Sunday, January 13, 2013

Three Weeks in France

Bart: So basically, I met one good French person.
(The Simpsons, S01E07 The Crepes of Wrath)

Previously, my only experience with France was a one day trip to Strasbourg to visit one of the capitals of the European Union. The European Union, trademarked as indecisive, decided to split the capital between Brussels and Strasbourg, costing millions of euros a year for taxpayers. Conveniently, this made one of the capitals close enough to where I was studying to warrant the teacher to have our whole class spend the day on a bus. This is the only thing I remembered from the trip, other than that I fell asleep in the front row of a presentation and woke up to a German politician taking questions from our class. My stay in the city for the day was pleasant, everyone was very friendly, despite my comprehensive knowledge of the French language being "Merci", "Je suis la jeune fille", and "Omelette du fromage".

A three day stay in Paris and the rest of the time in Tours has been more encompassing. By no means am I an expert in French culture, but to get an idea of a country you have to immerse yourself in it for a while. Endlessly entertaining are those that tell you how culturally enriching their seven day trip to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Pompeii, and Barcelona was. That is not to say, three weeks is not a very long time either. As I mentioned before, my lackluster knowledge of the language and culture makes me think everyone is always talking about cheese, because it stands out as one of the words I know. In all fairness here is all I know about French history:
  • German and French people are terrified that one of them is gonna swim across the Rhine and kill the other.
  • Some drunk dude in a bar writes a song that becomes the national anthem.

  • Napoleon swims across the Rhine and there's a party under the Brandenburger Tor.

  • Napoleon sits in the snow outside of Moscow and then someone puts him on an island.

  • A bunch of people break into the Bastille and set free all the political prisoners and prisoners.

  • France sends troops and the Statue of Liberty to America, meanwhile Thomas Jefferson chats up some 'demoiselles. Five years later Americans forget either event happened, or that our politicians use to speak more than one language.
  • Germans swim across the Rhine and kill a bunch of French people. 
  • Germans swim across the Rhine again and kill a bunch of French people and Jews, then they take pictures at the Eiffel Tower. 

  • Tom Hanks leads a small group of American soldiers through war torn Europe in search of Matt Damon, along the way single handly winning the war in a decisive battle in some small European town or something.
  • The first McDonald's opens in France.

  • French people publicly mock fast food, while privately soliciting McDonald's three times a week.

  • France elects a socialist president. A French political science major in my political science class mistakenly admits that she does not know who which party the president of France belongs to. Americans who have never left the country complaining about Socialist France are accidentally a little bit correct.
  • As you can see, I am not well versed in the subject. Born in the 90's, growing up we were told that the French were snooty cowards that hated Americans, specifically after the invasion of Afghanistan. In high school, the well off children at the Catholic school I attended would complain about how rude the French people were. Between these off hand remarks, and Fox news telling us how we needed to boycott French cheese and wine, one would get the impression that it is not a nice place to go to.

    Fortunately, I have been staying with my girlfriend, who besides speaking French nearly fluently, has also lived here for some time as a teacher. The very first observation one will make is that there is an understandably very different reaction to speaking French and yelling in English. In line at a Christmas market vendor, the body language of the workers was photogenic in the worst way possible when an eastern European man tried yelling an order in English. We were right after, and as my girlfriend told the man what she wanted in French, the laborer handed her the order and said "C'est pour la Madamoiselle". And once again, that has been my experience for the most part, nice helpful people.

    On the other hand my girlfriend's outlook is comparable to Bart's. She has had to deal with mountains of paperwork, finding an apartment, and working in the school system here. One of the problems with getting out of the U.S (or anywhere) is that you're an outsider, and if you don't speak the language fluently (learned it before age seven) the other fluent speakers know almost immediately. My favorite story of hers was when she asked her French friend what he didn't like about America and he said "Your religion, your president (Bush), and McDonald's". And when she retorted "doesn't your roommate eat there"? He replied "Yeah, he goes there every Sunday"!

    This is sort of something that rings dissonant. I have heard Europeans state that they go great lengths to make sure that restaurants like McDonald's stay away from their monuments, and do not exist every five kilometers like in the U.S. ; this simply is not true: 

    Martins Tor in the very center of Freiburg Germany.
    Note the McDonald's restaurant underneath. Some
    children refer to it as the McDonald's Tor.
    McDonald's at Berlin Alexanderplatz
    McDonald's at the center of Tours France

    In all fairness of the last two pictures, one is in a train station and the other one is near a train station. A quick place to grab a quick bite to eat. What I cannot deny is the frequency at which I see these restaurants in European countries. Freiburg, which touts itself as being a green, student city has two McDonald's, three Starbucks, and a Burger King in the city center. I have also known the same amount of Americans and Europeans that have worked at McDonald's (two each). The truth is that there are some things people ubiquitously love. As unhealthy and greasy as it is, who is going to truthfully state there's nothing at McDonald's they don't like? I can also state from being from a Springfield that Europeans LOVE The Simpsons. "Where are you from? ... Springfield! *gasp* Like The Simpsons!" It's inevitable. My girlfriend, when teaching her students the states, they exclaimed "Les Simpsons" at the mention of Springfield, Illinois. A group of friends relayed to me that when on a school trip to Italy, the people in the restaurant started singing the theme song to the show when they learned which city they were from. The only way I can explain such behavior is that of insecurity which is focused across the Atlantic. At root an American and European have different cultural values, perhaps indulging in something like McDonald's creates a form of dissonance?

    Xenophobic is a word that I have seen tied in with French. In public online discussions however, I find that French people take an offense to being portrayed satirically. (No more, I'm sure than any person on the Internet would protest being satirised.) While in Tours, out of the ten or more Turkish run Kebab shops I have seen, seven have had their front windows broken! A recent survey of French people yielded a surprising result that one in seven French people admitted to being racist at some level. All in all, every country has a problem like this, and all across Europe politicians are saying that "maybe letting all these immigrants in was a problem". Just like Americans complaining about "illegals", not many people were saying anything when they needed hard labour at a low price. Of course, these results could mean a lot of things, for example maybe they are more willing to admit they are racist? What I want to highlight here is that as much as America gets lambasted for shitty things, France has no clean record either. For example, an anti-gay protest is scheduled in Paris today. Keep that in mind for your next angst ridden "I can't wait to graduate and move to Paris!" huff.

    As for my French cultural experience I find things for the most part similar to when I was in Germany. There are lots of baguettes, and everyone seems to dress their best every single day. This is really all that is different. With Freiburg being so close to France there is a lot of French influence in the city. French wine, cheese, and people are all close at hand, and relatively inexpensive. A long time ago I came to the realization that everyone is the same everywhere. There are cultural, geographic, and environmental differences, but for the most part people like the same things. Societies have the same types of people: there's racists, smart people, fat people, athletic people, thrill seekers, reclusives, etceteria, etceteria, and they all get defined by the political borders that hold them, or something like that...

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