Culture clash or cross-cultural: the dangerous part where I think.

Be warned: the following are somewhat un-related observations made and experiences had while in France. In retrospect, I experienced an interesting mix of French, North African*, and American culture.

*Quite a bit of North Africa was colonized by the French up until fairly recently (extreme simplification there). So, amidst changing demographics and usually controversial politics concerning, most often, “les arabes”, multicultural influences of first- and second-generation French citizens (or those whose parents, grandparents, or themselves were immigrants) are increasingly becoming a part of everday life in France.

Therefore, as I am turning 21 today, it is only appropriate–

21 observations while living in France

1. Pharmacies, recognizable in Europe by a glowing green cross outside the storefront, actually sell medicine over the counter, but also high-end creams, potions and lotions. If you have a cold, or a more severe problem, the very knowledgable pharmacist will assist you. They do not serve as a Walgreen’s, CVS, etc., so you won’t find candy bars, gum, magazines, cigarettes or on-sale DVDs. Just meds and wonderful high-end skin products.

2. Skincare. Yes, feel free to skip reading the rest of this. From face masks sold in little individual packets to La Roche-Posay (made in La Roche-Posay, France), along with pharmacists who are there to advise – the point is, there simply exists a wide variety of quality skincare, readily available in your local supermarket, Monoprix, Leclerc or Auchan. (Roll your eyes if you will, but what I wouldn’t do right now for those Nivea milk and honey face masks, which are amazing and sadly, not available in the U.S.)

3. Wine. You can get a decent bottle of wine à partir de 3 euros. (Source: host dad). If you spend 10 euros on a bottle of wine that you’re bringing to an apéro, assuming you also like the wine–that’s considered pretty “classy” and nearly guaranteed to be a good wine.

4. Beer. What about beer? Heineken is popular here, although I don’t care for it anywhere. Also available in Poitiers: Stella Artois, Carlsberg, Leffe, Faro, Grimbergen, 1664, and even organic menus depending on the bar/café. I am partial to the Belgian beers myself.

5. Coffee. Hardly bigger than a doll-sized teacup, drank 2-4 times a day, I’ve never had a bad cup of coffee here. The secret is, small cup, high-impact in terms of brew, flavor, etc. My most favorite coffee ever, though, is Italy’s. That may become it’s own post one day, if ever I do a coffee tour of the world. Which I would reallyyyyy like to do. Speaking of which–Turkish coffee (kahveis also available in Poitiers. The very finely ground, you know, grounds, are left in the bottom of the miniscule cup. Probably ties with Italy on the coffee front for me. *Very* strong, often spiced (not spiked) with cardamom.

6. Tea. I know there are cafés that have tea menus, and serve loose-leaf tea, here where I currently live. In Poitiers (and I think it is safe to assume, France in general), loose-leaf tea seems to be readily available and very popular. Nothing beats freshly brewed Jasmine/Quatre Fruits/Mint/(50 other tea options and infusions) and mutually complaining with your tea companion(s) after a long day at school, your internship, bureaucracy or errand-running.

7. What happens if you dance in a swankier café/bar across from Monsieur  to ’80s or ’90s America/Irish/British music, and nobody else is dancing besides yout two? And yes, in this case, it would appear to be individual preference as well as, I’m assuming, cultural: dancing across/opposite from or even around and up to someone, but not touching. Also allows for (and I quote, directly translated): “expression of freedom” and, I’d venture to say, showing off, which you perhaps can’t do to the same extent if you’re plastered to your dancing partner in highly structured, pre-set, defined steps of a waltz or prom-like dance, non? Well, keep on dancing, because:

a) when you leave France, you will know how to go with the flow, literally and mentally. It’s like yoga, only more attractive in that you don’t have to be gymnastics Barbie.

b) it’s really fun, good exercise, improves coordination and your core muscles (although curiously enough, you may still trip over cobblestones).  I don’t mean in the “Dancing with the Stars” or Hey-look-I-can-tango sort of way. To say it is a sort of belly dance would be a poor description of it, but it is closer to that than any other sort of Western dance I’ve ever seen. Minus the sparkly costumes and with just a smidge more clothing, I mean. As mentioned in point a), you can’t dance like this very well unless you totally relax. So relax! And keep your arms held out from your sides. Don’t flail around but,  at the same time, this is not Irish dancing, so the rigid upper torso with zero arm movement has no place here. Nor does the Hawaiian hula dancer.

b) you might start a trend: eventually socially repressed (mais je déconne là! kidding), envious French people will walk around the corner on their way to the bathroom, see two people dancing, then say “Hey, you guys dance really well. If I put on (insert stereotypical American song here), will you dance to it?! Over here, by us? Please?” and ask you to join their table. Despite the flattery, accurate or not, we did not dance on request, but it was a nice offer.

