I’ve been in Paris for almost a week now and had some time to adapt to the different lifestyle and atmosphere in France after an initial culture shock. Thinking about Europe and especially France in my mind before coming here, I pictured everything as very similar to the way things are in America. Everybody running around frantically, carrying an abnormally-sized coffee in one hand, smiling to strangers on the street, driving bright cars, dressed casually. I guess that says something about my ethnocentric view!
While France and America do have a lot of similarities (they’re both Western first-world countries, and the U.S. stemmed from Europe), I have noticed many interesting differences that at first made me feel unsure and homesick, but now only add to the charm of Paris. I’ve also heard about a lot of stereotypes about Americans that don’t just classify us as an overweight nation that runs on instant gratification, which is always refreshing. In this post, I’ll begin by detailing some differences between French and American culture, and then explore some interesting American stereotypes!
Premier, everything here is so efficient. (In the words of Dr. Roget, the Temple professor on the trip, “I am always impressed with the French combination of efficiency and total inefficiency.”) I was immediately impressed at the airport by the smoothness of it all: every sign was written in French, English, Spanish, and German, and sometimes Japanese as well; a train that ran on electricity whisked me and my flight companions off to baggage claim, which was so simple to navigate; and even the restrooms were efficient—faucets empty into one long, horizontal basin, and the French use loops of cloth towels or air hand dryers (that actually work, and work really well) instead of disposable paper towels. Automatic doors here are thinner and more sensitive, and are cut in half, each half of the door swinging outward, which allows more people to get through faster than a door that slides to the side when opening (You’re probably all terribly bored as I gush over automatic doors, but I promise they were cool). Transportation here is also efficient — I’ve never seen so many energy efficient cars in one city, and there are charging stations throughout the streets. Cars even look sleek; all are boxy and square, and seem to come exclusively in black, gray, white, and silver. Once in a while I’ll see a dark blue car and do a double take. This is one aspect of France that I do not find completely charming — I miss cars in bright colors that have a little personality.
The city is also very clean. Rare is the piece of litter or the smell of urine in a Metro stop. (A big contrast compared to Philly!) This is all relative, however—my roommate and I befriended a girl named Lovisa from Sweden in one of our classes, and have been hanging out with her a bit. Lovisa claims that Paris is incredibly dirty compared to her native Stockholm, so I can’t even comprehend how wonderfully clean Stockholm must be.
The French are also very chique themselves. They dress a little nicer than Americans do (and especially nicer than the average American college student). Sweatpants, leggings, and even sneakers are deeply frowned upon. The French also never wear shorts, and it’s a dead giveaway that someone is a tourist if they’re dressed in them. (I’ve gotten very good at guessing people’s nationalities based on their outfits.)
Manners and measures of politeness are also different here. In America, a simple, “Excuse me,” will do as an opening to a question, but in France, you’d better engage in a few minutes of small talk if you want to ask anyone for directions, help in a store, or other inquiries. Sometimes a simple, “Bonjour monsieur/madame. Ca va?” will be enough; other times the person will want to chat for longer (a great way to practice your French). Also, in the U.S., it’s considered polite to smile at a stranger on the street or in an elevator if you make the dreaded eye contact. It took a few taken aback French strangers for me to realize that this is not the case in Paris!
Another aspect of French culture that I really appreciate is the luxury associated with eating or drinking. Back home, everything is “on-the-go.” Here, a meal takes at least an hour and a half, and usually longer. The French take time to savor their food, and the concept of a “doggy bag” does not exist. Shopping is also quaint and charming, but took some adjusting, because no one store sells everything. Fruit must be bought at a separate store from bread, which is sold at a separate store from non-perishable groceries. In France, there is no such thing as a Target or even a Giant; everything is specialized.
There are many more differences between French and American culture, but I digress—it’s time to discuss American stereotypes.The first thing Lovisa, my Swedish friend, ever said to me was, “Are you American?” Apparently we’re easy to spot, and there are a lot of us in Paris. I always thought that the rest of the world did not really like Americans, but Lovisa says in Sweden and other parts of Europe (she’s traveled a lot) we’re considered very friendly and welcoming and that we “smell like flowers.” I was very pleasantly surprised! There are definitely negative aspects to being pegged as American however. Many French shopkeepers or locals will automatically speak in English if they think you’re from the U.S., or take on a patronizing attitude, although I haven’t encountered too many rude Parisians. I’ll sign off for now, but stay tuned for my next post about my time in Paris!
À tout à l’heure!