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American-French Culture Clash in Reverse (No Fooling)

Monday I had one of those rare good experiences at the Préfecture de Police collecting my new “Carte de Résident,” now six months beyond the expiry date, thanks to the delay by the authorities — not me. It was the first “rénouvellement” (renewal) of the 10-year card, that I acquired for the first time after renewing my “Carte de Séjour” every year for 10 years.

Of course, part of the reason my experience there has improved is because not only can I now speak French, but I can behave in a more culturally French way…and with confidence. It decidedly helps when dealing with the “fonctionnaires” (civil servants).

Often the question comes up if our counterparts in the U.S. — the French trying to obtain a visa in the States — have a similar experience? Likely, yes! Here’s the Web site all about obtaining a visa for the U.S. — and note, it’s in English and Spanish and nothing else.

The Web site for getting your French visa is here, and note that it’s in French, English and Chinese.

There is much written about the cultural differences designed to educate Americans visiting France or making the move here. But what about the French who have abandoned France for a new life Stateside? What are they taught about us?

Therese Oneill in Mental Floss has culled the Web to find good advice from the French about “the strange ways of Americans” in her recent article: “11 French Travel Tips for Visiting America.”

Remember, this is THEIR point of view. In turn, I will offer my advice/comment for you to follow in reverse as an American traveling in France — following each numbered bit of Therese Oneill’s advice. From one to 11:

1. Be Friendly to Nosy Strangers. Grind Their Knuckles!

Our custom is to kiss before, during, and after each social encounter, with 1, 2, 3, or 4 kisses. This is not the custom in the United States. For a friend, we will hug, with a great tapping on the back and a big smile. For colleagues, greet with a good handshake. Americans have a firm handshake, so do not hesitate to grind their knuckles. It is also a sign you have confidence in yourself.

Be prepared for an onslaught of friendliness. You may be approached by a stranger on the street asking you where you got your coat. Passersby greet each other cheerfully in the street. Your neighbor may compliment you on the curve of your muscles, and the cashier at the supermarket may ask you what you are doing with this beautiful weekend (and the three cases of rosé you’ve purchased).

COMMENT: Forget the hugs and handshakes. Stick with kissing! And stop being so friendly. Don’t ask so many questions the French will never want to answer! They just think we are being nosy…and that’s rude, rude, rude.

2. You Have to Help People, And Look Like You Really Mean It

A passerby stumbles and sprawls in the street, an old lady can barely control Brutus at the end of a leash, a small tricycle driver loses control of his vehicle. Politeness means, of course, that you come and help all these people. American culture wants you to quit all your activities and rescue the unfortunate. In America, you cannot pretend to not have noticed all these little quirks. You must rush to provide assistance to all who need it.

Whether in the street, public transport or any public place, we must adopt this reflex. Hard, tough, because it must be done without looking first to the right and left to see if someone is already trying to help the person in trouble. In short, it must be done spontaneously and with good heart. I like it when it happens: for example my keys jumped out of my bike basket when I hit a hole, and the Americans rushed at me to help. It’s cool. I smile.

COMMENT: It’s good that this is a likable trait. Don’t we wish the French wouldn’t ignore such situations? But the truth is, they don’t!…Not at least based on my own experience. It’s true that they aren’t so quick to respond. Perhaps that’s because Americans don’t expect the government to take care of them (like the French do) and come to the rescue of the needy as individuals?

3. They Feel No Humiliation about Their Eating Habits, Even When Asking for a “Doggy Bag”

Americans eat and drink anything and at any time of the day: in the street, in a meeting at work, in the car, on the subway, in the elevator, the movies… so, there are drink rests everywhere: cinema seats, baby strollers, shopping carts at the supermarket, in cars, some bike handlebars.

The portions are often gargantuan in the United States (but you already knew that). Americans are not embarrassed to ask for a “doggy bag” to take home. They’ll even take home the rest of the tortillas appetizer.

The art of asking for a doggy bag (for a French person) is sometimes difficult to implement; between servers who disappear faster than their shadows, and the dread that you will appear stingy, it is not always easy.

COMMENT: (Note to Therese: “drink rests” are called “cup holders.”) There are ‘unwritten’ rules in France for what you eat when and where. Starbucks’ profits suffer in France because no one ‘takes out’ their coffee — they insist on lounging in their chairs for hours over a measly café. Eating on the street is left to foreigners who don’t have a clue about street etiquette. And it is rude to leave anything on your plate — abundance and waste are not virtues — so portions are ‘normal,’ not ‘gargantuan,’ and there is no reason to take home a “doggy bag.” The restaurants won’t be prepared, so just don’t do it, and don’t ask to ‘split’ one meal with your friend — it won’t be sufficient for two and the restaurant will throw you out on your ear!

4. You Can Not Abandon Ugly Children. In Fact You Must Praise Them.

Want to drop off your pants at the cleaners, leave an item with the hotel receptionist or pop into the supermarket while the kids do their homework? Know that leaving children alone, whether at the home, in the car, or the hotel is frowned upon, even prohibited.

Rejoicing in the presence of children or pets. This is the correlate of “smile to strangers,” it is mandatory to have a smile or a little “how cute” tilt to your head if you come across a child or pet. Even if they are ugly.

COMMENT: OMG, can you believe the French would even have the nerve to call a child ‘ugly?’ We might think it, but never say it! And yes, it’s shocking that they would leave their child or their doggy sitting outside the bakery while they buy their baguette, totally unattended so that some thief could come along and snatch them up? It’s done. I see it all the time. They don’t have the same fears of their child or doggy being stolen (aren’t they lucky?), so don’t be shocked and for goodness sake, don’t scold them for it. (I’ve wanted to!)

