Six months ago, when my plane landed at Charles De Gaulle airport I plummeted headfirst into French life and culture. As I waded through the hundreds of smells on the metro, opened my bag to security guards who don’t even look, or had my first expresso and cigarette, I got a feel for the French way of life. Like many tourists, I explored the classic “parisienne” sites: Montmartre, Notre Dame, and La Tour Eiffel. Any français(e) will promise that the people selling single beers at Montmartre, the street performers and selfie takers at Notre Dame, or the immigrants selling petit Eiffel Towers, are merely the view of a Tourist. However, I feel that my perspective, illuminated by living with a “famille d’accueil”, encompasses not only the typical American view of France, but also a deeper understanding of a people with a purpose equally strong as my own. I respect the French. In my view, the French people are extremely prideful of their culture and language which stems from their rich history. The dignity of the French can be see in their desire to protest and strike at the slightest grievance, because for them, change is always possible.
However, I understand that Politics is only a part of “la culture française”. Les français(es) value food, friends, family, and being happy. In America, the French are often stereotyped as lazy, but in reality I think French people know how to find a better work-life balance than Americans. “Americans live to work, while the French work to live” is a saying that I believe encapsulates this difference. In French culture, passionate discussions about art and politics, lighthearted teasing, and incredible food fit together like pieces of a well made puzzle. Specifically, I was impressed by the French ritual of dinner. In America, my family and I sometimes take our plates up to our rooms to watch TV or play on the computer. I have never seen or done this in France. Here, dinners are a context to reconnect with loved ones, debate and criticize the government, and maintain friendships, all while eating amazing food and drinking fantastic wine.
Don’t take me for a fool. I see the faults and cracks in French society as well. For example, the French, who value equality and social accountability, seem to have no issues taking the metro everyday surrounded by Syrian Refugees starving in a land of plenty. Paris is the city of contradictions. And I still don’t understand how a country that prides itself in an excellent healthcare system can justify smoking clope after clope. To my American sensibilities, having a 7-year-old begging for money on the train everyday is unforgettable. I’ve seen how difficult is to maintain empathy for people who are exiled in city of millions. However, to avoid being hypocritical, I can’t ignore that these same types of situations exist everyday in America.
Even after only 6 months, I have gained an admiration and regard for the nuances of French life and culture. I now understand the French passion for food, eye for art, and loyalty to friends. When I return to America, I will look at my own society with the critical lens of someone who’s glimpsed the passion of French politics and the glories of French gastronomy. I will prioritize my relationships with family and friends. Je vais continuer à me baigner dans la culture française pour que je sois meilleur.
Lucas Lytel – Tufts University