jeudi 22 avril 2010

What we love (and what shocks us)

I LOVE hearing French people tell me about their vacations to the US. I spend so much time musing over the quirky things about French culture that I like to get the reverse viewpoint. So, back at school after spring break (two weeks!), one of the third graders came up to me in complete raptures to gush about his trip to New York. His highlights: eating a hotdog from a street vendor, and the Phantom of the Opera marquee. He didn’t see the show, but there was something about the image of the mask he found intriguing. His mom did take him to see Mary Poppins on Broadway (a smarter choice for an eight year old boy), and we had a good time discussing how cool the set was—it was funny to find myself reminiscing about New York with a French third grader. The American cultural quirk he found the most interesting? “Instead of asking for the toilet, we had to say something about a bathroom.” Yeah, just like the British, the French think we’re weird for using euphemisms to talk

On Tuesday, somehow the conversation in the teachers’ lounge turned to visits to the US, and the CP (Kindergarten) teacher had been to the states a few times to visit a cousin. “I liked Virginia,” she told me, “But the people there seemed a bit prude.” I figured she must be talking about that stereotype of wearing skirts to football games and going jogging in pearls. On further questioning, though, this was her culture shock: “Oh, well, you know, I was just eightteen, and my cousin told me we absolutely had to put clothes on in the morning. My sister and I couldn’t stay in our bras and underwear for breakfast. She said, ‘I’m sorry, but we get dressed here.'” I assured my co-worker that we tend to get dressed in the morning in other parts of the US, too, and that she had definitely played her part to contribute to American stereotypes about the French. I wonder what the conversation had been like between her cousin and her cousin’s new American husband before they put a stop to their visitors' morning...Frenchness.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people want to tell me all about their favorite US vacations when they find out I’m an americaine. Last Monday the guy sitting beside me in class had some questions about my life as a foreign student, since he wants to do the same thing, but reverse: it’s his dream to study in the US. He wanted to know if I go into Marseille much (it’s our nearest big city) and I said I would, but I don’t know what to do there, and did he have any suggestions? He looked a bit stumped. “Man,” he said, “I’m just a 20-year-old guy. I have no idea what to tell you to go do.” I’m not sure if the fact that he was a 20-year-old-guy meant he thought his experiences limited or just completely unlike anything that could possibly appeal to me. I flatter myself it was the former.

I asked him why he wanted to live aux États-Unis and he was once more unable to express his interest. “Is it the culture?” I asked him, “The people?” “Nooo.....” he answered thoughfully... “It’s that,, in France, we have McDonalds, and we have Quick,” (crappy McDonald’s knock-off) “and in the US, you have McDonalds, and right next to it, you have...what’s it called? Yeah, Wendy’s! And then Jack in the Box, and In and Out... It’s amazing.” I enjoyed basking in his effervescent bliss at the idea of la vie americaine, even if it isn’t the part of being from the US that I’m most proud of or most miss.

I guess I could figure out what that is by looking at what I brag about the most when talking about my patrie. And that would have to be our amazing return policies. The average amount of time you have to return something to a store here? Fifteen days. That is one day over two weeks, and about seventy five days under the three months you get at a place like the GAP... and a bazillion days under the limitless returns at Bed Bath and Beyond, who ALSO TAKE THEIR COMPETITORS COUPONS. Half the time here we can’t even get the in-store specials marked “reduction taken at register.”

But, no, I wanted to talk about French people’s perceptions of the US, not how much I miss American shopping. Actually, two French women I know who are my mom’s age told me about visits to the US made when they were teenagers and how shocked they were by “les grandes surfaces”—basically, our grocery stores, or department stores, or stores like Target. That didn’t exist here 30 years ago—people went from shop to shop to get their groceries, and Josh and I could do that now if we didn’t feel so much more comfortable going to Monoprix where we can get our milk, printer paper and cleaning products in one fell swoop (in fact, I need to finish this and go get milk before they close). One of the women said she was just completely overwhelmed by seeing so many things in one place, with loud music playing, and the other had a much funnier shock (she's the one who wasn’t thrilled with the whole “clothes” thing). She said she didn’t even bother going in while her cousin did her shopping, and instead, she and her sister had plunked themselves down on a bench for two hours and watched everyone coming in and out of the grocery store. Now it was my turn to be shocked...I didn’t think Americans were all that interesting. “We couldn’t get over it,” she said, “Our jaws were just hanging open. In France, if you’re going to go out to the store, you’re careful about what you wear. And there, there were adult women, out in public, wearing shorts...and tank tops.

Um... I guess when I get back from Monoprix I'm rotating the tank tops to the back of my closet. Or not. Sometimes I just can't let go of my identity as an American, and, you know, people seem to be OK with that--especially when part of that American-ness means bringing in a loaf of Josh's homemade banana bread. As they were passing it around the lunch table in the teachers lounge, someone turned to me and said, "you know, I know an americaine, and once she served a cake made with carrots." My new resolution: make them my mom's zucchini bread. This is gonna BLOW THEIR MINDS.

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