Before beginning my year abroad in Paris, which I am currently halfway through, I had repeatedly heard three seemingly disconnected facts about the French culture: the French are cold, they are overtly nationalistic and they make baking an envied art form. I had spent three weeks outside of Paris on an exchange with the Rotary Club several years prior, an experience that more or less confirmed these three tidbits of cultural insight.
However, at that point, I was a relatively immature 16 year-old with a narrow-minded fascination of French viennoiserie, the Tour Eiffel and the other famous landmarks for which Paris seems only to be known. As a result, the great depth and layered-complexity of French culture passed me by, leaving me with only cursory insight. Now, seven months into my year abroad, do I better understand the culture? Here is a brief foray into my growing insight.
Most French are very fond of being French. You might ask: what does it mean to be French? I'm not entirely sure but cigarettes, fashionable French-made clothing that fits snugly (something North American men have little to no clue about) and expressive hand gestures are important ingredients. On a recent vacation, my plane was grounded for technical issues. The well-dressed French men and women must have longed for a cigarette to calm their nerves as the "no smoking sign" flashed menacingly above them.
The French love discussing philosophy and politics over coffee, in a classroom, walking along the river or in the metro. Nowhere is this more evident than Sciences-Po, the crème-de-la-crème of French political science education where I am currently a student. I would not be surprised if the adjacent blazer and jean clad 21-year old carrying copies of Le Monde and La Liberation is in fact the future Minister of Defense or perhaps even the president himself (or herself). Marine le Pen is not a Sciences-Po alum but a majority of the French cabinet's women are. In my experience in an American college, I have found that this kind of erudite, political conversation lacks the ubiquity it enjoys in France. However, while expressive gestures and raised voices are sometimes seen as signs of leadership and knowledge in France, they would be provocative and confrontational in a conversation between American students.
France is not Paris. True, it is the capital, but name me one capital city that is emblematic of the entire country. Paris dominates the spotlight simply because of its glamorous tourist spots. Other French cities- Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg - frown upon Paris. Some of Paris's landmarks were in fact taken from other French cities. After the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon was built to protect the city in the 19th century, Paris loved the idea, went with it, and built the more famous Sacre-Coeur. As Regina George from the movie Mean Girls once famously said: "I like invented her." Parisians, like Lindsay Lohan, neglect the importance of those surrounding them. As such, Parisians are quite particular.
Parisians wear lots of black. This could be due to one of two reasons: first, black is vogue. It looks good on everyone and Parisians love looking just as good as the next Parisian. Second, black is a symbol of the citywide depression that seems to have taken over people's demeanor as the weather remains grim. The moment there's a vacation, of which the French have many, Parisians flock to the Mediterranean economies that they so often criticize.
Thankfully, however, the sun is slowly emerging as spring approaches. Hopefully, a little warmth will encourage Parisians to remain local and help boost their own country's economy. The question I have, of course, is whether the Parisians will persist in wearing their chic black clothing despite the sunny weather? Part of me thinks it's here to stay.
Parisians never pick up after their dogs. The city is an obstacle course of canine fecal matter not just in the poorer areas of the 19ieme and 20ieme arrondissements but also in the richer ones of the 7ieme and 17ieme. They expect the city's garbage men to deal with their garbage, an expectation that aptly explains their fondness of the expression, "n'importe-quoi," which roughly translates to "whatever." Parisians could care less if you stepped in their pet's waste. Maybe not caring is à la mode?
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