See, if you can learn to dance in such a manner thanks, at least in part, to Monsieur’s mutlticultural upbringing, to The Cranberries, The Police or The Cure, you can dance to anything (in theory)! Thank you parents and brothers for acquanting me with ’80s music that I already know all the lyrics and beat to. ’80s music will forever be popular in France.

c) and finally, you will sometimes get a free drink from  people who are themselves too afraid to dance. See above. Other people may also proceed to tell Monsieur, despite the fact that he was born in Paris, that he has a slight accent (which he plays off by saying he is d’origine tunisienne, so therefore he could care less about this critique and thus appears to magically charm the table of ladies whose hairstyles and eyeshadow are vaguely reminiscent  of the 1980s) and that you–the American with zero French heritage, save a 17th-century French connection–do not have an accent.

8. Speaking of dancing: body language shouldn’t be underestimated. My American friends and I talked about this when we’d meet up occasionally, like the things considered intimate in France, that are not so in the U.S. We wondered, Why? Or, how is that even possible?! Throughout our year in France, between discussing, lamenting and celebrating all of our rather varied experiences, we understood quite a bit.

Example? Perhaps less surprisingly, kissing and holding hands are more of a big deal and much less “casual” than they’d seem to be in the U.S. In France, it typically implies a high level of commitment. Then, contrary to the U.S, and even surpassing the above, there are . . .

9. Hugs. Yes, hugs. I NEVER saw any PDA while I was there that involved, or was, a hug–and I saw a lot of PDA between everyday life and my internship at the lycée (high school). In French culture, as in many, you don’t hug just anyone “just because”. It can happen just between friends and family, but rarely. Usually, hugging is reserved exclusively for someone you’re in a relationship with.

Also, as I was upbraided for and consequently given a short linguistic lesson on, “On ne donne pas. On fait.” That is, you don’t “give”, you “make” (a hug).  Followed by being informed that it is selfish to say to someone “I’m going to give you a hug”, since it implies “aren’t I so great and shouldn’t I be rewarded for giving you a hug?”, which is also selfish.  Yes, it is apparently a signficant step for a Frenchman/woman, so important that a comically-timed linguistic lecture immediately preceding a hug by someone possessing French nationality is well within the realm of possibility.

Anyways, as a consequence of what we assumed was the unspoken, no-hugs culture, “us Americans” in the study abroad program, when we got together, usually exchanged very enthusiastic hugs on the rare occassions that we saw each other. Simply expecting hugs from any other nationality while in France, for no profound reason, would have been totally unrealistic and futile, voire insane.

Update: other bloggers have noticed as well (regarding body language/(lack of) personal space) – particularly regarding the bemusing lack of hugs in France:

10. Dating. Typically, you go out in groups. However, if you do go out one-on-one, actual conversation is the norm. It is not a one-on-one job-interview-like mentality, in other words.

-anyway, in these groups, the people are either going out with someone (sortir avec quelqu’un),  seule (alone, not “lonely”), célibataire (single), seeing someone, have someone (avoir quelqu’un), are in a relationship, don’t have someone, are together, are not together, seeing each other, have or do not have a meuf  or a mec (“chick”/”guy”, slang for “woman” and “man”, *can* be derogatory, but also can be perfectly acceptable). . . or something in between all of this. Which are all different.

As for age range in relationships? In short, nobody seems to care. While someone might find an age gap interesting, I have yet to discover that people make it a focal point of their (or other peoples’) relationships.

Particularly in groups, distinctions between relationships are rarely evident, as it is usually very discrete, if it is even “announced”. Parents don’t even ask their kids, as usually it is rude and invasive (politics, relationships and religion are the big 3 topics that usually go left unsaid in polite dinner-table conversation). This is cultural and respectful. (Sources: Host family, French friends, everything in France).

