Is the grass greener?

Last night I got started thinking about culture. Specifically what parts of American and French culture I appreciate more now. Jenna and I threw around ideas for a while. Everyone knows the cliche, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” but it’s not entirely true. Of course, there are some things that I miss about back home, but the French do a lot of other things really well, too.

I always find it interesting when people talk about things that they never realized they liked so much at home. Sometimes it takes not having something to really appreciate it. In Germany, for example, I missed sheets. Really, are sheets that big of a deal? Who would ever think about the pros and cons of having sheets? But after sleeping for a year without a top sheet and just the comforter, I really started to miss wrapping up at night in my sheets. Weird, right? I noticed when stripping the bed after Nicole’s visit last summer that she didn’t realize that there was a sheet on the bed. She must have thought it was just the fitted sheet, because the top sheet had not been untucked at all, and she slept directly under the comforter.

So after a few weeks here, I took some time to reflect on some of the differences I’ve noticed so far. Here’s the beginning of my list:

Things I appreciate about American culture:

1) Americans are very open. We like to keep blinds open during the day to let in light and be able to look out. We generally keep doors open except for when we need more privacy. For example, I generally keep the door to my room open except for when I’m sleeping. I’ve noticed that in both France and Germany, doors stay shut, regardless of whether the room is occupied or not. Hallways always look really gloomy because all the doors are tightly shut. I like the openness that we have at home- it feels more friendly. I read in an article that French people visiting America often think that we “live in the street” because windows are always open so anyone walking down the street can see into the house.

2) I like walking around barefooted at home. Or at least without shoes, socks are okay, too. I’ve noticed Europeans like to wear some sort of shoe at all times. Germans have specific “house shoes” that they change into as soon as they walk through the front door. I refused to buy them while I was there. Here in France, the whole house has tile floor, so it’s getting too chilly to walk around with out something on your feet. Jenna was nice enough to steal me a pair of slippers from the hotel she stayed at this weekend, so my toes are no longer cold! I feel like the rule of always wearing shoes in the house makes it seem less welcoming.

3) I miss being able to go for a jog without getting weird looks. Here, jogging is much less common, so when I go out for a jog, people look at me like I’m crazy. It makes me feel uncomfortable and out of place, so I’ve been trying to come up with alternative ways to exercise in the backyard. I’ve been doing lots of lunges, jumping jacks, squats, etc. One morning when I had the house to myself I cranked up the music and had a little disco so I could dance crazily and get my heart rate up. It was actually quite fun, but I’m glad no one was around to see me. I think watching me dance is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. It was also pretty effective because after 40 minutes of flailing around like a crazy person, I had worked up a good sweat.

4) I like that in America smoking is becoming less and less cool. Here it’s such a chic, classy thing to do that people smoke everywhere. The French university across the street from mine has smoke breaks once an hour, and all the students pour out into the street and smoke like chimneys. My host mom and brother smoke, but luckily they only do it outside so it doesn’t really bother me. I hate going out to places though where lots of people smoke and then having to smell it in my clothes and hair for the rest of the day.

5) From what I’m learning about the French school system, I am very thankful to have grown up in the American one. Granted, there are countless problems with the American school system, but I won’t get into that today. In general, the French have a really wonderful preschool system, called Maternelle, which is a lot like montessori school. But once kids move up to elementary school, the real fun begins. The French teachers assign lots of assignments like dictations, writing lines, and memorizing poems, all of which must be done perfectly down to the last detail. Students and parents complain that the work is boring and useless, but the teachers say that students have to learn to do things in life that they don’t enjoy so that they are prepared for the real world. (Very optimistic, huh?) There is always a naughty list on the board, and students are still punished by standing in a corner. From what we’re reading in my education class, there are really high levels of student stress and panic attacks because students are terrified of teachers and failure, and repeating classes is really common because of the strict rules and ridiculously high standards. There is very little to no emphasis in school on sports, arts, music, etc. All those subjects seen to be unpractical because there aren’t many jobs in the real world in the arts, so students are rarely encouraged to pursue them. It does not sound like a fun place to be. There is a very competitive process to become certified as a teacher, but once a teacher is certified, the government rarely follows up on them or holds them to any standards.

Granted, there are some advantages- every school in the entire country is run by the federal government. The French are really focused on egalité, or equality, so everyone gets the exact same education, down to the worksheets handed out and homework assigned. (Teachers get very little say in what is taught or how to teach it.) French education is always free, even up to the university level. French schools put much more emphasis on writing skills, handwriting, and foreign languages- all things that I think US schools overlook. In all, I am glad to have gone to schools were I was not actually afraid of my teachers or terrified of making mistakes and being punished. I’ll be teaching English in a French school in a few weeks, so we’ll have to see if my opinion changes.

Things I admire about French culture:

1) I like the transportation system in Europe. I admit I have not used the French buses yet since I’ve been trying to take advantage of the beautiful weather and get some exercise, but I will use it once it starts to get cold and dark early. I love that Europeans often uses public transportation over cars. I hate that at home I always have to drive my car places because it’s too dangerous or too far away to walk or ride my bike. In my experience thus far, I think that Germans use public transportation more often than the French, but that could be because Aix is smaller and less well connected than Bad Soden was to Frankfurt. Or maybe the trains strike too often here, so people have become more dependent on cars. Who knows. Anyway, I love knowing that I can jump on a bus or a train at any time and go anywhere, even another country!

2) I like that the French culture still moves relatively slowly. If you ask a French person, he or she would instantly start ranting that the French have started working too much, are constantly plugged into their phones and computers, that they eat too much fast food. But in comparison with the US, the French still take much more time to relax and enjoy themselves. Patricia, although she is a very busy woman and very Americanized, she still cooks dinner every night or at least prepares stuff for us to heat up if she’s out. The French eat very long dinners, working their way through the main course, cheese, and dessert all with a full glass of wine. They French get six weeks of vacation and work 35 hours a week. What a luxury! When the French leave work in the evening, they leave their work at the office; they don’t bring work home with them. They don’t come home and stress about their job, or constantly check email, or talk on the phone. The evenings are their time to relax and spend time with family.

3) Aix is filled with small shops along every street. If you need medicine, you go to the pharmacy. If you need glasses, there is a shop for that. If you need baked goods, voila, the bakery is there. The same goes for the meat, clothes, shoes, etc. The biggest stores here are the grocery stores and even those by American standards are small. I like that there are no Walmarts or other superstores. I think it helps the French slow their lives down- there are no one-stop shops. Aix is famous for its markets, so you could probably buy most of your weekly needs outside in the sunshine if you really wanted to. I love it!

4) I like the European, big, square pillows. They are always so fluffy and full. They make sleeping wonderful, even if you don’t have sheets.

5) I am always awed in Europe by the history that surrounds you. I walk to school along old Roman roads next to the ancient Roman spa. That church across the street there, that was built in the 11th century, no big deal. This castle was built by a king hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It’s pretty mind boggling coming from a country that has only been around for slightly more than 230 years. (If you stop to think about it, I guess this mentality points out a huge flaw in American society- of course there were societies on the American continents during these same time period. Is there any mention or trace of them? No.)

So there you have it. I’ll be sure to keep you updated as I spend more time here. Maybe some of these feelings will change, and I’m sure to discover many more things to add to the list.

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