Culture Shock: France (technophobia, uniformity and sexual politics)
Elen Roberts was living in Grenoble, France for her year abroad. Here, she gives an account of the culture shock she experienced, from working hours to going out... Read on to find out more:
I worked for 4 months as an au-pair in Nantes and am currently interning for the summer at a small translation company in Grenoble.
Even though I have now been living in France for 6 months, I have had two gaping holes in my heart. One naturally represented Germany. In fact, during my stint in Nantes, my ‘Heimweh’ (no English equivalent; a sense of longing for one’s homeland) for Munich was so profound that it manifested itself in me playing a disturbing amount of German rap and indie music at every given opportunity. Upon hearing Peter Fox and Sportfreude Stiller for the 20th time in one week, my poor French employers must have believed that they had entrusted the care of their young and rather gorgeous 4 children to a somewhat obsessive young woman with dubious musical tastes. Coincidentally, I got to know some amazing German girls through my language course, which meant that I could reminisce even more which, although a lot of fun, was in retrospect probably not the best strategy for integrating myself into France. Since moving to Grenoble, ‘Heimweh’ has been replaced by a deep and persistent ‘hiraeth’ (there IS an equivalent in Welsh!). Although this year on the continent has been fantastic, I’m ready to go home. Since last July, I’ve only spent one week in Wales/UK. I miss the banter, being with other students, rowing and being able to dance dressed up as a jelly fish to charts music as early as 8PM without being judged for being frivolous.
So the following comes with a caveat: as a result of my nostalgia for all things East of Strasbourg and my general homesickness, I may have been all the readier to find fault with my new adoptive country. I would like to stress that this country is on the whole a lovely place to live and definitely a great Year Abroad destination (it doesn’t attract the highest number of tourists in Europe for no reason!). The weather is great and the food is amazing and I have endless respect for the fact that the French know how to balance work and family life. It completely contrasts with the mentality in the UK where it is often the case that with both parents working long hours, they barely see their children. Life in France has a slightly slower pace, as people here really value their leisure time. As I have been working throughout my stay here, all the bank holidays were greatly appreciated, as they enabled me to travel around and visit friends.
However, there are certain aspects of French life that I just can’t get my head round so I feel it might be helpful to flag them for British students planning their year abroad – especially girls.
Hardly a riveting point but the French seem to be quite resistant to even the simplest forms of technology, for example e-mail. I’ve lost count of the number of times that people just haven’t replied to my mine. It’s a better idea to phone the person in question, or even turn up in person. They also still pay with cheques and what I found quite strange was that most banks, shops, gyms etc. don’t seem heavily reliant on the internet in order to attract more customers. They don’t even put their opening hours online, which meant that I often just had to turn up and hope for the best. Still, as their economy is doing considerably better than ours, this clearly doesn’t have as much of an impact as one might imagine. What I also find quite funny is that French students (nor Germans, for that matter) will never quite understand British students’ obsession with and dependence on Facebook. They even seem genuinely horrified when they see over a thousand pictures online, as is often the case in the profiles of Brits aged under 25.
French school pupils and students (whether male or female) all dress the same: converse shoes, jeans, then whatever they wear on top will almost always be grey, white or black. Interestingly, this was best conveyed to me in Nantes when one of the kids (eyeing my red summer dress with disgust) commented dismissively at breakfast: “Elen, you have a VERY different style to French women!”. And my Grenoblois landlady’s slightly puzzled reaction to my laundry was, “Ahem, tu as beaucoup de … couleurs” (“Ahem, you have a lot of … colours”). There seems to be far less individuality here in the way even young people dress. Quirkiness doesn’t seem to be valued (or even tolerated) and from a young age girls in particular are judged on how they look and dress. I have, however, seen a few middle aged and older women on the streets wearing quite dazzling outfits, so perhaps people become more adventurous with age?
Although I find it admirable that France’s health system – unlike its British counterpart – is not crippled by obesity-related diseases (in 6 months I have only seen a handful of overweight people), the other side of the coin is that there exists a very specific ideal of the body beautiful here. Women are of course judged most harshly by other women. It seems to me that if you’re not as ridiculously tiny as Audrey Tatou, you are automatically classed as fat and the assumption is you’d better start that regime asap. Being a curvy size 12 (UK), I found myself constantly being told outright by the children (as well as the local baker!) to lose weight.
