Humans are inherently animals of habit. We bathe in structure, pace, and comfort. Schedule couldn’t be a more satisfying word. However, a new country with time change, a new language, and a new culture completely change anyone’s schedule. Adaptation and cultural understanding eventually come after noticing and practicing the unique ways that the French think, interact, and live.
The French have a high standard of fashion, with Paris being one of the fashion capitals of the world. Their trendy sneakers, checkered pants, chic trench coats, are a necessity for all who walk through the streets. The French have a different standard of greeting, “les bisous”, touching cheek to cheek with kissing sounds at each touch. Every small gesture is a large change in the break, a large break in habit for us who study abroad. We had to prepare to meet our host families, knowing they were going to greet us with “bisous” and not a handshake. How would we know which cheek to start with? Just follow their lead, and let yourself conduct. And that was the first adjustment that broke the numerous American habits I brought with me to this beautiful country.
The first night’s diner allowed for the initial conversations. It was also the first hours not being with all the rest of CIEE, and inherently as well, we were all nervous. There was no need to be though, every host family was essentially selected as the most hospitable families. The French dinner is a cultural practice consisting of an appetizer, a main dish, cheese, a dessert, then coffee, and always in that particular order. Typical appetizers that I enjoyed throughout the first few weeks included: melon, beets, carrots and soup. After, the main dish varied, and as a vegetarian, I learned that the vegetarian diet is not a common one in France, although it is growing in popularity. My first night I indulged in “pizza”, however it was more of a baked pie filled with veggies and ricotta cheese, nothing similar to the typical Italian dish. My host mother then brought out three different types of cheeses and I learned quickly that the French take slices of each cheese and smear it on bread to enjoy. After the cheese, dessert is brought out which varies from households. My host mother prefers natural yogurt for dessert as it is a healthier option, however some nights she will bake fruit with compote for a delicious delight. Coffee is then offered if it is lunch, but usually not for dinner. By this time, the clock has hit around 9:00pm. The largest adjustment for me, was the time dinner is served, however, my host mother’s food was well worth the weight every night.
Unlike the Americans, the French do not watch television every moment of the day, or keep it on for background noise. My host mother watches an average of 3-4 hours of television a day, usually a morning show and a nighttime show. My other American friends with host families have suggested the same average screen time for their families as well. Perhaps it is better this way, they take more time to read, socialize, eat, and other activities.
Another common activity I have found that French people are generalized to do is: smoking. Whether I am waiting at the bus stop, sitting in the metro, outside waiting for my next class to start, or walking around centre ville of Rennes, I am bound to spot someone rolling or smoking a cigarette. It is cultural here, and very different from the overuse of electronic cigarettes that have fascinated US teens. It is common to be walking and asked for a lighter, or a paper or some instrument to help the smoker. Sometimes this is for starting a conversation, making friends, and the social aspect of the French people. And the friend are kind so if “no, sorry” is the answer they will still make sure to tell you to have a nice day.
One last French manner to touch on is the style, the clothes, the fashion. From University students to older ladies and gentlemen, there seems to be a much higher standard of clothing in France, or at least Bretagne. Even attending classes at the University, students dress themselves well, never being lazy with sweatpants, leggings, or messy hair. It is a cultural norm in the US to show up to class in the comfiest attire possible, but not here. I, personally, enjoy the standard of attire and love the French fashion in stores.
Overall, the French standards of being, interacting, and thinking stray far from the norms of the US, but is pragmatic for the French people. It is normal to feel uncomfortable or nervous for the first few days in a new country, but here in France nothing could be better than learning the language and culture in the motherland. Adaptation is an important part of studying abroad and it is nonetheless intriguing to remark on and embody the new behaviors that can be seen everyday.
Washington & Jefferson College