Disclaimer: This is simply a recollection of my feelings and experience about American and French people. I am fully aware that my experience could be very different, notably if I weren’t white and European. Experiences probably also vary a lot depending where you’re from: I have lived in the countryside nearly all my life and this largely influences my feelings.
“Anything to declare?”
“Uh… two bottles of red wine, I-uh, I’m bringing them for the host family…”
“Right. How old are you?”
“Uh… I’m fifteen, sir.”
“I see. Well, miss… you better not drink them, okay? Welcome to the United States!”
The date was July 2006, I was freshly graduated from high school, this was my first time travelling alone to another country, and I was completely terrified. Everything was new and foreign: the form I had to fill (you know, the one with the wonderful questions such as “Have you ever participated in the World War II genocide?”), fingerprints at immigration control, and then this tall man with a gun asking how old I was. I had heard all the horror stories about travelling to the United States, and yet there I was persuaded I was going to be sent back over two bottles of wine that I wasn’t old enough to drink. And then, this.
There is a reason I remember this as clearly as I do. I remember the tension, all the awful things I had heard about what Americans are like: xenophobic, paranoid, trigger-happy. The stress of going through customs vanished in an instant, as soon as that man laughed at me and at my two miserable bottles of Bordeaux.
Americans often ask me, what surprised you the most in America? Was it the height of the buildings of Philadelphia, the first American city I visited? The width of the highways, the length of cars? The completely ridiculous supermarket aisles – I mean, chocolate bacon, really? The size of portions in restaurants (everybody was always afraid that I didn’t like the food because I was eating so little of it)?
Yes, all these things did surprise me. When you’re suddenly thrown into the life of an American family, outside of the touristic tours, it takes a little bit of time for a teen from the deep countryside of France to adapt. For example, the first day, I woke up too early, too jet-lagged, and was too shy to get up and look for something to eat. No-one was inviting me to eat, after all. When my stomach couldn’t take any more of it, I asked someone something along the lines of “It’s noon. When do you eat lunch?” and was told “Huh? Oh, we don’t really have an hour for lunch. I thought you already ate something, I did an hour ago. Take what you want in the fridge, help yourself!” Like I said, it took some time to adapt. (Fear not: a few days later, I was able to have pizza at 4 in the afternoon without repressing urges to freak out about it.)
However, while I could easily ditch my French citizenship for Cinnabons, food isn’t the reason I fell in love with the States. No, the reason is probably closer to that customs agent’s joke. I suppose it’s the American people themselves, perhaps more than the country, that have surprised me in a way I don’t fully understand yet.
“Hello, how are you doing today?”
Several trips to the United States have confirmed this to me: there is a reason that French people, to Americans, are seen as arrogant. There is a fundamental difference between the attitude an American has towards strangers – at least, in the places I’ve visited – and a French person’s natural reservedness. That was one of the first things that threw me off guard in America: when I entered a shop on my own for the first time, and the lady asked “Hello, how are you doing today?” For a few seconds I just stood there with my mouth half-open trying to process that her sentence required an answer.
Where I’m from, you will get a “hello”, sure, maybe the occasional “can I help you?” but there are still some shops where nobody greets you when you enter. And no-one will ask you such a personal question. I’ve become a master at answering “good, you?” but it’s still a foreign concept to me. Why would a shopkeeper care about my day, and why should they know about it? Seeing this, I can understand why a French person might seem cold at first to any American. Let’s face it, the least we interact with strangers on a personal level, the better; when we do so, it’s always in the most formal way possible: you can see this in the street, at work, anywhere in France.
But in America, talking about your life, joking with the cashier or your waiter at a restaurant, are things that I have done frequently and that I have enjoyed greatly. And sometimes, I’ve even felt like they cared. It was amazing to see this woman in Barnes & Noble ask me, out of the blue, if I was travelling (since I was buying so many books) and then switching to asking me questions about France, so simply and naturally. Or maybe it was the waiter at Applebee’s who randomly showed up at our table and asked us which our favorite football team was. And the lady at Sears, who spent some times talking about games and her Army wife life to my boyfriend and I because we were buying a huge stuffed Chewbacca/Angry Birds mutant (true story). In any case, when it comes to waiters and waitresses, it certainly makes tipping a lot easier!
Speaking of interacting with strangers, if you are French and make American friends, you will probably seem awkward and cold at first. Notably, the first time one of them tries to hug you. It’s uncomfortable: when you reserve hugs for very close friends and family, having acquaintances pull you into a quick hug – or people you’ve only met online – is terrifying. At least it was to me. I didn’t know how to react! Of course, trying to react the French way – i.e. by lightly, politely brushing cheeks – usually turns into a disastrous hug/kiss mix, uncomfortable and awkward.
