handling the change
I figured it was finally about time to share my thoughts on the cultural observations and differences between the States and France, or at least those that I have found to be true.
Of course, disclaimer: these are only my own experiences that I am drawing this information from, and I'm keeping an open mind as I continue to explore other cities, meet more people, and grow in the culture.
When I first decided to start a website and this blog, I decided that I really wanted to make it an opportunity to share as much as I can about different cultures, not just as a virtual scrapbook for me to look back on in the future, but also as a way for me to do my small part in bridging the gap of cultural differences and expectations across the world. Before I arrived in France, so many people had told me what it would be like, and how I needed to be prepared for an incredible culture shock, and that life would be so incredibly different for me. While, yes, that is true, it was less of a catastrophic shock when I arrived and realized that - surprise! - we're all just humans in the end. And I know that seems like a very obvious and silly statement, but I realized that once I arrived here and had adjusted after a few days, I had been creating this extremely skewed view of the French and living abroad that I was so much more prepared than I thought I would be. So, again, all of that to say, I want to share my experiences, not to highlight the differences between our cultures, but to teach each other about the differences so that we won't feel so divided after all.
I think that within my first month of living in France, I've found the biggest cultural differences in the schools and school systems. It's really interesting to have been a part of a certain system for so many years of my life, and then now being a part of this new system as a part teacher part student, to see that both ways are successful, and at the same time, aren't perfect for every student. But - that's another subject for another day. When it comes to the general schedule, students in France go to school from eight am to six pm (8h to 18h), which was definitely a shock to me. In the States, the time we get from school ending at three pm (15h) is really useful in participating in sports, theatres, or other extracurricular activities. For students in France, school is the number one priority of their time and energy; but, if you are really passionate about an extracurricular, you can add it during a lunch period, on the weekends, or if you are lucky enough to have an off-block in your schedule.
Another difference I noticed early on was the number of languages that are available to students to take, and how early they are introduced. Just in my school, there are (I believe) five languages offered as courses, and a few more offered as extracurriculars. Most students take at least two or three languages and are semi-fluent in all of them. Now, again - education systems are not one size fits all, therefore, not all students find the same passion or skill level in a language, but I definitely find it shocking that I could be sitting in a Spanish class surrounded by French students who are explaining the lecture to me in English. One of the biggest reasons for this is the proximity of the European countries to each other - while the continent is large, I did a double-take when I learned that the entirety of France is about the same physical size as the state of Texas. But, because of the closeness of these countries, traveling between them is much less difficult and foreign to each nationality, and you will often find many different ethnicities of Europeans who are mixed ethnicity or from a certain country but can speak multiple languages fluently. I love being a part of a school that has so many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds because it gives me an opportunity to meet so many new people and learn so much about not only European cultures, but even more.
And when it comes to starting these languages, many schools in France introduce the English language to students as young as four years old, and some families introduce it to their children as a second language straight from birth. Then, many other languages are introduced at ten years old or just after, giving them still six to eight years to work on those other languages until they finish their general education. I love this idea - I really appreciate that when you study a language, you're also learning about another culture and another way of life. But at the same time, many students (regardless of ethnicity or nationality) find it harder to study a language or find a passion for it if they don't see it being applicable at some point in their lives. For example: in my current position, I'm noticing that many students have not seen a real need for the English language in their lives until now, because I am a real, live American and English-speaker for them to converse with. On the other hand, though, there are courses that specialize in certain languages, and it's so exciting to watch students be so passionate about learning about another culture and language, just like I'm trying to do.
One of my biggest goals is to help all students get to a confidence level just like the students who are specializing in English - it's not that everyone has to be fluent, but if they could come to the United States for two weeks and be able to order their food in restaurants, converse with their host family, and ask for directions, I will feel so excited for them and fulfilled in my efforts.
In reality, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, families aren't that different! People are people. But, in terms of cultural differences, there are a few things worth noting that are interesting to discuss.
