Many Americans have a mental image of “French Life” that runs somewhere along these lines: smoking at outdoor café tables, bicycling alongside a river with a baguette under an arm, wearing scarves and generally looking “chic,” drinking wine while discussing culture and art. And of course, all of this takes place with the Eiffel Tower as backdrop, because Paris is the only city in France.
Having lived in France, I can attest that baguettes, wine, bicycles, outdoor cafés, and scarves do indeed feature prominently in the French reality, though not any more than cheeseburgers and garish sneakers do in the American one. Café table conversation is as likely to feature tasteless dirty jokes as current events, and the Eiffel Tower is just one of many backdrops, though you wouldn’t know it to hear my relatives’ and friends’ regular insistence that I tell them all about my life in Paris (I live in LYON).
A number of quotidian phenomena have surprised me, though, because they seem ubiquitous here but mostly missing from the standard list of stereotypes of France. Thirteen examples*:
1) French people of all ages use for commuting purposes the little metal scooters I previously only associated with my brother’s lame jumps over the bump at the end of our driveway circa 2000. The French call them trottinettes, and seeing a middle-aged man in a suit shredding sidewalk on one of them is a comic treat that never gets old.
2) Despite their widespread derision for American eating habits and food chain globalization, these culinary giants love McDonalds, or “MacDo,” as they say, and they wait in long lines for it. France, if you do not buy McDonalds, it will evaporate from your country like greasy morning dew. I introduce you to capitalist protest, otherwise known as not buying something.
3) They say hello when they enter a room full of strangers and good-bye when they leave it. The laundromat, coffee shop, post office, a public restroom– wherever they are, they do it automatically out of politeness, always.
4) Walking is basically the national pastime, especially on Sunday afternoons, when you’ll see families out and about after a big lunch. There are plenty of places to walk in big cities, and much of suburbia and the countryside is marked with trails. A common weekend sight is huge groups of people having picnics in the park or by a river, then taking a stroll. The French love to get out to “la campagne” with a big group of friends, too– and it’s the starting point for what seems like about half of their comedy films.
5) They work hard. The French do get lots of vacation time and protest is a skill they acquire early and use often, with relish, but their reputation for laziness is largely unfair. They buckle down and get the work done and, as in any country, there is a wide range of ambition and productivity. It’s not unusual at all for some people to work six days a week, for example. However, both the French education system and French laws encourage protocol-following, defeatism, and an aversion to thinking and acting outside the box, the result of which sometimes comes off as an infuriating refusal of the Average Jean to be proactive or go above-and-beyond to achieve an objective.
6) Before taking the first sip of a drink in a social setting, everyone clinks glasses with everyone else while maintaining eye contact. Expats find this charming at best and awkward at worst (I’m a spiller, what can I say?) and the ones I hang out with make exaggerated eye contact with one another to highlight the difficulty/silliness of the task. The French insist that a failure to uphold this tradition results in seven years of bad sex for the transgressor, so it’s best not to ignore it.
7) They don’t tend to snack between meals the way we do in the States. There are also warnings on sugary and fatty food ads, something along the lines of, “don’t eat too much fat, sugar, or salt.” Simple, but it is a constant reminder that what you’re about to eat is a junky treat. In my experience, though, any rumor that the French eat very small portions at meals is le bullshit. These people can seriously pack it away, and imagine that they stay so petite because a) they drive less than Americans do, having more effective and comprehensive transport systems b) they don’t snack heavily throughout the day and c) they get enough free time for casual exercise throughout their lives.
8) With not much imagination at all, anything can be a toilet. It’s not unusual to come across French men relieving themselves, without much discretion, in public spaces, even in broad daylight, a habit I find totally disgusting, rude, and undignified.
9) They’ll look at you like you’re crazy if you try to buy packing tape at the post office. With the exception of bigger department stores and grocery stores, shops here are relatively specialized, something that can be charming when you have the time to go to the butcher, the cheese shop, the stationary store, and the pharmacy, but not so charming when you’re in a hurry. While the post office in the U.S. makes it pretty easy to complete the entire mailing process, the French post carries limited supplies. Some of them don’t even carry envelopes. Most of them seem a bit weak on general mail delivery too, but that’s a rant for another day.
10) Students and teachers of all ages carry all of their writing utensils and a variety of supplies (white-out being probably the key supply for the French, who are trained against crossing or scribbling out) in small cylindrical or rectangular zippered bags called trousses. It’s a little twee but undeniably practical.
11) Children are not at the center of most parents’ social lives, which I think is healthy. I once went to a Sunday lunch where the kid was sent to play in another room and the parents sat in the other, not to be bothered. The only time I saw the little boy was when he trapped his finger in a toy truck and sought help. In the U.S., parents seem to hover much more around their children. Some independence is good for kids, and occasional breathing room keeps parents sane. Similarly, I see fanfare-free pavement-eating all the time here. Kids fall and parents pick them up without indulging the tears– “you’re OK, it’s not serious”– then, off they go.
12) Bonkers parking of their cars and motor scooters: anything goes. Hopping a curb, bashing someone’s bumper, squeezing in at an angle perpendicular to the space outline– anything.
13) The French watch at least some portion of the credits. At the movies, people don’t get up as soon as the credits start rolling, like people do in the northeastern States.
*Disclaimer: Firstly and obviously, these are generalizations based on only a few years worth of direct experience. Secondly, I’ve spent all of my time in France living in the Lyon area, so it’s possible that some of these idiosyncrasies are unique to the Lyonnais, the most sausage-savvy people I’ve ever met.