossing out the name of the town.

I miss the feeling that no one, once known, was allowed to be transient, and I got very used to that. I expect all of these people to come back into my life at some point and I don’t care when, as long as they know they are welcome and that I expect them. And that doesn’t seem strange to them.

I miss the sense of a world slowly opening up and letting me in, and my feeling that I deserved it. I built a life for myself among things and people that were incredibly new to me, and I want to have the opportunity for that to grow old. Everything daily feels special there because it’s a familiarity that I’ve earned.

In the end I don’t think I can explain, I can just keep trying. There do exist people who aren’t as confused by it, who don’t require much of an explanation, and, as you’d expect, they’re mostly French. I don’t know if it’s just homeland bias, though. I think they have a culture full of people who long to live in the one place they love best. It’s almost always the region where they grew up, so of course I am not quite normal. But I don’t flabbergast them the way I do some Americans. They don’t assume that I hate the States. I think they would respond the same way if I felt that way about Texas and not France. They just accept that I love France because places are meant to be loved.