As a whole, France surprised me in many ways. The food, the language, the people… it really wasn’t what I expected. Learning about a country in class or by word of mouth is no way to truly understand it. All in all, France gave me many wonderful memories and I’m sad to say goodbye.
French dining was the most differing cultural aspect. Because I didn’t have a kitchen, I had to eat out for lunch and dinner. The hotel included our breakfast, as long as we were able to wake up early enough. Hotel breakfast was made up of many different breads and spreads, cereal, ham, cheese wedges, croissants, plain crepe pancakes, yogurt and frozen fruit. I ate a chocolate croissant everyday, and a lot of cheese and fruit. I don’t think they have the same refrigeration standards for their yogurt, because it tasted pretty funky. Their milk is also served at room temperature, so I stayed away from the cereal.
For drinks, the choices were apple juice, orange juice, or coffee. But they expected me to only drink one shot size glass of juice! I love a big glass of OJ in the morning, so I took one of the giant coffee cups and filled it up twice. The portions in France are a lot smaller, and my American stomach was not having it.
French dining is very cute and fancy. They always bring a carafe d’eau (of water) to the table. The carafe is usually a recycled wine bottle… a very stylish choice. I often ate dinner with my friend Griffin, who would try the most interesting dishes. He enjoyed foie gras (duck liver), pâté (pounded meat cake), cooked bone marrow that’s spread on bread, and kidneys, to name a few. Also, French people love ham. Ham is literally everywhere. And not surprisingly, so are French fries!
As a vegetarian, I knew I’d be eating a lot of bread and cheese. But I didn’t realize I would be eating it with every single meal! In France, bread is always complementary. Rolls, baguettes, wheat, etc. is brought to the table no matter what you order. I also noticed in some places, they serve a small dish of olives, peanuts or even popcorn with your drinks.
A French friend of Griffins told me that being a vegetarian in France is almost offensive. They are so proud of their food; it is one of the most defining aspects of their culture. French people don’t know the distinction between vegetarian, vegan, and pescatarian. They think that vegetarians eat fish, and they don’t actually know what veganism is. Either that, or they don’t care to cater to vegan diets. Honestly, it was difficult to find my usual choices. I lived off salad, omelets, and ratatouille. Thankfully, I realized that I love ratatouille! Definitely going to be making that dish all the time!
The bread was always fresh and the wine and cheese were great. I really enjoyed Camembert, which is illegal in the USA. Apparently it has some kind of bacteria outlawed by the FDA. When it was cold it had no smell, but when served warm as a dessert… the room reeked like farts. Not kidding, I finally understood the phrase “who cut the cheese?”
The service in France is very different than in America. Almost all the waiters were dressed nicely in black and white vests, which added to the ambiance of the café. But because they make a high minimum wage, they don’t expect to be tipped, so they don’t constantly check on you to make sure you have everything you need. In some instances, they kind of ignore you even when making eye contact. Most servers in France do the bare minimum, but there are some who will go above and beyond.
It’s normal to spend at least two hours at every meal. They believe that one must take their time to enjoy the food, relax and socialize. They don’t go out to eat, but instead they dine out to spend time with others. The majority of tables at cafés only have drinks on them. Also, the price is different depending on where you sit, and it is more expensive to eat outside.
The French are very well-mannered, and they use a fork and knife for almost everything, even pizza! Similarly, it is considered rude to hurry a meal. The French will usually finish off with dessert, a coffee, or a digestif. Dessert is a big deal in France, and they have pastry beautiful shops everywhere. They even have a separate pastry counter in every McDonalds! A digestif is fermented fruit made into an extremely strong alcoholic after dinner beverage, stronger than Vodka. It tastes like rubbing alcohol. I was expected to sip on liquor that was stronger than a normal shot!
Also, the French don’t do to-go food. They don’t have designated to-go boxes. With a slightly judging eye, they will bring you a random container from the back with saran wrap on top of it. I am a fast eater. I can gobble a chipotle burrito in ten minutes. But as I didn’t want to be rude when eating with French people, I took my time. This made me realize I was full faster, so I would eat less. Voilà! Maybe this is why Europeans are so skinny!
(Photo by Andrea Sarcos)
My French was disappointing. Although I could communicate the basics, and I was able to introduce myself, order food and ask for directions, I couldn’t have full conversations. It was difficult on both ends. The French would speak so fast that I couldn’t separate their words, and they would often use vocabulary I hadn’t learned. On the other hand, my pronunciation was so American that they couldn’t understand me even if I was using the right word. In French, they use phonemes like the throaty ‘R’ sound that are almost impossible to pronounce because they don’t exist in the English language.
Although my French skills needed much improvement, I was able to pick up on some common phrases.
“C’est pas grave” is informal and similar to the English “no worries.”
“Comme ca” was constantly being repeated, and I think it means “like this” or “like that.”
“C’est ca” means “right,” and was used often in casual conversation.
And last but not least, Wi-Fi is pronounced Wee-Fee. When I pronounced it Wi-Fi, they had no idea what I was talking about. Awkward!
(Photo by Andrea Sarcos)
In regards to a general attitude, French people have alluded to the fact that France has a problem with despondence and depression. At UF, I saw this cultural difference when I compared the films L’Appartement and Wicker Park. The same film made in each respective language, L’Appartment ends with the female protagonist getting set on fire. On the other hand, the American version, Wicker Park, ends with the two lovers being reunited in the airport at the opportune moment. This represents a huge difference in the underlying mindset of the two cultures.
I always thought it was interesting how untranslatable idioms exist in every language. The phrase “L’appel du vide” translates to “the call of the void.” But what does that mean? Well, it describes the feeling of wanting to jump from a building, veer off the side of the road, and so on. This idiom also adds to the aforementioned commonality of some French people. But we must remember never to make overreaching generalizations!
As I spent the last day in Paris working with a group of slackliners for my video storytelling class, I saw the French for who they truly were. As I mentioned before, traveling has helped me see that every kind of person can be good, genergous and in possession of a kind heart. We approached a group of strangers walking across tight ropes in a sunny park, just hoping to get a story. What we found was magnificent.
In Paris, these slackliners have a created a welcoming community open to all people willing to learn. They teach others how to do this risky yet rewarding sport by investing their time and effort. Andrea and I spent an entire day filming this community. This is the finished product.
The belief that French people are rude and snobby is false. I think that people in any city are tired of tourists, and it’s the same as in New York City. People are dynamic in all places and generalizations are simple ethnocentric prejudice.
(Photo by Andrea Sarcos)
Studying abroad in France was challenging. At times it was hard to communicate, but it has also set a fire within me to truly become bilingual. As well, It has shown me how beneficial it is to possess English as a native language.
France is a city living in between the past and the future, an older nation evolving alongside a global, changing modernity. The history of this nation, intertwined with ours as Americans, is relevant, rich, and profound. My advice for anyone traveling to France would be to take in as much history as you can. So with that, I say “au revoir”, and bid my final farewell to France.