Unquestionably, there are many cultural differences between the U.S. and France. A full month in a new country has allowed me to observe some of these differences more fully.
There are some that that I love and others that I’m not thrilled with. For example, while walking on the streets or in the metro, I’ve never seen one person smile in passing—everyone keeps their heads down or looks away if your eyes happen to meet. In the U.S., people will smile or say hello when your paths meet, and I miss the warm smiles of friendly strangers. The French are also much more frank. “O la la, Danielle, vous ne l’avez pas bien sur votre essai, vous avez fait?” (“Danielle, you didn’t do so great on your test, did you?”) said my Grammar professor to our class of three students. Malheureusement, it was true, but he then continued to talk about all the things I had gotten wrong on my test. Yikes. In the U.S., that’s illegal, but here in France it’s apparently perfectly normal. A friend was also recommended a certain kind of face wash by a saleswoman for “all the blackheads that she had.” There are no pretenses here in France.
One of the biggest differences that I’ve observed so far is our different views on work and work ethic. In the U.S., hard work is praised and encouraged almost more than any trait. In school, it’s a competition to be the student with the hardest major or the most work (in my family, I definitely lose that battle, with a twin in neuroscience and a brother in pre-med), and 20-somethings are known to do pretty much any job and work any amount of hours per week right out of college. I saw this culture in its most extreme embodiment this summer when I interned in Washington, D.C. It is a cut-throat environment and everyone is killing themselves to get to the top of their fields.
In France, however, things are slightly different. The national average for a work week is 35 hours as opposed to 40 in the U.S. During the week, shops and museums will be closed from 12:00 to 2:00 so workers can have a lunch break. The majority of stores are closed during Sundays, and vacation time is 4-5 weeks as opposed to 2 in America. Don’t get me wrong: the French are very hard-working, especially the university students. They also seem to realize that there is a time and place for work and a time and place for relaxing. It makes sense: you work to make a better life for yourself, but if all your life consists of is work, then what are you working so hard towards? We might call them lazy, but I’m pretty sure the French are the ones who are having the last laugh (in their beach chairs, on their one-month long vacations in Cannes).
So, I’ve definitely been benefitting from the laid back culture through our 3-day weekends. This Friday, we went on a little excursion to Montmatre, a hill in Paris famous for many different things, including the Roman-Catholic church, the Sacré-Cœur. We went specifically to get a tour of the vineyard there, the Clos Montmatre. We got a little tour (en français, bien sûr) then walked around to see the Sacré-Cœur and look at the street vendors surrounding the area. Even though there was a lot of walking involved, the trip was a relaxing way to absorb some more of the French culture, and I’m learning to appreciate the concept of work-life balance.