I have been to some parties where two people were talking about living together in an apartment, getting along really well and telling everyone stories, and so eventually  I would assume that they were each other’s boyfriend/girlfriend/partner. In some cases this it was a correct assumption. In other cases, I had thought this, and then only  later on in the evening met the presumed “girlfriend’s” actual boyfriend who, it turned out, was not the same person as her male roommate – despite all of us attending the same classes. This is a trivial example, but illustrates the point that ambiguity is a part of everyday life, and I am glad I have learned to realize this now. I wouldn’t dare complain about such a cultural phenomenon – after all, pessimisim and cynical humor is best left to the French.

11. Eye contact

In the U.S., most people don’t seem to really look at who they are talking to, whether a friend or otherwise, other than brief glances. Of course, as is always the case throughout my blog, there are exceptions and I’m generalizing. That is, prolonged eye contact–when do we even think about it, really?

In France, eye contact is volatile. It is sometimes like the above, but especially for a woman making eye contact with a man (that is not related to you, a very platonic friend, or in your host family), it is kind of seen as a come-on (even if not meant as one). Do people say that? Well, it’s flirtatious at the very least. Nonetheless, you HAVE to make eye contact when you raise your glass to say tchin tchin or santé!  It is extremely rude not to.

Related: winking. Yeah. A  colleague in our informal little lunch group at the lycée would frequently observe aloud that *some* of us were silent at the lunch table, wink at us, and ask us why we were so quiet. Either he just thought it was funny that talking at lunch wasn’t everyone’s cups of coffee, or he was stirring the pot. In his case, if the pot had eggs in it, at the pace he was going, he was whisking them into an omelet, and he knew it.

Although evidently, there is a difference between creepily staring (or being stared at), winking and/or looking at someone, and looking *into* their eyes. In short, eye contact is intense, at least in Europe, so use it wisely!

12. La pause*. Speaking of eye contact, it is a good idea not to mimic someone else’s repeated, prolonged eye contact with you, thinking that doing so is polite–assuming you work in a French entreprise or have an internship there, (esp. one in which the atmosphere is more-than-usually multicultural). One day you will be turning around from getting coffee at the coffee machine during la pause in the morning and be unnanouncedly fait ‘d la bise by said male coworker that you only see once a week, who sadly tries to drague every female colleague in the least subtle ways possible. Whereas with all your other male colleagues that you actually work with, they will just shake your hand and/or say “bonjour”. Women, however, do the bise with other female colleages.

*the 15-minute break in the staff room, where a long line is formed at the coffee machine, a conversation/gossip party is formed in the circle of chairs, and people try to buy each other coffee or at least good-naturedly shame someone into letting it be bought for them.

13. Apples from the self. The self (self-service) is the cafeteria. While the rest of the profs ditch after lunch for a cigarette break, Monsieur and I made our way back to the staff room, throwing around whatever piece of fruit he’d chosen in full view of bored students waiting for their afternoon classes to start. You would think as non-smokers we avoided the greatest hazard of the after-lunch pause, but apparently not. Turns out, throwing fruit is not just a mild form of passing the time between classes nor a purely innocent form of entertainment. What the . . . ? You might be thinking. It’s just a (insert expletive of choice) apple. To clarify: a sexual connotation exists. Adam and Eve. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Permit me to immaturely exclaim ‘ha’!: even French people make mistakes. It was Monsieur himself who pointed this out, after realizing his error the following day, when he had almost thrown an apple to a student.

So, to sum it up, you can faire la bise to a neighbor you just met, but you can’t toss around an apple with someone you know without cause. Logique.

14Smiling. Smiling is reserved for occasions when you are truly delighted about something. Smirking is a happy balance for most French people. Either they are a) mocking you b) flirting with you or c) genuinely discretely smiling at you while simultaneously trying to hide the fact that they are smiling at you, from other people. Or from themselves.

15. In the U.S., it’s not uncommon to say “Hi”, then “Hey” or some equivalent every time you see someone throughout the day. Or to acknowledge them in some form verbally every time you see them. You only have to say “bonjour” when you see the person for the first time in a day. Don’t say “bonjour” every time your host dad or mom walks through the door. I made this mistake the first week and was eventually corrected at the end of the day by my (again, adorable) host family. They couldn’t have told me, I dunno, at lunch? I think I’d hit double digits on “bonjour” by then! Live and learn.

