Oberlin Blogs

Vive les Cultural Differences

April 11, 2017

Emma Davey ’18

Hello Obie peeps! I apologize that I haven't written in a while, but I've had a busy past few weeks, and I am now ready to let y'all know what I've been up to. Since we've last seen each other (I like to imagine my readers as the imaginary friends I talk to from an armchair near a fireplace), I've finished five major assignments, seen my parents AND our two former foreign exchange students, AND been to two new countries (Belgium and the Netherlands). The weather is getting nicer, though it's still a little chilly. Flowers are blooming, trees are getting leaves again, heavy coats are being put back into the coat closet. Paris is lovely in the spring. Recently I went to the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is home to an actual PALACE, and I sat outside reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, admiring the beautiful surroundings, before getting pooped on by a bird. I like to think that bird was just trying to keep me humble, but really I hate all these birds in Paris. Most birds will avoid humans and fly high in the sky. NOPE. NOT FRENCH BIRDS. They will fly right in your face and try to steal your crepe and they DO NOT CARE. This is just one of a few cultural differences I hope to elucidate in this blog. These differences aren't good or bad, they just are what they are. Also, these are just coming from my own personal experience drawn from the limited amount of time I've spent here. Here are some of the biggest differences I've noticed between France and America:

Temperament - This one comes with a caveat, as I guess really ANY of these claims will, but especially this one. It's impossible to completely generalize one population in comparison with another, but I find this to be pretty true. It's a common misconception in America that French people are rude. I disagree, but I can see where this comes from. French people aren't rude, but they're definitely more reserved than Americans. Americans are generally more openly friendly. AND LOUD. WOW. Aside from the fact that they're speaking English, you can automatically tell that someone is American on the metro because they're the only ones talking. Also, perhaps wearing a hoodie. I have literally never seen any French person over twelve wearing one. Especially a woman. You will never see a grown French woman wearing a hoodie and sweats. But back to temperament - there's a lot of side eye in France. In America, if we were to make eye contact with a stranger, we generally smile at them, automatically. Don't do this in France - they'll think you're a weirdo.

PDA - BUT IRONICALLY, it's apparently a-ok to make out with your significant other in public. People act as if they're boarding ships to the new world, instead of going to different metro stops. Paris has a reputation as being the city of romance, but it's kind of weird to me that when it comes to human interaction, the French are either at zero or one hundred.

Fashion - I am honestly FLOORED every day by the style I see from Parisians, the women especially. Not every person looks chic, but as I stated previously, the one time I've seen a woman wear a hoodie in Paris, she was an American. There's not as much difference between the style of French and American youth, but there's a big difference between American and French style when it comes to people over 30. Classic Parisian style is all about looking nice without looking like you've tried too hard. Yoga pants, UGGs, oversized t-shirts - these are not things you'll see here. Instead, it's all about muted colors, a flattering pair of jeans, and a scarf. French people don't wear a lot of bright colors. They typically don't wear a lot of make-up. The biggest difference in style is probably between the young men of France and America. There's a reputation for French men to be thought of as more attractive, and recently, some friends and I were talking about this. We came to the conclusion that physically, there's really no difference, but French men seem more attractive because they dress a LOT better than American men. There are no baseball caps or baggy shorts or khakis or polos or Vineyard Vines. And they groom themselves better. French men somehow maintain a nice amount of scruff.

Smoking - Oberlin's kind of the outlier with this one (LOL @ the tobacco ban) but I feel like overall in America, we've kind of mutually decided that smoking is gross to do in public, and people only do it in the privacy of their own home, or furtively in a corner. In France, it's perfectly acceptable to be smoking and walking down the street. It's kind of gross, to be honest, and it's especially weird to me that people have no qualms about smoking around children.

Restaurants - There's no tipping in France! I mean, you can if you really liked your server, but no one's gonna be offended that you didn't leave them anything behind. That's because France pays their servers a decent living wage. I think because of this, the relationship between waiter and patron is totally different than in America. Back home, the customer is king. The waiters are often extra friendly, giving you more water refills than you need, and smiling. In France, you sit down. The waiter gives you the menu. You tell them what you want. They bring you what you want. MAYBE once they'll ask you how the food is, but that's not a given. You wait for a while because they never automatically bring you the check. You flag them down. "L'addition, s'il-vous plait!" They bring you the check. You pay. You leave. Typically, you don't really chat with your waiter, but sometimes they like to find out stuff about you if they can tell that you're a tourist. They don't ever give you ice with your water. You order a carafe d'eau for the table, which I much prefer to getting a tall glass of mostly ice. Because they don't need to turn over tables as fast, you're pretty much free to linger. I really like how France does eating out because I truly hate when water is just a tall glass of ice, though I wish it was easier to get the check.

Food - BREAD! SO MUCH BREAD! Oh my God, if you're gluten-free, I'm not sure how you would survive this country. There's a boulanger (bakery) on every street. You can smell fresh bread baking so often, and it's REALLY hard to avoid. It's not at all weird to see someone walking down the street with a large baguette on their way home from work. Other big differences - less preservatives in the food so they go bad faster! They don't refrigerate their eggs or milk in the grocery store! The attitude toward food in general is different - people really don't eat on the go. You pretty much never see someone eating on public transport. The French generally believe in slowing down and enjoying their food, which is nice sometimes, but sometimes you're a student in a hurry and your options for take out are limited. And a lot of your options are bread. So many quick places I go to, they just have sandwiches. It's been hard to find a take out option that isn't a sandwich. And to continue with bread, you always get bread with your meal at restaurants but they never provide a bread plate, so you just put it on the table. Unless you're somewhere fancy. Also, Europe in general eats later than in the States. Seven is pretty much the earliest you can eat in public, and even then, you're on the early side.

These aren't the only cultural differences I've noticed, but they're the ones I come across most often. All in all, it's not like I have arrived on an alien planet or anything, though sometimes if I'm especially homesick, it can feel like I'm so far away from everything that seems familiar. There are things about French culture that I like better than American culture and vice versa. I think it's important to try to adapt to the culture of wherever you currently are, or at least experiencing it before writing it off. That being said, I have gotten to the point in my stay where sometimes all I want is McDonalds or a bagel or a smile from a stranger. And that's ok! You should enjoy your time abroad, but also you shouldn't feel bad about not doing everything authentically. Without further ado, here's one of my favorite cheesy 80s songs that I heard the other day while buying a pizza at Marks and Spencer. Sometimes living in Paris truly does feel like this. And yeah, I saw that Mac DeMarco documentary, so I'm not that original, but it fits.

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