Friday, November 19, 2010

Cultural differences

For instance...
The other day I was walking down the street, somewhere in the center of town, and I saw a car parked in the middle of the street, blocking all other vehicles. There was no driver, it was just parked there –no emergency lights on or anything. And fellow passerbys did not even seem to blink an eye. Welcome to France. This type of thing is not unusual and is even common – I remember the same thing happened even more in Italy! Something to do with those Latin countries I guess…

Another subtle but evident cultural difference I’ve become aware of is the use of cell phones in France versus in America. In America, everyone seems to have either a blackberry or iphone that they are literally attached to the hip with – it really disgusts me how even 2 and 3 year old kids know how to work their parents’ iphone thanks to all the many kids-friendly apps. There needs to be a line drawn and to me, that’s crossing it. In France, it’s refreshing how, believe it or not, most people do not own a blackberry or iphone; cell phones are used as a simple method of communication and not much more than that. You walk down the street of New York and see a million New Yorkers on cell phones- it’s nice how here, people take pleasure in their immediate surroundings as opposed to being constantly in touch with the future.

Extreme Americans vs. Laid Back Europeans
I was watching the movie “Wedding Crashers” with my Italian roommate the other night and after Vince Vaughn’s character says something, he goes to me “you americans are so extreme.” He is absolutely right and that is a great way to describe us.

Whether it’s our diet and exercise (we seem to have many issues with both obesity and eating disorders), our consumption of alcohol, our 80 hour + work weeks, or the excessive use of tanning beds, I think that many Americans could learn a thing or two from the more relaxed, less extreme European way of living. Kids start drinking at an early age because they (normally) do not abuse alcohol the way Americans do. Don’t get me wrong, there are many young French people who binge drink as well – but you definitely don’t hear about many young Europeans ending up in hospitals or dying from excessive alcohol consumption. I understand that America is the most powerful country in the world for a reason-but France is smaller than the state of Texas, has much more vacation time than the standard American worker, and for the most part, French people do not overwork themselves-a 40 hour work week, standard in America, is considered almost excessive over here. And yet they still remain the fourth most powerful country in the world-to me, that is impressive.

Tanning beds – many of my friends go several times a week or at least several times a month, despite the obvious safety hazards that they pose. I just learned that in France, many doctors actually prescribe tanning beds to patients. I don’t think I have seen one tanning salon while here in France and definitely haven’t heard of anyone going – as many of us have witnessed from the cast of Jersey Shore alone, tanning is purely a vanity ritual that many Americans can not do without. In France, apparently there is not an issue with excessive tanning, and therefore doctors are able to prescribe them in a limited dose.

Another example of our extremity is the size of our houses, cars, food…well, everything…compared to European sizes. A wealthy American family is going to display their wealth with a large house and a nice big car…whereas a French family with the same amount of money is not nearly as likely to show off their wealth. A large house in France has several bedrooms, a dining room, living room and one full bathroom. In France, it is very normal for even a well-off family to share one bathroom. Perhaps I have been spoiled in my upbringing, but in America, well-off families would most definitely have more than one bathroom to share between a family. Obviously this is not necessary, but for some reason, many Americans seem to think it is.

In France, the houses are nice, but not overly ostentatious, as many are in America. What I find so interesting about all this, is that people drive smaller cars and live in smaller houses, yet somehow, they get (in my opinion) even more enjoyment out of life. Simple pleasures, like sitting down for a café, are enjoyed more - as opposed to the American tradition of running to Starbucks and barely having time to breathe in between. Wealth is not displayed in the form of a huge mansion or the latest Mercedes…people do not feel the need as much here to show off their affluence through materialism; as a result, the gap between the poor and the rich is much less noticeable. I’ve actually heard from many sources and various people, that when wealth is displayed in France), other people actually look down on that person for that; in direct contrast, is the US, where a display of wealth makes you more popular and gathers more followers. For example, I’ve heard stories about wealthy individuals who have had to buy a separate, less showy car to drive around town in –because if their clients or neighbors saw the nicer car they drove, they would completely shun them. A doctor, for instance, would lose all of his clients! The opposite is true in the US-if you drive a nice car or live in a big house, that is a sign to the rest of the world that you are successful-and American people want to follow successful people. It would be nice to find a happy medium between the two – I do not believe in showing off one’s wealth- but at the same time, one should be able to buy what they want and live where they want without having to fear being judged for it.

American Cooking vs Italian Cooking
Like I said, right now I’m living with an Italian guy. He’s really nice and laid-back but I know there are many things about my American ways that he just doesn’t get. For instance-he only buys Barilla (Italian brand) pasta and simply doesn’t understand how I can buy the cheap Casino brand (tastes the same to me!) – yesterday he said to me “the quality of what you buy makes a difference”-yes, this is true- but the fact that he is applying this to pasta, which to me, all tastes the same, just seems very Italian. And I love it.
When my friend Ali comes over to my apartment and spends the night, we never cook together- we make separate meals and normally even eat at different times, doing different things. This is in direct contrast to my roommate, who, the other night, had a friend over for dinner/to spend the night and they cooked together, ate at the table together and even got a bottle of wine to enjoy while eating. 

