After eating another thrilling dinner of raw hamburger meat and fried potatoes, my digestive system has put me in a rather contemplative state of mind.
I can’t believe that today is the first day of March. In five more days I will have been in France for exactly two months. Looking at my academic calendar, I basically have a month of actual classes left, with vacation, review weeks and exams thrown in here or there. After two months, I think I’m finally comfortable with my identity as an American in France. After two months, although I don’t stare at people as I pass by and smile excessively for no reason, I’m no longer hesitant to reveal my American identity. Why would I ever be hesitant in the first place? Maybe it’s because I heard all of the stereotypes of both French and Americans, and thought it would be better to blend in than to test the validity of these presumptions. Now I think otherwise.
In many of my blog posts, I make generalizations about cultural differences I’ve experienced such as my observations when I first came to France and my thoughts on Greece. I’d like to make it clear, however, that these musings are just that: generalizations. So I’d like to take the time to demystify a few stereotypes…
I said that the French really are “cold.” I still think that, but in a different sense. Yes, direct eye contact and smiling at strangers in the street is less common. Yes, it’s hard to make French friends, because most French people I’ve encountered won’t come up to a random foreigner and start talking. I’ve noticed that this is largely due to the fact that most of the time I’m standing in a group of Anglophones. Being here has made me sympathize with the foreign students at U-M. I used to complain about the crowds of Asians who always hung out in huge groups and didn’t speak English among themselves when Americans were around, but now I understand some of the reason for that. Although I try to speak French as much as possible, when I’m with my American friends, life is just easier if we all speak in our native tongue. Recognizing how this can isolate us, however, I’m trying to cut down more on the English and initiate conversation with French students. If I were a French person, I wouldn’t approach the huge group of Americans either, unless I was a creepy man. Which leads me to my next point…
The French method of seduction is indeed more forward than the American style. But the stereotypical leering French man you hear about is actually contained to a small percentage of creepers. In clubs, they’re the guys who sneak attack dance, try to make out with you, demand your telephone number, and don’t leave when you say you’re not interested, yank your arm away, or knee them (actually that might work). Frankly, I’ve encountered just as many American guys with the same “style” at snazzy places like Necto in Ann Arbor. The guys I’ve encountered at the IEP and at civilized parties seem pretty nice, and don’t make me feel like a prize cut of meat.
I haven’t asked anyone if French women shave their legs (it generally doesn’t seem to be something one talks about in everyday conversation with strangers), but I’m pretty sure they do. The stereotype of the “dirty Frenchman” doesn’t seem to be true either. Although electricity is expensive here and showers may not be as long and luxurious due to the awkward hanging shower head, the French seem pretty hygienic and probably smell better than me. (Aforementioned shower head has made me reluctant to shower). I encountered more smelly people in Greece than in France.
The stereotype that French people are lazy isn’t unfounded, but not entirely accurate. While free time and leisurely sipping a coffee in a café during the two to three hour lunch period is certainly highly valued, lazy is the wrong term to use. I keep reading that France is still one of the most productive countries in the world, despite having the least amount of work hours. I wholeheartedly approve of this less stressful lifestyle and wish Americans would take a lesson from the French and take back recess and naptime.
I’ve addressed some common French stereotypes, but to be fair, I feel I should mention American stereotypes as well. I’ve heard people say that Americans are loud and pretentious. In response, I will admit that we are loud. Especially in large groups, we have a tendency to laugh, make jokes, and raise the level of our voices to express our emotions. Sometimes at night when this noise level is further heightened by a few too many glasses of wine, I cringe at the sound of our shouts bouncing of the extremely close walls of Aix. But when I look around me and see how happy everyone is to be in the company of friends in a wonderful place, I realize that it’s not such a horrible thing. In Greece when I ran into the bus of American retirees, I also noticed how loud they were, but they seemed to be genuinely having a good time and wanted to share their excitement with everyone else. Is that such a bad thing? Admittedly though, being loud is not always a good thing, and there are some overly expressive Americans who have turned our happy disposition into a bad stereotype.
As far as being pretentious, I think this comes from the fact that many Americans don’t learn a second language. Because English is so widespread in the world, it’s easy to travel all over the world and find someone who speaks enough English to help you find your hotel, the bathroom, a restaurant, etc. But this assumption that everyone speaks English leads to anti-American sentiments. In France as well as in Greece, simply speaking a few words of the native tongue works wonders. Making an effort to communicate in the native language shows a great amount of respect. Although I’m often embarrassed by my subpar French comprehension and speaking ability, it’s good to feel humiliated once in a while instead of trying to be an all-powerful American trying to control the world.
I think I’m getting too reflective. Although I’d like to relax more and sip some coffee, I actually have homework tonight so I’ll have to go.