Worse still, it seems not purely an aesthetic judgment: at times I got the impression that, were I but a stone lighter, my moral value as a person would soar. The most disturbing thing about all of this, however, not forgetting my shattered sense of self, is the methods that French women employ to stay stick thin. Unlike their German counterparts who wouldn’t fret unduly if they were carrying a couple of extra kilos, but were almost invariably sporty, strong and fit, French women seem massively averse to breaking into a sweat (ruins the maquillage darling). I was rather embarrassingly always the only girl in the Nantes university gym. Hence, the secret is to eat as little as possible and especially amongst women my own age, to suppress the pangs of hunger with cigarettes and caffeine. For all the cultural importance of French cuisine, for young women at least, being thin trumps eating healthily and well, or so it seems. A few years ago, for example, I worked in Bordeaux for the summer and the portion control at my host family’s table left me so hungry that I had to make regular night time trips to the local supermarket to buy packs of pain au chocolat. But despite my clandestine revolt, I lost so much weight (I’ll never forget the triumphant look on my host mother’s face at the end of it all) that when my Mum came to pick me up from the airport, the first thing she said to me was, “What the hell did they do to you?!”. Sometimes the pressure has been quite wearing, especially as I don’t have a hope (or indeed, an intention) in hell of slimming down to what the French consider to be acceptable!
Regarding the treatment of women in France, I don’t even know where to begin. Frankly, being a single (and even worse, foreign) woman here has been a bloody stressful experience. In Nantes, I actually didn’t feel safe most of the time. It seems that if you don’t have a male hanging on your arm as some sort of guardian angel, the local menfolk view you their personal sex object. This was even more shocking after having lived in Germany where the men were reserved and respectful to the point of aloof. Throughout my stay in Nantes, I was hassled by men almost on a daily basis and often in broad daylight – in spite of the fact that by French standards I am clearly obese and badly dressed! The worst episode was when I and a group of girlfriends were chased, ah yes, chased by a gang of five men down the street on our way to a nightclub. They eventually caught us and kissed two of my friends on the lips.
Nights out were completely ruined by the fact that every 3 minutes (I wish I were joking), my girlfriends and I would be approached by men, followed around, groped and some occasions, photographed and filmed by them with their mobiles. If we (politely) told them to leave us alone, they could become aggressive and insulting, which was always unpleasant and sometimes frightening. Eventually, I decided it was easier just to stop clubbing in France altogether, which I deeply resented, as I love dancing. Hey, you could be braver than me, give the finger to this patriarchy, just try and ignore them and have a good time with your friends. One little tip: if ever asked by a dodgy man in a club: “Mlle, est-ce que tu es accompagnée?” always answer with a resounding OUI. It might put them off … for a while.
It seems to me, however, that this sort of behaviour is tolerated on a societal level, which makes it all the more difficult to eradicate. I found the reaction to the DSK affair, which blew up during my time here, instructive, whereby the consensus amongst many commentators was that basically, the maid should have been grateful for the attention of such a powerful man. To be fair, there were also dissenting voices that said it was high time patriarchal and sexist assumptions were challenged. My personal experiences, however, have been quite nasty.
The best things actually DON’T always come in small packages
Ok, I admit, this is an unashamedly superficial and frivolous point but has to be put out there. The above mentioned men – in fact, most French men – are shockingly short. Girls, if you’re around my height (5’6”) and find yourself in the centre of any French city, I promise you, you won’t see more than a handful of men taller than you by the end of the day. Sorry to keep referring back, but this was rather a novelty after Germany, where most of the men were at least 5’10”…Style-wise, a lot of the men seem to be very much into golden chains and copious amounts of hair gel. Not my cup of tea.
Summer holidays here last ALL of July and August. Everyone goes off on extended holidays and most businesses shut shop during August. I was disappointed to discover that most sport clubs and other leisure activities in Grenoble also stop for the summer. This makes the task of meeting people during this time – especially students – nearly impossible. Nevertheless, there are small things you can do e.g. leave ads for language exchanges in cultural clubs (I emailed one to Grenoble’s German association) or create an ad for coffee dates on Couchsurfing.org.
Although you may think that this article is largely pessimistic, I have met some nice people here and had good times. I think it’s possible to do that wherever you are in the world, as long as you put in the effort. I can’t, however, deny that as a woman, the overall culture in Germany and in the UK just suits me better.