So when he witnessed our dinner exchange, he was very perplexed, saying that dinner is supposed to be a time to spend with your friends and he thought it was very strange that we ate separately and didn’t talk while eating. He said “that’s not dinner, that’s just eating.” He definitely raised a good point.

Tonight, we had a mélange of people come over for dinner that he organized- 2 Chinese girls, 1 French guy, 3 of his Italian friends and a Turkish guy. The languages were a mix between Italian, French and English-mostly French of course, though. So before the dinner, Marco told me that he wanted to show me how to cook –because apparently there are a lot of things that I need to learn. I made a tiny faux pas (like he told me to throw away the potato peels so we could put the newly cut potatoes on the same plate; and I came back with the same plate, clearly unwashed) and he told me “no one is every going to marry you if you do this.” HAHAHA. SO very Italian, I love it. He later said “every woman knows how to cook-sometimes they just have to be taught.” As you can see, he is very traditional in his ways. He said “You Americans do a lot of things well and you are the most powerful country in the world for a reason and you obviously work very hard-but you have NO idea how to cook.” So true- Americans don’t cook anything from scratch anymore! We all rely on frozen dinners, take-out and easy recipes. We just don’t have the same fresh ingredients and produce that are so integral to a good French and/or Italian meal. Marco then says “And what is more important than love and food?” Good point. 

Because when it comes down to it, the Italians definitely have it right- there really isn’t anything more important than those two things.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Here we go again!

Well I just arrived BACK in Toulouse yesterday morning to start what will hopefully be another wonderful year! This year I got lucky and got placed at one high school in Toulouse. No more commuting! As much as I enjoyed the train rides and having that me-time, I will not miss the 5am mornings and waiting around in Lannemezan all day for my next class to start.

Right now, I'm staying with a teacher from the high school where I'm going to be working-she has kindly offered up her guest room for me to stay in while I search for an apartment.

The good thing is that everything is SO much easier the second time around. Knowing how to do things, how to manage the French bureaucracy (what documents are needed, how to push your way to an answer) and having been through this once before, definitely makes things easier and less stressful. (Re)opening my bank account, getting a french portable - well, apparently I'm banned from joining in another contract after leaving in the middle of my last one (after thinking that I wasn't coming back to France, I of course had to cancel my 2 year contract-which I made thinking that I was going to be here for 2 years...then I changed my mind...twice). But I have a phone and that's all that matters!

Even though I've only been in France for less than 36 hours, I'm already being reminded of little cultural differences. Faire les bises (there really is no English equivalent-basically kissing someone on the cheek twice in greeting) when meeting someone for the first time-I met my teacher's partner and my first instinct was to stick my hand out as I said enchanté to him! Major oops here in France...reminder: the handshake does not exist.

I was in the Darty store today (an electronic store, basically equivalent to our Best Buy), getting my cell phone and as I was waiting, I was fiddling with the Ipad. I started scrolling under the notes section and saw some meaningless things written. Then I saw something that made me smile a bit inside. Someone had written: "Caro- Je t'aime du tout mon coeur" (Caro-I love with you with all my heart). Maybe that was the first time someone said I love you to their girlfriend- or maybe it was the 500th. But it definitely made me happy and was a true reminder that I am back in France - for better or for worse, the French are not the least bit shy when it comes to showing their affection for their loved ones. 

We Americans are so prudish to begin with, that anything more than a peck on the lips in public is frowned upon. Until you come to France, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Making out in public is the least of it. People will do everything but have sex (oh no wait, that has been witnessed once before) in full view of the general population. And no one blinks an eye. I must say, while some of the PDA I witness I could definitely do without, it is quite refreshing to see that here, love is always in the air. ahhh la France, c'est trop romantique! Sometimes...

On that note, the French definitely approach relationships in a very different way than Americans. In France, to be in a relationship, much of the time, really doesn't mean anything. While in the US, becoming "boyfriend, girlfriend" is a huge deal and one that must be "DTR"ed (define the relationship) until it becomes official, in France, you can meet somebody once and they will already be asking to date you. I experienced this firsthand last year - I met this 19 year old while waiting at the train station (from Lannemezan, going to Toulouse) -I say 19 because a) he was still in high school and b) he was too young for me. We talked, rode the train back to Tarbes and then to Toulouse together (he thought that we could maybe catch a quicker train out of Tarbes even though it was out of our way home) and later that night, he came to the bar that I was at (since I casually mentioned that I was going there that night - we didn't even exchange phone numbers at this point in time). At least we didn't until later that night...he ended up texting me after he left saying "Je suis amoreux de toi" (I'm in love with you) and other sweet French nothings...Oh boy. Clearly you're not in love with me-I met you once, hung out with you for no more than 2 hours...I mean come on! I don't believe I responded. 

A week or so later I recieve a text from him saying "Tu veux sortir avec moi?" (do you want to go out with me). I said I was busy that day/night and he said "No, do you want to be my girlfriend?" HAHAHAHAH. And so you see that being boyfriend/girlfriend really means absolutely nothing in France. This type of thing would never happen in the US. Of course, this is definitely not always the case in France either and perhaps in high school this type of thing is even more exaggerated- but bottom line: relationships are extremely casual here and there is no real fuss made about their development.

Intéressant, non?