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Too American: My Thoughts on French Cultural Differences

Cultural adjustment is a major factor when choosing where to study abroad. I chose to spend my first semester abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France. Now, this picturesque Provençal city is not exactly Pyongyang. The culture adjustments I had to make upon my arrival were minimal at best. Even after spending almost an entire semester here, I don’t feel like the differences between Western European cultures and the American society I left behind are anywhere near drastic. The nuances I’ve witnessed since coming to France are akin to when I leave New England and visit the Southern states. True, I can’t understand what the Aixoises are saying half the time, but if I’m completely honest, the same can be said if I go to certain parts of the US. Still, there are a few French faux pas that I cannot stop committing; my American-ness just cannot be muted.
 On one of our first nights in Aix, we tried being "French" by not smiling in front of a fountain....Marine (center) clearly didn't get it.


Before the semester commenced, we were given lecture after lecture on French fashion. Girls: how to dress, nothing you would find in Kim Kardashian’s closet (while the French name burgers after Obama and glorify Beyoncé, they apparently aren’t the biggest fans of Kimmy K), no heels, no yoga pants, nothing with English writing on it, no bright colors, no sequins, no glitter, no college sweatshirts. Boys: uh…you’ll probably be alright (what else is new). While I have noticed that every other French man I see on the streets is wearing narrow leg sweatpants or soccer pants, French women are rarely, if ever, out on the town in their workout clothes. Most women in Aix look like they’ve just stepped out of last month’s Vogue with tight dark jeans, oversized coats, perfectly windswept hair, and a cigarette dangling from their fingertips. I have two 8am classes every week and it is absolutely impossible for me to formulate a trendy French-approved outfit before at least 9:30. I have on occasion run through the streets of Aix at 7:55 in my sweatpants and a brightly colored baggy t-shirt, my coat flapping open behind me. I’m still not sure if the confused looks I receive are a result of my wardrobe choices or the crazed look in my eyes as I try not to be late to my French class…again.

I have no idea how long it truly takes the average American to tame their loud, booming laughter into the demure French titter, but I’ve been here three months so far and the art of the silent laugh still alludes me. The incredulous looks I get whenever I start to cackle, it’s as if I threw a shoe at their leader, or burned a giant effigy of a croissant. I’m sorry, France! I’m loud! So are all of my American friends and when you get us together, we’re even louder! It’s a serious problem.

 Nicole and I are always laughing too loud for the French

French food is a revelation. I have tried so many new and incredibly delicious foods in my short time in this country. I’ve gotten so used to sitting for hours studying over une petite noisette (espresso with a dollop of steamed milk). I don’t know how I’m going to return to the days where I have a lukewarm coffee from Dunkin Donuts on a good day. With a boulangerie stacked with fresh baguettes and croissants on every corner, it is mind boggling that these Aix natives remain pencil thin. It wasn’t until our makeshift Thanksgiving feast in a restaurant outside the city that it became clear why this was. French culture is one that encourages moderation, while in American culture, we bathe in excess. Every time a waiter was within earshot of our table, one of my friends would be asking for more: more gravy, more potatoes, more green beans. Our Thanksgiving feast just reminded us how intensely a group of Americans can gorge themselves when they’re together. The French appreciate fine delicacies, but they don’t overdo it. If I could manage to grasp this specific element of French culture then I wouldn’t already be planning my post-France diet.

 It's so hard to control yourself when faced with a French café.

 

As my semester abroad is coming to a close, all the tiny differences between America and France are becoming more and more apparent. Instead of being frustrated by my non-Frenchness (my wardrobe has too much color, I wear obnoxiously bright lipstick, I can’t stop once I get started eating a French baguette, my friends and I are really loud), I’ve started to embrace that, at least for now, I can be a part of French culture without completely assimilating into it. I refuse to get rid of all my brightly colored tights just because it’s not French. I want to speak French but nothing I could ever do can make me into a Frenchman. And that’s okay.

That being said, I can’t wait to go to a restaurant back home, have a loud conversation with my friends, cackle, and not be glared at by everyone else in the establishment.

Bridget Stemmler is the Fall 2014 CEA MOJO in Aix-en-Provence, France. She is currently a sophomore at Northeastern University.


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