A Conservationist Abroad #7

by Emily Sloan, ‘05
Seventh in a series about life in a small French village

The French doctor looks at the figures for my height and weight that the nurse has filled in. “Perfect,” he says, then adds, “especially for an American.”

While most people French people I’ve met are sophisticated enough to distinguish America as a political entity and Americans as unique individuals, stereotypes persist. Like the doctor who examined my medical chart, most French people perceive Americans as unhealthy and overweight. We are seen as gluttonous in other ways, too—we drive oversize cars fueled by dirt-cheap gasoline and live in impossibly large and impeccably manicured houses, which we fill with expensive gadgets and appliances of every sort. We seek homogeneity not only domestically, with our corporate chains of supermarkets, restaurants and hotels, but also internationally, as we impose our language, institutions and ideals on other countries, with little knowledge of or sensitivity towards local histories and traditions.

On their part, Americans, too, are guilty of making generalizations about the French, whom they depict as snooty, unfriendly and specifically anti-U.S. The French are also said to eat luxuriantly and drink copiously, while retaining slim physiques. They smoke profusely, use public transportation, drive small cars, consume less per capita than Americans, dress fashionably, stand behind their long history of fine art and cuisine. Their women are aloof lovers, their men charming and flirtatious. They buy bread and vegetables fresh daily and spend hours chatting over strong coffee in smoky cafes.

Who, if anyone, is right?

All stereotypes are grounded in some fact, and even the most progressive people I know in both America and France are curious to find out to what extent the stories they’ve heard about each other are true. And while Americans have often been very open to me about their perceptions of the French (probably because in doing so, they don’t risk offending me), the latter have been quite discreet when broaching the subject. So much for their overt hostility to Americans.

In fact, contrary to all the hype, the French have been a warm and generous bunch. Not uniformly, of course—especially at the beginning of my stay, when I was acutely aware of my loneliness here, the townspeople felt fairly cold and insular. Some commented that it must be hard to be so far away from home and expressed surprise that I was living alone, but did not invite me to their homes for dinner or conversation, or the few that did offer did so only vaguely, never following through with specific invitations. And yet I now pin this behavior down to their uncertainty and busy schedules—how often does each of us, after all, express good intentions that are never realized? Many people here assumed that I had plenty to do, and my stubborn aversion to asking for help only reinforced this impression. I doubt that the average American would be more outgoing in welcoming a foreign teacher to his or her hometown.

And now that I’m better situated, several individuals have emerged from the mass of disinterested townspeople as exceptionally inviting and generous. Alain and Isabelle, two teachers, secured me a spot on the rock climbing trip in October and have me over for post-cafeteria tea every Tuesday. Thanks to a girl from the Alpine Club named Fred, I’ve attended a cookie-making weekend in a countryside guest house, a Christmas market in Alsace, a mountain biking and target-shooting excursion and several nighttime running sessions with a triathlon club. Another young couple I know has taken me to movies and served me a traditional meal of melted cheese and potatoes and filled me with homemade fruit and nut liqueurs. I cannot describe the French as an unfriendly people.

What of the other French stereotypes? Yes, they are proud and protective of their language and culture. Only logical in a world where English and American influence permeates deeper every day. French children watch dubbed American sitcoms and movies, listen to English pop and rock stars and idolize Britney Spears and Fifty Cent. France is no longer the major colonial power it once was, whereas the American economy dominates, and English is the third most-spoken language in the world. It makes sense that the French fear for the survival of their traditions. So a little self-protectiveness is justified. But outright snootiness I have not encountered here.

The French do eat well, although in moderate amounts. In general, meals are more ritualistic than they are in the States, drawn out over serveral courses, with plenty of conversation in between. And the food is, on average, healthy. Lots of people smoke, but many don’t, and a national ban on smoking in public places, including bars, is going into effect next year. Not everyone is razor-thin, but real obesity is uncommon. The average car is small; some are comically so to my American eyes. Public transport is commonly used, although expensive, and the price of gasoline is at least twice of that found in the States. People seem slightly more focused on living the good life and less on efficiency and work work work at all costs. Work weeks are 35 hours, starting annual vacation is five weeks, health care is widely available and affordable. Most stores close during lunchtime and on Sundays, and mail is delivered by bicycle and moped. People are critical of the American government but not of me personally; if anything, they are simply curious and somewhat shy.

After three months living in Gerardmer, I can’t say that it’s all that different from a small town in rural America. Most Americans could certainly pick up some tips from their French counterparts, such as moderating their resource and food consumption, placing more value on relaxation and family, attempting to be aware of the outside world and promoting local traditions and products.

But I am an American at heart, and while I’m learning to appreciate France during my stay, I’m also learning what it is I really love about my own country. Despite any issues I may have with its politics and hypocrisy, it is my home.