First Impressions and Preconceived Notions of France
Hi everyone! This blog post will talk about some of my first impressions of Paris, the largest and most surprising differences I noticed between Paris and the United States, and some of my personal experiences and feelings as I spent time abroad.
As I settled into my classes at Hamilton in France and Sorbonne Nouvelle, I was stricken by the discrepancy between my preconceived notions of France and Europe in comparison to reality. Before I came to Paris, I think I found it very easy to assume that Europe was entirely more liberal than the United States, and because of their social security nets and healthcare systems, they can’t possibly have problems or be worse off than Americans. In some ways this is true: France has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, despite currently grappling with a severe doctor shortage in rural areas. Abortion is legal (and has been for a while), and the social safety nets that exist in France are several classes above those in the United States.
However, I found the prevailing French attitudes toward race and their colonial history to be shockingly ignorant and behind-the-times. Perhaps this is easy for me to say as a student at a strongly left-leaning liberal arts college, but I think that we are much better at addressing our past wrongs in the United States than the French. For example, in 2017, then-presidential-candidate (and current French president) Emmanuel Macron called colonization a crime against humanity during a trip to Algeria and faced such intense backlash from the French that he apologized. It feels to me that the general public sentiment in France is that they are not ready to acknowledge their past actions as wrong.
My understanding of the French attitude toward race comes from comments that my professors and host family have made, and discussions in my France Aujourd’hui class (a course on French politics and news). In France, the prevailing attitude is that firstly, everyone is French. They are not divided by age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. It reminds me of the sentiment of “colorblindness” in the United States, which minimizes the different experiences people have due to their identities by acting as if there aren’t differences among us at all. It was starkly different from my experiences in classes at Amherst, where I’ve found the professors to be interested in their student’s different identities and experiences that they bring to courses. One of my professors in France made a comment toward a Black classmate of mine after she finished a presentation on Black actors in American movies throughout history, saying that my classmate wasn’t Black, and instead was at most “café avec lait”, coffee with milk. The whole class was taken aback by the statement, and I can only imagine how my classmate felt. The conversations about race in France are very blunt and quite frankly are shut down very quickly; the French don’t like to acknowledge race when they consider everyone as primarily French.
Another facet of the French political environment that surprised me is the preponderance of strikes. The strikes in Paris are against several things: higher cost of living, unfair working conditions, climate change, etc. These strikes often force the metro system to shut down, which shocked me, especially when I compared these strikes to the situation in the United States a few months ago when train workers almost went on strike until Congress used their power to stop them. One day there was a strike very close to my host home, and I remember emerging from the metro station near me in the evening to see a line of police officers, fully armed, standing and blocking a road. Some strikes in France are more violent, rendering police more alert and active, than others. Others are more calm and peaceful, and city workers will walk behind the strikes as they proceed down streets, calmly picking up trash and reopening streets.
I think my surprise and uneasiness regarding the political and social opinions in France is the biggest example of culture shock that I experienced during my time abroad. Some other parts of my life in France took some getting used to: for example, the hours-long dinners with my host family every night, and using the metro system every day (I grew up without a public transportation system). These new aspects of my life were not difficult to adjust to, but they definitely made me feel a little out of place during the beginning of my time abroad because they weren’t already part of my routine.
Another instance of culture shock was that I was surprised by how un-chatty people are when they are waiting in lines. Maybe it is just because I am from the south, but one thing I love in the United States is being able to strike up a small, friendly conversation with a stranger while in public. I always like being able to offer a smile and a kind word. In Paris, the culture is different; people aren’t rude by any means, but quick conversations while having a brief shared experience don’t occur. As the semester went on, I found myself missing these little moments of connection.
I also experienced homesickness for the first time while in Paris. It started around Thanksgiving, when I missed my typical Thanksgiving traditions and the general sense of gratitude and camaraderie that exists at the start of the holiday season. Life went on as normal in Paris on Thanksgiving, but I was thrilled to find a few Americans on the metro by listening for English who I could wish a happy Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving, I found myself missing some snacks and foods that are readily available in the United States, like iced coffee and even pop-tarts (even though I NEVER eat them when I’m home).
I loved my time in France, despite the culture shock and homesickness I experienced, and I am looking forward to talking more about my experiences. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions!