I walk across the market daily to get to school. Every day, the man in the straw hat selling beautiful calissons smiles and enthusiastically announces “Bonjour!” across the vendors of fruits and vegetables. I smile back and he raises his arms as he comes out from behind his stand for a bisous (kisses both cheeks). He offers me all the free samples of the fluffy sugary treats I can eat and walks around the market with me after hooking his elbow into mine, leaving his stand unoccupied.
It’s the relationships like these that have made me think about stereotypes and my experiences in France. Everyone told me the French are stuck up and unfriendly. And walking down the streets, I can see how people feel this way. French people don’t smile at each other. Especially not at strangers. They aren’t as open and friendly during small day-to-day encounters. Never will cashiers ask about your day or if you’ve found everything all right. Frankly, they don’t care and neither do the customers.
But once you really start to get to know people, things change. Become a regular customer. Make a new friend. Stay with a French family. And everything changes. French friends and acquaintances are perhaps the most amiable and caring people I’ll ever have the pleasure to know.
For example, my French host family had an old student over for dinner one night. They drove her to and from the airport during her vacation time in France and prepared a huge feast for her arrival. My host mom, Mireille, wouldn’t stop talking about the former student, bringing up stories and details as if she was talking about her own daughter. I asked how many years ago she’d hosted this student. 15 years ago. French friends and “family” are for life.
A more humorous example of the seemingly contradictory nature of France is the idea that French people love to “stop and smell the roses.” Everyone walks at a leisurely pace, enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. My professor’s must overused quote is “marchez lentement et à l’ombre.” Walk slowly and in the shade. People take their time here. Service is slow. But so is consumption. People sit for hours in cafés, sipping espresso and chatting. Or drinking a beer while watching a football game. If a line is involved, expect to wait for a while. Be careful when you buy your train tickets because strikes are an epidemic here that has caused many alterations in travel plans. And if you have late night hunger, prepare for it in advance because no one works after 7 or 8 pm. And forget about buying anything on Sundays. There is a huge atmosphere of patience, taking life slowly and appreciating every breath. Work less, live more.
This was especially hard for me to grasp at first and Mireille was constantly telling me to slow down. My first few weeks in France, I went through the days like I would in the states. Wake up early, work out, go to class, go out. Constantly on the go. Mireille was always telling me “Tue es toujours ici et là et tu fais de trop.” (you are always here and there and you do too much). If I complained of a headache, it was because I was too busy. Stomach ache because I drank too much coffee. Over time, I learned to relax a little. Sit in the garden every now and then. Take a siesta between classes. Live a little more like the French.
However, put a French person in the driver’s seat and everything changes. Honks fill the air and screams of “Allez, allez” pour from car windows. Something about being in a car makes time of the essence, and mopeds and motorcycles speed through pedestrian walkways, very near killing several pedestrians in the process, to get to their destination.
French people don’t want to talk about your personal life. Usually. There are of course exceptions with friends and certain acquaintances. But for the most part, it seems almost rude to dig into others’ private lives. They will not immediately ask you what you’re studying, where you’re from, what you do in you free time, etc. like an American would.
But they have no problem asking you about your political views. When in France, be prepared for the ultimate questions. “Qu’est-ce que vous pensez de Trump?” What do you think about Trump? They will ask you about gun control, the election, and your thoughts on American and world politics. This isn’t as taboo in France as it is in America, where people avoid touchy subjects in polite conversation. In France, debate is healthy and socially acceptable.
And perhaps the strangest contradiction I’ve noted here concerns the female form and conservatism. In the city, everyone dresses very conservatively. Women in shorts stand out. Never will you see a French woman walking around in grubby gym clothes. There seems to be an unspoken dress code, a sort of oppressive guidebook that requires women to hide the female form. My French father even commented once that women walk around these days with their asses hanging out.
Go to a French beach, however, and clothes are optional. No one bats an eye at the bare-breasted women. No startled parents guffaw and cover their children’s eyes. I can’t understand why in some circumstances, the female form is something to be respected and admired, natural and nothing to be ashamed of. But walk around the city in something “revealing” and there’s no evading cat-calling, disgusted glances, or feeling uncomfortable.
I never like to make generalizations like this, but from my experiences, these are notable observances that pervade my time here in Provence. And I’ve found many contradictory quirks dans la vie française. Trying to get accustomed with all of these cultural nuances, contradictions, and specificities is difficult and I sometimes feel a little lost. I’ve been embarrassed, angered, annoyed, and frustrated at times. Culture shock is real. I continue to learn new peculiarities the more time I spend here, bobbing up and down like a buoy in the clear waters of Cassis. But one stereotype that can’t be contradicted or argued is the love of the baguette. They are everywhere and I pass tens of boulangeries on a short walk. So despite the struggle of understanding social nuances, I have the comfort of fresh-baked bread ad pastries to get me through any emotional hardships. Stereotypes aren’t always negative.