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!
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.