Sara in Paris: How Americans and the French stack up so far

Sara's abroad in Paris, France, until Dec. 13.

So, after being in Paris for a few days it's already becoming apparent how different these two cultures are. From the winding streets to the ever-flowing wine, it's very obvious that we differ in many more ways than just a language. So, here's a short breakdown of what I've come to notice are the big differences in American life as we know it and the average lives of the French.

  1. The French care about American politics more than most Americans do. The French seem to love their politics. And other people's politics too. They don't have a two-party system, as you might know, but their oldest party is less than a 100 years old. And that's the Communist party, so you can guess how well that's been doing. Their politics exist as an extreme left wing, left wing, right wing and extreme right wing. So that's pretty much the same. But the most surprising thing about French politics is the part that's not even French. They have a huge interest in world politics and particularly what happens in our very own DC. Covers of newspapers and magazines have been all about Obama vs. McCain (with headlines like "Who is the Best Leader?"). They seem to be big Obama fans here, although that shouldn't be too much of a surprise. My campus bookstore was selling Obama's book along with other textbooks. Even as I ate a quick lunch in between classes I heard a French couple muttered about "Barack et McCain".
  2. The French school system is kind of harsh. As for school, you're better off sticking to the US of A, I think. After talking to some French students, I found out that France, a country that housed the great minds and talents of Jean Paul SartreToulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh, isn't really about creativity. The French don't stress it at all in school; instead, students are expected to just sit through lecture after lecture and absorb everything. And as one student commented, "In France, you don't learn from your mistakes. You fail." So, ouch. And imagine picking a major that will essentially determine the rest of your professional life at the age of about 17. Stressful much? But it's not all bad. The French pay for all schooling and "university" (as they call it) too. Although they like to complain that the registration fees can get pretty pricey. How much you ask? About 250 U.S. dollars. Not too shabby.
  3. They are jealous of the American prom. Student life is also very different here. In an attempt to not sound super geo-centric, there is the reality that American television is a favorite pastime of French students. And thus American pastimes personified on those shows are exposed to their French fan base. What do they find so intriguing? According to a few French students I met, prom is a huge source of jealousy with French kids. We might take that "one special night" for granted, with the dresses and the tuxes… a final last fling of high school, but the French students don't have any kind of sendoff. They don't even get a graduation ceremony. In fact, passing the Bac, which is the final rounds of exams students must pass in order to graduate high school, becomes a focal point for most children, as young as elementary school. While Americans are busy throwing pies at each other on Wild & Crazy Kids (or least we were back in the mid-90s), I saw French children on a similar kids game show playing "Pass the Bac" – a relay where the goal is to toss a diploma into a bucket while wearing a graduation outfit. Yikes. So for as much as Americans might picture the French and Europeans in general as always in favor of a good party, they really aren't up for celebrating that much when it comes to education. Seems like the end of school pretty much goes by with the last answer completed on their last final exam. So maybe we do know how to have a decently good time in the U.S.
  4. The food is better, and ridiculously plentiful. As everyone knows, French food is delicious. And American food, well, that's good too. But what is interesting to notice is who eats what… and just the general habits of the French when it comes to getting some grub. While the state has stepped in and made higher standards in the modeling industry to prevent anorexia and other eating disorders, you would never know it as you watch gorgeous French girls proudly chow down on "MacDo" in the park. It's not a secret that the French love their food. Streets are lined with cafes, leaving me to wonder how all of them stay open. As one or two customers float in and out, the lone waiter seems perfectly content to idly sit at the bar and accept his lack of work. Even at fast food places like McDonalds, there is no "fast" culture that accompanies the speedy service. In a failed attempt to find Internet (Northwestern seems to have learned a thing or two from the French with their nonchalant attitude about providing NU students with internet access abroad), I watched as more than 10 men sat in McDonalds together to watch a "football" game as if it were a sports bar. Tres differente.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
Procurement Consultant
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East Africa
Blog: http://www.cepgl.blogspot.com
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