Culture is a packed word. It encompasses almost an endless range of attitudes, beliefs, norms, behaviors, and the reasons for each. It allows people to link the past and present with the notion that we are all shaped by our experiences and evolve together through time. A line from one of my favorite movies, Across the Universe, reads, “Certainly, it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.” This short-but-sweet phrase epitomizes what culture boils down to: the way that groups of people live each day. In comparing French culture to American culture, both groups of people more or less do the same things. Both go through similar stages of life, form personal relationships, and of course, eat. It is the way that we do these things that creates observable culture differences.
At a distance, the lives of both an American and a Parisian seem relatively similar. Functionally, that is. At a young age, most American and French children begin schooling in preparation for the pursuit of a career. One day, with the career he or she so painstakingly worked for, they too will be able to provide for a family and continue the grand circle of life. This life cycle seems at first like a basic concept; but at a closer look, it becomes clear that the way the French move through life is fundamentally different than the way we Americans do. The French take their education extremely seriously, allowing no room for skating by not working to their full potential. Everything they do is done meticulously, without shortcuts. As much as we may think, “So do we,” how often can we say that we have cheated on a test, or have done just enough to pass and move on forgetting everything we have been taught? I can personally admit to the absolute truth that Americans can be downright lazy. French people, on the other hand do not exude the same laziness as Americans. It is observable in their everyday lives, and I have taken notice. For example, the French enjoy, rather than complain about the simple task of walking;; I have yet to see a Parisian child strolling (or scootering) next to their guardian with a pained look on their face that screams ‘Can we stop walking already and go home so I can play Xbox?’ This brings me to another point. The French move about his or her day at a significantly slower pace, almost as though to stop and enjoy just being alive, unlike the American hustle and bustle, especially from larger cities like Chicago. For whatever reasons, we seem to live in the fast lane, always trying to get a set of tasks done as quickly as humanly possible, expecting instant satisfaction. Parisians have a way about them, however, that seems as though they appreciate the seconds passing by more than we seem to. Whether that is true or not, they do things at a slower pace, which inevitably allows them to enjoy more in each passing day, which I find to be very refreshing.
Forming and maintaining personal relationships is one of the greatest gifts of life. Building lasting friendships and discovering true love is what life is all about; and both Americans and French people cherish these pursuits. The contrast, again, is in the way that we go about having relationships with people. Outward affection, otherwise known in America as “PDA” (public display of affection), which make Americans more or less uncomfortable, is something that the French embrace. Platonic friends and couples alike are very open with affection for one another. When in public, friends keep their conversations between each other, often spoken softly and directly. Parisians also defy the American “personal bubble” and keep closer proximity to each other. Even at restaurants in Paris, the tables are small, set for two, and are all very close to each other. In fact, I found it difficult to squeeze my way out of a café after finishing my meal without bumping into several people. Kissing friends on each cheek to greet them is also customary in France among all friends. In romantic relationships, an American couple may feel uncomfortable holding hands in public, depending on the setting. A French couple, however, not only holds hands, but are often seen arm-in-arm walking through the city together. They also have no problem kissing in public, and the way that they go about the act of kissing is delicate and sweet. For Americans today, most see public kissing to be slightly repulsive. In fact, many couples are only intimate when they are alone.Whether this is due to embarrassment or a lower level of comfort with intimacy, Americans are undoubtedly less open about their love life.
Food is an important aspect of culture everywhere in the world. Everyone eats, but the emphasis on what is consumed and how it is prepared creates a level of cultural distinction. For both Americans and Parisians, mealtime means more than simply fueling our bodies to gain nutrition. It is seen as a time to be together and enjoy each other’s company more often than not. For the French, however, they place a much higher importance on the quality and preparation of food. France is the premiere place to study culinary arts for students everywhere, and home to some of the greatest chefs in the world. Their style of cooking is done with such precision that it must be accompanied by a similar style of eating. Enjoying every meal is what the French live for; it is part of their history. Unlike Americans, the French never eat in a rush. They take their time before, during, and after every meal to take it all in, making it more than just a daily task, but an experience for the mind, body and soul. France also has a much healthier way of cooking. America has got in the habit of adding so many preservatives to our food so it lasts longer, but is unhealthy; yet, in Paris, their food does not contain nearly as many preservatives, so the food is fresher and healthier. Moreover, the way they present food is so meticulous that it looks like a form of art in itself. Although some areas of America have healthier eating habits than others, the act of eating in France – and I can now say this from experience – is beyond comparison.
Even though the daily lives of people living in the U.S. and may seem similar, the way we live each day, interact with the people around us, and enjoy the gift of food creates significant cultural differences. As an American traveling abroad in France, these cultural differences become more and more evident as I immerse myself in their everyday activities. Experiencing the French culture firsthand and seeing how much Americans can learn from their lifestyle is something I will cherish forever.