French women don’t get fat.
French people are all cultured, charming, and exquisitely dressed.
French men make the greatest lovers. They are sensual, intellectual sex gods.
French cuisine? Divine.
The French have no sense of time, they are more relaxed.
La vie en rose, la joie de vivre, la poésie et la beauté. The French have an art of living.
Many of the above are accepted as common truths about French people. Or at least, they are on the other side of the Atlantic in the States, where France is more of an abstract, quaint European country. Cobblestoned walkways. Delicate grannies walking tiny coiffed yorkshire terriers. Dark-eyed women in smart Chanel skirts. Debonair men cradling the ubiquitous cigarette between sullen lips.
This picture is France. But there is another France, one that not many people know about. The one where McDonald’s is always packed at lunchtime, with high school students, college kids, and businessmen alike queueing up for un Big Mac. The one where Frenchmen are more reserved than their American counterparts when it comes to flirting. Where women commit the fashion faux-pas of wearing cheetah-print tights under checkered miniskirts.
I’d like to show that other France. The France you don’t always see represented in films, French textbooks, or travel novels.
France isn’t Paris. Paris is simply a small part of France.
- Novels and films portraying l’amour in France fail to convey a very important fact: The French are reserved. Small talk is not a French thing, so the meet-cute that may sometimes bring American couples together is not a French reality. If the French don’t know you, they won’t talk to you. The basic rule of thumb is that if you haven’t been introduced to someone, chances are you’re most likely not going to talk to each other because it would be considered “weird” and “impolite.” This rule goes for bars, cafés, and most gathering places.
There are some exceptions. Clubs are different because it’s hard to dance with someone without having some sort of verbal exchange. House parties are more sociable, as it’s understood that everyone invited is a friend of the host. And in general, people will naturally be more talkative with foreigners.
People believe that the French are more liberated sex-wise. This is true in the sense that the French are more open when it comes to talking about matters concerning sex and their own sex life. Magazine covers proudly display women’s naked breasts and exposed male backsides. However, unlike what you see in films, French people aren’t regularly seducing each other with esoteric philosophical banter, ripping their clothes off and jumping into each other’s beds. (Unless, that is, they want to 😉 …) What I’m trying to say is, they’re not a sexually promiscuous people. They’re simply more open to talking about sex. And I think that’s a healthier attitude than the American way of treating sex and the naked body as something naughty or dirty.
- France is a gorgeous country. But– dog. poo. is. everywhere. You see this lovely architecture?
From the tram stop where I took this photo to the cathedral, there was a whole canine-deposited obstacle course to navigate through. Francophile literature tries to philosophize les crottes as a physical manifestation of the French’s insouciant attitude towards such trivial matters. I call it bullsh-t.
- French bathrooms are sketchy. What’s more, they are few and far between. Clothing stores don’t have bathrooms. Shoe stores don’t have bathrooms. Sporting good stores don’t have bathrooms.
Train stations do have bathrooms and showers- but you have to pay a fee for the privilege to use them. (Ironically, the actual trains have free restrooms.) Shopping malls generally have one bathroom area, but, alas, you have to pay to use these toilets too. Sometimes malls will have a free, outdoor facility that automatically cleans itself by spraying its insides with disinfectant…but that means the floor–and walls–are often wet.
Now bars take the cake. This is because most of the time, they have a unisex bathroom. So in the room, there can be a urinal on one side, a toilet stall on the other, and a sink separating them both. Meaning that while a girl is washing her hands, a man could be peeing to her left. (As a sidenote, how many men actually wash their hands after peeing? 1 out of 5? The sink’s there for a reason, boys!)
In apartments and homes, the toilet is generally separate from the shower and the sink. However, this is slowly starting to change, and more bathrooms are being done in the ‘American’ style.
- French people eat while they walk. Yes. They do. My high school French teacher would regularly give us a stern lectures on the American failure to sit down and properly eat a meal at a leisurely pace. There was even a line about it in our textbook. Yet, when I spent time in Tours, I saw people scarfing down street-bought beignets, nibbling on footlong baguette sandwiches, and gorging on chunky, Nutella-covered waffles. And really, with food so rich, who can resist? Let’s put it this way: if there weren’t a market for crêpe stands or roadside sandwich shops, you could be sure they wouldn’t exist. But, as it is, as soon as lunchtime hits, groups of people start queuing up outside these spots.
- French women get fat. French men get fat.
There are certainly less overweight French people than American people, but they’re there. I think that it would be impossible to live in the country that invented moelleux au chocolat and not be tempted from time to time. I gained a few kilos while here, thanks to my favorite snack pain au chocolat aux amandes: a delicious pastry with a buttery, melted chocolate inside that’s sprinkled with powdered sugar and crowned with almond silvers. My last month in Orléans, I ate one of these every day. Yes.
The book is right on this point though–French people definitely eat smaller portions. In supermarkets, snacks such as cookies and candies are sold in smaller packages than in the U.S. and are more expensive. Whenever snacks are advertised, a little notice is made at the end advising people to avoid eating between meals in order to maintain a well-rounded, balanced diet. Because the national health care system is responsible for medical costs, the government has more of an incentive to ensure that its public is healthy. But that doesn’t stop the Frenchies from indulging in their favorite treats from time to time.
In short, the fat Frenchwoman exists, and the fat Frenchman does too. And that’s okay. People’s bodies are all different; a diet that keeps one man fit may add extra paunch to another man’s figure. What I think is the most important is that French people walk more, they eat food with wholesome ingredients, and their bread is always fresh. Thus, the curves they have are most likely those that their genetic makeup has blessed them with. Not a product of gorging on too many foods with fillers, additives, and high fructose corn syrup.
But most of what we see on TV or read about relating to France in America is based on the Parisian way of living. It’s like New York and America–The Big Apple is definitely not representative of how the rest of the U.S. is. France has so many different regions and cities with different types of cuisine, architecture, fashion, and culture. The City of Light is amazing, but there is so much more to France than its capital. The pictures below are of Biarritz, a Basque coastal town in the southwest of France that borders Spain. The Basque country is a nonindependent small region–some of it is in France, and some of it is in Spain. It has a really interesting history.
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I certainly wish some of the travel novels I used to read had been a little more in-depth and told me more about the real France. But, alas, many of these books tended to have a reoccurring formula: English-speaking girl moves to Paris, falls in love with an irresistible Frenchman, moves into his tiny apartment and lives passionately ever after. (I’m not going to lie though, they became something of a guilty pleasure.) I hope you liked this blog and it taught you a little more about France! 🙂
What are common stereotypes of France that you found not to be true? What are things about France that surprised you?