And then you come back to France and you get back to keeping a certain distance between yourself and your friends, and everything just seems bleak and fake.
It wasn’t just the hugs, it’s also the way people refer to you by your first name right away: I had a job interview by phone where I was immediately referred to as “Charline” by my interviewer. While this may be destabilizing at first, you get used to it very quickly; it feels friendly and inclusive. Some people I know cannot stand that – they would much prefer the formality of “Mr/Mrs X” to being immediately addressed to by their first name by a stranger. That is tied with our two different pronouns for “you”: “tu”, for friends and family, and generally younger people, and “vous”, a mark of respect to your elders and/or superiors. As such, English feels more direct, friendlier: everyone is a “you”. Strangely enough, I feel uncomfortable being called “tu” by strangers in France – it feels disrespectful – but I will always feel a lot more comfortable when introduced to Americans for that same reason. It takes some time getting used to, but it is worth it in the end.
It’s as if we erected fences and walls to protect our private lives in a way that maybe the Americans do not, at least not physically. I am often told that Americans appear more “fake” because of this: there might be a little bit of truth in that. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easier to see what a French person truly thinks of you right away. On the contrary, since we are always so formal and polite, I think it is harder to tell who we hate, and who we sincerely appreciate when meeting new people. It doesn’t mean we’re cold: we’re simply trying to be as respectful as possible. It gets confusing when you are used to communicating back and forth between French people and Americans: I never know what to expect of Americans, but I feel much less comfortable around my own people now, and spend my time trying to pierce through their formalities.
Get off my lawn
We reflect this sense of privacy and reservedness in the way we build our homes, as well. If you visit Paris only, you may not notice right away, perhaps because the vision of European architecture is familiar to you. Spend a day or two in rural France and you will see it: most homes are protected by walls or fences all around the yard. Now, I had never really thought about this until I visited the U.S., where everything is just like in the movies: open front yards, lawns where children play with their neighbors. It more or less felt like I was suddenly thrown into an episode of Desperate Housewives.
More and more neighborhoods in wealthy French suburbs try to imitate that “American Television” feel, with identical houses and open front yards, but the facts are that if you live in any part of rural France, you’re very unlikely to see your neighbor’s lawn. In fifteen years of living with my parents in rural areas, we almost never interacted with our neighbors, and they liked to keep it that way. The people we met with, had BBQ and pool parties with were never our neighbors: the least we saw those, the better. In fact, one of our houses lost considerable value after the neighbor raised his house by one floor, making his house visible from our yard.
You can imagine how surprised I was to discover what a block party was in America. During my first time there, I was lucky enough to be around during the July 4th celebrations, where they closed off entire blocks to cars so that neighbor kids could play in the streets, and neighbors could grill things together on the sidewalks. I tried to picture that in my French neighborhoods and laughed at how awkward the scene would be. Secretly, I wished that I could have that kind of community one day.
That is where I wanted to get, and the core of the difference between the French and the Americans, in my mind: a sense of belonging to something. We often point out that Americans are “overly patriotic”, in a French point of view. While this is neither a good thing, nor a bad one, it is true. Being in America, even as a visitor, gives you this sense of belonging that some people are more or less receptive to. I know I was, and I know it is something I need to live; I had this feeling that being in America, staying in America, would give me the impression that I belong to something. Being in France, where the mindset is definitely more individualistic, behind our closed fences and walls, we might miss out on this idea of community.
It’s especially sad when you consider the reported, cliche idea that immigrants have a hard time integrating with the French community: perhaps that is because there isn’t one. And what if that’s the case? How can one become French if the French themselves don’t know what it means to be French? French patriotism, as a result, is now a synonym of its nationalist far-right parties, who believe that only they love their country. But perhaps what they have gotten wrong about loving their country, and that more Americans get right, is that France is not about a religion or a type of food. I fear that we may have lost the “Fraternité” part of our motto, and that is one of the reasons that make me want to leave.
As some Twitter users have pointed out to me, in the end, I believe that it is possible for a person to “become” American, but you can never become French.
This is not to say I’ll completely stop being French someday. But I can certainly think that all these factors – the friendliness, the openness, the sense of belonging – make me feel more and more American, less and less French, and that does not concern me.
Maybe the issue at heart here is that I do not ever want to be part of this group, for whom loving your country means you have to stop loving the very people who are as much a part of it as you.