This Place is Très Bizarre—or is it really?
When we first get to a new place, we compare. We notice the differences between home and here, the strange places and people. But soon enough, we find the similarities: people are people. Regardless of time, place, or culture, I’ve noticed that many aspects of life remain the same. Here is some of what I’ve found in Paris, France.
Meal Times and Portions:
As a huge lover of breakfast—le petit-dejuner—this may be my least favorite part of France. Breakfast is, well, petit—a piece of bread and some coffee, or maybe a croissant. It’s nothing like the classic English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, toast, tomatoes, and hashbrowns that I grew to adore in Scotland. And there’s no protein to sustain me until dejuner (lunch) at 2:00 pm.
In my French family, le dîner, or dinner, isn’t until about 9:00 pm. French wine and cuisine is definitely worth waiting for—but that late, I’m not so sure. Even after plenty of time to adjust to the change, my stomach still grumbles and I can’t help but eat huge portions to satisfy the long wait.
Large dinners at strange hours—with breakfasts and lunch full of carbs—let’s just say this isn’t weight watchers.
How are so many people in France skinny while they munch on sweets and drink large quantities of alcohol everyday? If you come from a town like mine, you’ve spent much of your life in a car. While your average American probably spends a large portion of his or her time driving to work, school, appointments, or what have you, many Parisians spend that time walking and using public transport. People complain about the smells of urine and sweat on the Paris Metro—and those stenches definitely exist—but I think the French are doing something right when a work commute involves reading, exercising, and listening to music.
During my first week in France my French mother invited me to a block party to meet the neighbors. After introducing myself in broken French, I parked myself to the side of the action.
I was minding my own business by the food table when a neighbor—probably in his fifties—strolled into the party a little late. He walked right up to me and planted kisses on each of my cheeks.
I realized after he did the same to the rest of the women at the gathering that he wasn’t some creep making extremely bold moods on a woman twenty years younger than him, but indeed that is the normal greeting in France.
That first one was a shock, but I found it even stranger when I began meeting people my own age and they greeted me and said goodbye to me like this. Did I kiss back? Was I doing it wrong? I’ve realized that just like some people have the amazing power of being good huggers, there can be good cheek-kissers. People who make you feel like you have a friend there that cares for you and supports you. I’m going to have to work on these skills…
Pamela Druckerman spends about 350 pages of her book French Children Don’t Throw Food noting the differences between American and French parenting styles. I, too, have observed some of these differences. I find myself saying “stop” and “no” to the children more than I hear their own parents doing so. Instead, French parents seem to ignore ‘punishable’ incidents.
When my kids Gabi and Théo physically hurt each other, no one says anything. When I wait outside of the elementary school to pick up Gabi and Iris and older children, I need to dodge the older children playing soccer against the wall. I often see their soccer ball bounce off the bricks and collide with younger kids and adults waiting at the school, and I don’t want to be the next victim. At the conservatory I watched as a two-year-old ran wild with her stroller and bashed it into her older brother over and over again. The mother looked for a second, then turned back to her conversation like it was totally acceptable behavior.
American standards might call the French bad parents, but I do think it is a strategy rather than pure obliviousness. The French seem to want their children to learn by themselves–by their triumphs and by their mistakes–how to succeed properly and politely.
Despite the shocks that came with perceived invasion of privacy, hungry stomachs, and walking around more than I’m used to, I have found that life in Paris isn’t really that different from life at home.
Daily Life for a Child:
On Mondays the kids have music lessons (one plays piano, one plays guitar, and one plays the clarinet). On Tuesdays Gabi has gymnastics and Iris has dance. On Wednesday, Iris has church group, and Théo has more music lessons. On Thursdays Gabi has an afterschool program and Iris has art class. On Fridays Gabi and Iris have swimming lessons. When they’re not at their various activities, the kids spend their time playing soccer or skateboarding dans la rue.
When I drag the kids to their various lessons and practices, I can’t help but reflect on my own childhood. I too spent hours at soccer, lacrosse, and track practices, or piano and drum lessons, or Hebrew school, or figure skating, or pottery class. Kids in America as well as France are able to immerse themselves in a wide range of things. They are well-balanced, and not yet worried about mastering a specific skill, so instead they can improve themselves in various spheres of learning. Whether in France, America, Kenya, or Scotland, I’ve come to realize that kids love learning and experiencing sports, music, dance, art, and put time and effort into this education of the world around them.
All over the world families are becoming less and less ‘type A’. Divorces, same-sex couples, intermarriage between religions and races, and the ‘non-normal’ are becoming the norm. Even so, nuclear families still play an immense role in most people’s lives. The French fall into this trend.
As the child of divorced parents, I tend to put myself in the ‘non-normative family’ category, but in reality I’d say my life story is pretty average. I tend to run into more families with divorce than families without divorce, so in that way I’m normal. I have also met an large number of couples where one partner is originally French, and the other is from another country—and together they share a mix of cultures, religions, races, and ethnicities. There are definitely melting pots outside of America.
Despite the crazy stories of death, infidelity, and stealing that I’ve heard from my new Parisian family and and neighbors about various French people’s families, they still consider family to be a fundamental and center part of life.
Despite the abnormalities of both my French and real American families, I’ve grown to realize the fundamental role family plays in both cultures.
So despite while there are many differences here—snails are a delicacy, after all—it doesn’t feel all that different from my American life. We have similar worries, we have similar stories, we have similar joys. Everyday life consists of working, making sure the children are okay and well-fed and learning as much as they can so that they have bright futures ahead of them. It seems that some parts of life are truly universal.