Sorry. I hate to use that joke but it’s too good to not use at least once. I’m less than two weeks away from finishing my study abroad program (Don’t make me leave!) and I’m starting to feel a little panicked that I have to leave a place that I’m starting to feel comfortable with. I feel like I have finally made a life for myself here and I hate to leave it. Of course, until I’m fluent in French, the language will always be a barrier. But in other regards, I truly feel like I’ve started to assimilate to this culture.
One question that comes up again and again during study abroad is “what do you miss most from home?” I think the truest testament to my assimilation is that I really don’t miss anything from home, besides my friends and family. In fact, most of the discrepancies between French and American culture I have come to either accept or actually prefer the French way. Here are a few things about French culture I’ve come to appreciate or just found interestingly different:
We have to start with the most important things of course! To be honest, I don’t think I have the budget to splurge on a superb, authentically French dish (and Nice is unique because the cuisine here is more influenced by its Italian heritage and Mediterranean ingredients) so I have missed out on some excellent French meals, but I can certainly vouch for the quality of French pastries. I also love pastries simply because I love the concept of the French Patisserie (like a bakery, but with a wider selection of baked goods). I appreciate that people actually make a daily stop to the patisserie to pick up their baguette for dinner on their way home from work. The French are serious about their baguettes.
They’re everywhere—in grocery stores, on the tram, even in church. It’s incredible. I even feel their presence on the sidewalk when I walk past a pile of dog poop every block. At first I thought that being surrounded by all these dogs would keep me from missing my own dogs. Then I realized that it’s kind of one of those “so close, yet so far” deals because even though there are dogs everywhere, it’s kind of French taboo to pet other people’s dogs, which is reflective of the private nature of French people.
I knew that I’d have to step up my fashion game before coming to France but dang, I just can’t compete with some of these people! Between superfluous bows on their jackets or pom-poms on their sneakers, French women seem to have a certain flair that my old sandals and I just don’t have. Beyond what they wear, French women present themselves with an air of elegance and sophistication that I simply can’t seem to match, even when I try to look decent. And OH, I can’t forget about how the boys dress: most of the men here wear jeans skinnier than what I own. So basically my fashion style is outdone by the opposite gender, too. Sigh.
Men with guns
It was a little alarming to step off the plane in Nice and have the first people I see in the airport be a squad of uniformed soldiers carrying around massive guns. Because France is technically in a state of lockdown, they have four-person units patrolling all of the populated areas in Nice and I encounter these units during my daily routine: shopping on Jean-Medecin, running on the Promenade, or leaving for weekend travel. I have become accustomed to them and feel safer knowing that they are around if anything were to happen, but it was certainly an adjustment. They serve as a reminder of how fresh the wounds from the attack in Nice last July still are among the citizens and government of France.
This is common to Europe as a whole, but one thing that I love about Nice is how many old churches there are in this city. You can stumble around the Old Town neighborhood and uncover a new church each time (new only to you, of course, as these churches are actually hundreds of years old!). Personally, the prevalence of these old churches brings me a lot of peace and I like the accessibility of being able to hop in and pray when I discover one. While an increasing percentage of French are drifting away from practiced religion, many still identify as Catholic and most still value the Church’s influence as part of their history.
I think there is certainly a collectivist mindset that pervades French culture in a way that doesn’t penetrate America’s, and public transportation is a perfect example of that. Nice has a working bus and tram system within the city, as well as numerous bus lines and regional trains that can take people to neighboring towns. It wasn’t until I came here and began traveling frequently to surrounding areas that I realized how hard it must be for people in the US to travel without a car. And while a lot of students I’ve talked to lament over not having the autonomy to drive their own car when and where they want to, I actually prefer to use public transportation. Okay, getting on a (infrequently) crowded bus that reeks of body odor is never fun, but public transit is certainly better for the environment and I enjoy having the responsibility of getting myself somewhere on time lifted off of me by the assurance that someone else is in charge of my transport and arrival. I also love the tram culture and that people always, without fail, give up their seat for elderly people.
Let me tell you, the French like their vacation days. Coming from America, where the typical full-time employee receives 10 days of paid vacation, France’s “two weeks off here, two weeks of there” method of allocating breaks puts the US to shame. I think France is doing it right: we should develop a society that encourages people to take time off because it’s beneficial for one’s mental health, it’s important to spend time with family, and it helps keep people from overworking themselves into an endless cycle of stress. Sometimes I get annoyed when I can’t find a grocery store open past 8 pm (the notion of 24/7 doesn’t really exist here, so no satisfying that midnight ice cream craving), but I respect that companies in France value their employees and develop frameworks (like not offering shifts in the middle of the night) that are conducive to a work-life balance.
In all honesty, I definitely romanticized the French culture. And while I may have had different expectations of what it would be like to live (which involved more macaroons and more beret-wearing), I’m happy with my experience because it was real. I like to think, at least, that I lived a true Nicoise life for four months. And while that may not look like the glamorous French lifestyles on TV (because, honestly, I eat more pasta than crêpes and wear more comfortable walking shoes than high heels), I enjoyed it and it was authentic!