5. The White Man and the Countdown

Crossing the road as a pedestrian is not always easy, you often have to wait for ages. When the white man is on, you can cross. And then a stressful countdown shows the time remaining for you to cross, sometimes only a few seconds to cross large avenues.

COMMENT: In France, if you pay attention to the lights and not the actual traffic, you are sure to get killed. The pedestrians and vehicles play ‘chicken’ rather cleverly, so depending on the traffic light to stop the cars, buses and bikes is taking your life into your own hands…particularly from the bikers who think they are pedestrians on wheels and pay no attention to the traffic signals at all.

6. They Don’t Steal Your Stuff!

If it should happen I need to leave my stuff unattended when I’m in the coffee shop, I just ask someone to look at it for the time it takes for me to go to the toilet. When I forget something in my bike basket, it is still there, even at night. And when you have packages waiting for you at home, they remain in the lobby and no one takes them. It may seem normal and civic way of doing it, but I am surprised. Since coming to America, I’ve become much less suspicious.

COMMENT: Yep, you Honest Abes; she speaks the truth. Do not under any circumstances think for one second that you can safely leave anything anywhere for even that one second that it will remain where you left it. This is an invitation for someone to ‘find’ it and ‘keep’ it. The pickpocketing thieves are notoriously brilliant at their craft, so no matter how clever you think you are in hiding or protecting your valuables, you are sure to be duped — that is, if you look like an unsuspecting tourist. Locals don’t get targeted. The pickpockets know the difference. And special note: never, never, never leave your smart phone on the table of a café or restaurant, or your purse hanging on the back of your chair. You’ll blink and it will be gone.

7. Their Plumbing is Insulting

The stuff that insulted my common sense is the fixed heads of showers.

I still have not understood how it is that in my American sink I have, in addition to the tap, a flexible head (as in a French shower) to rinse the corners of the sink but in my shower/tub which is three times larger, I have a fixed head on the wall! No logic!

The other very strange occurrence is violent flushing. Be prepared when you flush to have the impression of being in an airplane toilet!

COMMENT: We Americans are seriously behind on plumbing fixtures, this is true! The Europeans have mastered the bath. However, the French are just now learning about shower curtains to keep the water from their hand-held showers going everywhere! Go figure. And it has always amazed me that my French friends can effectively shower holding the shower head in one hand while lathering up their bodies with the other. I have never mastered this nor ever want to!

8. Everything is so damn inspiring

“Inspiring” became a word I heard every day: everything must be “inspiring” and push transcendence. We go to the movies, there is a choice between the biopic Lincoln, the Avengers or Misérables, each so inspiring in their own way. The books are inspiring, everyday people are inspiring (such as all the people with children and a job at the same time, teachers, etc…). I confess that I have a little trouble with this cult of everyday heroes.

COMMENT: Where have I been? I thought the word was “awesome.” Guess I’ve missed the latest phrase, but if you Google it, you’ll find an awful lot of pretty pictures that ‘inspire.’ In French…not sure what the hottest phrase is for such a concept, or if there is one!

9. They have orange pill pots and carefully prepare your medication, like in the movies!

I have to arm myself with patience for each passage to the pharmacy. Here, we will prepare your requirements in an orange pot in your name, with the correct number of tablets and the dose recommended above (yes, just like in the movies). So, it takes for ages. The trick? Post your order and continue shopping, then return later.

COMMENT: Yeah, well it is a serious culture shock to have a pharmacist prescribe medication only the doctor can prescribe Stateside…or have no immediate access to the ‘over-the-counter’ type drugs that are ‘behind-the-counter’ in France, so choosing is not done by you, but by the pharmacist…or realize the price of drugs in France is one-tenth of the cost in the U.S.! Bring your prescriptions to France — you’ll save a fortune! One last thing: pharmacies in the U.S. DO NOT offer homeopathic remedies! Are they so confident that chemicals are better? You will find homeopathic drugs in every pharmacy in France and they work well and are so much better for you!

10. They All Go to the Bathroom Together in the Same Room. No Walls or Nothing.

If you want privacy (in a public restroom), no chance. There are no real walls, only partitions that do not even go to the ground. So you can see the shoes of your colleagues, hear all the noises … And even the doors do not help much. You can see the faces of the occupants through the slits in the doorway.

COMMENT: But men and women’s bathrooms are separated in the U.S., unlike in many places in France where they share the same rooms. And you’ll never see a “Turkish” toilet in the U.S., but you will in France, so be prepared to stand over a hole and aim!

11. Cut in Line and an American Will Cut You.

The film will start in three minutes and there are still 15 people in front of you, including a family of six children who are unable to decide anything. You would be tempted to quietly scrape forward a few places so as to be sure you get your popcorn and miss nothing of the film.

Never! In the United States, small barriers often mark out the entries, lines on the ground indicate where to stop and there is no “He who goes hunting loses his place” mentality there.

There is no chaotic rush to be first, not even if a spot opens unexpectedly, no “I didn’t see you there.” Here each have their turn in order of arrival, even the elderly. It’s pretty relaxing actually, even though I liked the excitement of notching in the queue.

COMMENT: Watch your back. It’s called being “débrouillard” — resourceful or cunning — to cleverly move forward in line and get there first. The French have developed it as an art and see nothing wrong in it — in fact, it’s downright respectable. So, when in “Rome,” do as the “Romans,” but in this case, do as the French and beat them at their game!

In spite of our cultural differences, or because of our cultural differences, we still manage to get along and appreciate one another…like each other or not!

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds

Editor, Parler Paris

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