Some people may say I am too biased to write this article to which I would accept but may not understand. I will start by saying I am a very critical person; not of everything, but of cultures. I stupidly assume that there must be at least one culture who are intelligent enough to filter out old stupid customs and accept new better ones. I have American- Mexican roots and therefore can criticize these cultures more harshly (more on that later).
Yes I’ve been living in France quite some time and at first I believed anything would be better than America. Next I went through a phase at the beginning of integration here (when I did not speak a word of French) that I felt completely excluded and that the French were cold and unwilling to welcome anyone but those already born French. As I learned the language, and thoroughly began to embrace the culture, the way French society treated me changed drastically. The simple truth is; they hate someone who comes into their country and has not enough respect to accommodate. Many Americans travel here assuming everyone will adapt to their needs, and thus everyone will speak English. Most of the French know English but why would they cater to an outsiders needs when you have come into their country?
And so as I began to blend into the crowd (gladly) the people saw that I respected their way of life, and they began to respect me. At shops I act and say all of the customary French things to say; greet when entering, small talk, formal language, shy eye contact, thank and wish them a good day, say goodbye. In America we don’t do this, in France it is an unspoken knowledge. Things work differently in different countries and it takes some time to adapt, but little time to notice.
Once I learned French, I could clearly tell what social happenings were appropriate or not. Wet hair in public- absolutely not, shorts or skirts higher than the knee- slutty (contrary to popular American belief the French are very conservative), saying hello and goodbye whenever entering another persons establishment or home- a must, greeting every person in a room individually when entering and saying goodbye to everyone individually when leaving- also a must (yes this is always a must no matter if there are 20 people or 2), smiling and waving gratitude at someone in the car behind you or next to you- no (this one is a bit confusing, you can smile OR wave but doing both simultaneously is seen as flirtation), greeting a person on the street- absolutely not. At first I didn’t like many of these, most of all I found not smiling and greeting people on the street to be cold and horrible. But I understand now, in America it is a habit to do but do you ever think… Why? Why are you smiling? Why are we saying hello? Do we know the person? Do we really care? Are we actually happy to see this passerby? No. They will mean nothing to us in a few minutes, and we will never think about them for the rest of our lives. Now, on to the whole reason I am writing this article; the Italians and the French compared.
For my spring holidays I traveled to Spain for a week, and then to Italy, Florence exactly, where I stayed also for roughly a week. No, I do not speak Italian but yes I have adopted the European vision on life. Here is where the bias comes in. You may think because I live in France, am surrounded by French and have decided to stay here for as long as I have that I have embraced the culture and think they can do no wrong. Incorrect. There are many French customs I hate; anorexia is a trend, they are old fashioned and stubborn, they are judgmental, they don’t think but KNOW that they are always right, they are stuck on their old ways and many times unwilling to change things just because “they’ve always been this way why change them now”. The list goes on. So no I am not bias towards the French, just like I dislike parts of American culture, the French are equally flawed (though they might never admit it).
Despite this there is a distinct difference in the attitude and acceptable actions in what the Italians and French say and do. I have found French men to be very egotistical, sexual, respectful, and at times when there ego is bruised very silly and stupidly insulting. In my experience a French man will not assault you on the street (by grabbing your ass), rape you with his eyes, or attempt to take you home to sleep with you without asking. All of these things are normal in Italy. And so while enjoying the beautiful rich art and culture in Italia, at the same time I could not help but constantly compare. In many basic fundamentals the French and Italians are the same. For starters they both use the euro- and are both rooted in their old ways and unwilling to change. In Italy some time way long ago there was a tax on salt, so they stopped using it when making bread. Well guess what? Hundreds of years later EVERYONE can afford salt (I mean there are even free salt packets at every fast food restaurant) and still they decide they will hold on to their roots and make tasteless and utterly disgusting bread. While in France the baguette is the pride and basis of every French family’s life, but they know white flour is not the best for them and whole wheat is. I was once confronted on why I mainly eat brown rice by a French man (he thought it was odd) and when I said its because its healthier he knew. The French know things about the world; they know they should eat less cheese, less creme fraiche, less white flour but they don’t change it. Why? Because its always been that way.
But while on the overnight bus from Italy back to Paris I experienced the most perfect example of French culture exactly paralleled to Italian. The exact same incident happened twice within an hour of each other, but with the two different cultures in each one. And here’s how it went…
We had been driving for nine hours straight and it was one in the morning. The buses seats were tiny and none of them reclined so sleeping was a task, not to mention the fact that the bus creaked and shook like the sides were going to fall off. But everyone was exhausted and so we tried to sleep. We get to the boarder and they chose our bus for a random customs check. On walks a fat, red faced angry Italian officer who could have just caught his wife sleeping with his best friend for all I know, but he exudes hatred and self importance. He walks on the bus pushes aside the funny bus driver and proceeds to take a long look at every one of our passports, treating us all like criminals as he goes through the bus. His beer belly brushes my face as he passes by and he looks at me in disgust. How dare my ugly face touch his god blessed stomach. After a thorough and long check of everyone’s passport he decides he will arrest no one tonight and leaves in a huff. Thanks for waking us all up, making us feel like shit, making us wait for half an hour while you decide if you will let us pass through the boarder, and leaving like we waisted your time.
So we were on our way and crossed the Italian boarder into France. Just our luck we were also stopped by the French customs for a random passport check. The officer got on, greeted the bus driver. He was not happy to be there, it was close to three in the morning, but it was his job. As he checked each passport he said hello to every person individually and handed them their passports back without violent feelings. Towards the end he got confused about all the passports and a couple fell on the floor. All of the French people on the bus who were tired and upset about being stopped a second time proceeded to ridicule and mock the officer for his “clumsy” ways. No it was not his fault that they decided to check our bus, but the people decided they were angry and he was a police officer to take it out on. They were rude, but he continued to thank everyone individually as he passed back our passports. When he left he said goodnight and nodded to the bus driver. This is the French way.
And that concludes my border experience. Two cultures, two men, both with the same title and the same scenario, two very different outcomes.