However, if you come home from school, the market, shopping, etc., you can announce yourself (if you’re a madame/mam’selle), and generally ask after whoever is in the room by saying “Coucouuuu”! (Like “coocoo for Cocoa Puffs”, only drawn-out). Seriously. Perfectly socially acceptable.

16. Dessert in France. Forget ice cream, cake and cookies. Instead, we ate fruit. Plain yogurt mixed with applesauce. Creamy cheese mixed with applesauce. All are considered desserts, whether after lunch or dinner. They are all very good, by the way. Yogurt and applesauce became addicting.

Then of course, we had those exceptional events (like birthdays) where we ate completely on the other end of the spectrum: crème anglaise, etc., etc. Made up for the following day by consuming only vegetable soup and beef broths for lunch and dinner.

17. DON’T  cut your salad with your knife.  Instead, wrassle those leafy greens by (trying to) artfully contort them onto your fork. Use your knife for help, but do *not* use it to cut. It is an insult to the chef. Essentially, if you have to –*gasp*– use your knife for what you thought was the intended purpose of, well, a knife–ie, cutting stuff up–you are saying that the exquisitely prepared salad he has created is inadequate or not up to snuff.

*My adorable host mom did make an exception for me when I had a five minute restaurant battle with a stubborn and comically large lettuce leaf, whispering like it was a conspiracy theory: “SINCE there aren’t many people in this restaurant, and given where we’re sitting, you can cut your salad”. Needless to say I refused to. Ha! I won my etiquette battle. (The salad was very good, by the way).

18. Hospitality is not gourmande but *is* gourmet. When my parents came to visit me in Poitiers after our one week vacation in Ireland, my host family pulled out all the stops. We had l’apéro, then lunch: white tablecloth, crystal, different types of wine, several highly intricate courses, like les noix de Saint-Jacques, dessert. My mom pointed out (cheers) that my host dad, having opened a bottle of wine, practically launched himself across the table to stop us from taking any after he had taken a sip. He said it was horrible and “off”, and promptly found a much better bottle of wine. I wonder if we would have noticed the difference?

Just your typical Sunday mid-afternoon lunch, hein?

19. Related, discretion. My host family, even to the point of making sure the cats stayed out of my room by closing the door, couldn’t have been more hospitable. They respected my privacy, encouraged me to go out, and told me to profites! They welcomed anyone into their home, and seemed positively elated when I returned, with increasing frequency, at 4 in the morning (quietly, which is impressive, since the staircase creaks as if it were older than the U.S.A. It might be, actually).

When going to aller boire un verre, my host mom always smiled and wasn’t ever mad that I missed dinner (once I learned to let her know in advance when possible), or worried that going to the centre ville or for un verre at 4PM usually meant that I came home at 4AM . She and my host dad always knew who I was with and they know just about everyone in town. As mentioned before, they knew even the owners of one of the bars, so although they never directly asked me what I was up to, I’m sure they were aware. Ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the fictional town seen in Doc Martin. 

You see, it’s considered polite not to ask. Instead, you wait ’til the person is not in the room, has not come down to breakfast yet, or is in the next room but as it happens, has pretty good hearing and tries to smother a laugh in a pillow. Or you wait for them to bring up the subject, then not explain fully enough, possibly giving the wrong impression because you think you’ll talk their ears off –since, after all, growing up with all brothers, and in a family where your dad grew up with several, very talkative sisters, anything beyond two sentences constituted “talking too much”. (Did I mention, I love my family?)

20. Exams. Grading. I passed all of my courses that I took in France. Lowest grade was a 12/20. I’ll take it. 10/20 is, in the U.S., a “B” equivalent. You would think of it like getting a 50/100, but that’s not how it is here. A 10/20 here is passing–you’re in the clear, and don’t have to re-take your year. A 20/20 is a virtually impossible grade to get in France, but is known to happen from time to time. 14/20 is a very respectable grade.

21. Parfum. For men and women, to wear or not to wear. Your choice. Let it be known, men in general really do know a surprising amount about perfumes. Although knowing anything about a perfume qualifies, for me, as knowing a “surprising amount” about it. They even know men’s and women’s perfumes, along with the top notes of who-knows-what and musk in whatever perfume they’re talking about. If you choose to invest in some perfume, the important thing to note is a couple sprays will do, not two bottles.



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