The first one will be that of meals and mealtime habits, always a fun topic! So, one of the first things I've noticed about the French is that at every mealtime, unless there was another previous plan to eat at a restaurant, the meals are expected to be at home. Even if you were a 20-minute drive from home and you had a full day of activities, usually, you'll eat a homemade lunch. And when dining, the whole family will eat together at the same time, contrary to many American families, where just grabbing something quick from the fridge before you commence a study session or sports practice is very normal. These meals are also just that - meals. All meals throughout the day, specifically lunch, are generally substantial times to a) fuel your body, and b) enjoy some delicious food, with maybe an afternoon coffee and a small snack if you wanted. I really, really love this difference in the culture. Having such an emphasis on food in this culture has given me a great opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and try new foods, as I am a "serial re-orderer", you might say.
I'm putting this topic under this category because it seems the most logical, but when it comes to houses and apartments, the French have very different ways of material living. Now, this does depend on the area you live in. In general, more highly populated areas are painted with trendier apartment buildings and smaller houses, whereas the countryside has space available for multiple-level houses and farms, or more commonly in Bordeaux, vineyards. Each house has its own feng shui and specific style that from the outside, you would not have known.
Another fun detail about housing in France: the toilet is in its own separate room! Quick language lesson: in French, there is un salle de bains, which is the bathroom (shower, bathtub, sink, and mirror), and une toilette, the toilet in its own room, sometimes with a small sink. It is also often the same in restaurants, but it depends on certain settings. For me, it was definitely a kind of adjustment that you wouldn't think would throw you off, but in fact, it does.
Food and Dining
The next topic in this post will be food and dining! Now, as expected, there are many, many things to speak on in this section, so I will only address a few, the ones that have been the most prominent to me.
When it comes to dining in restaurants, I'll start with the menu. Now, it definitely depends on the spot, but as I've mentioned in past posts in my "food dump" series, many restaurants will offer a formule option, where basically you pay a set price for a drink, one of the appetizers, one of the main dishes, and dessert, give or take another plate or beverage. This is really convenient for people like me who want to try new food but sometimes have too many options to know what to order. In terms of staff, it is very common for a server to take your drink order, return with your drinks, take your food order, return with your food, and then disappear until you flag them down for the check (or pay at the counter before you leave). It is not uncommon to have a meal that lasts for at least two to three hours, which in the States, gives an ample amount of opportunities to be mid-bite when your waiter comes up to your table and asks for the seventh time how you're enjoying your pasta (not that there's anything wrong with that!). In France, unless you actively try to get the attention of your server, they will give you your space to read a book, talk with your friends, or just enjoy, and won't force the bill on you even after they've taken your plate. I enjoy the philosophy behind dining in France - every meal is worth time set aside to enjoy it.
Another part of French dining I love - dessert is acceptable at any point during the day. If you've just eaten a big lunch or dinner, having dessert is completely normal. French meals sometimes come in stages (appetizer, main plate, etc.), so the dessert is just like the final bow of your meal. Dessert can look like a slice of cake or a housemade viennoiserie/patisserie or even a stack of pancakes. With my host family, homemade yogurt is the most common dessert. I love it! I've grown accustomed to having my little yogurt jar with raspberry jam at the end of my meal, and it just feels like the perfect little cap to a nice meal.
The last observation I'll share for this post is the types of food that are not common here, as they are in America. In general, all types of fruits, vegetables, and meat (perishable items) are fresh and easily accessible. While there are supermarkets all over, most types of consumables have an entire store dedicated to just that thing - I cannot even begin to explain the beauty in a fromagerie, a cheese shop. But even when it comes to cured meat versus freshly butchered meat, those two types of meat will be in their own local shops. Some consumables that are not common here in France: peanut butter, s'mores, pumpkin desserts (even in autumn!), and really any type of really indulgent American meal. Yes, there are burgers and fries here, but even McDonald's is like a three-star burger restaurant in comparison to the ones in the States! It has been really fun to try and explain certain dishes or ingredients to students at school or my host family, and getting a really weird look as I try to explain whatever it is (my host family was very skeptical about s'mores before they tried them). Overall, it's just another great reminder that there is always something to learn, everywhere you turn.
Thank you so much for reading and being a part of my adventures! I'm so honored that I get to be on this exploration and I am able to share what I am learning with you. Please feel free to leave comments below and/or ask me questions that I can find the answers to for you!