I recently wrote about the aspects of life in America that I miss when I’m in France. Turn-about is fair play, so here are some things about France that I miss when I’m in America. I’m realistic enough about France at this point to not be one of those Americans who maintain that everything is better in France, but there are definitely some things about life here that I really appreciate.
- French: this is probably trite, obvious, or both, but I miss hearing and speaking French when I’m in America. Obviously English is my first language, and there’s a certain comfort to hearing it, but to my American ears, French has a poetry that is uniquely its own, as well as some emotional connections that are very dear to me, and I miss it when I’m not surrounded by it.
- Bread: this is probably the tritest, most obvious thing to miss, but it’s true: French bread really must be the best in the world. It’s not all great, but a lot of it is, and great French bread really is great bread.
- Neighborliness: You live in much closer quarters in Paris than anywhere else I’ve ever been, and while this demands a certain interpersonal distance from strangers–and thick walls in apartment buildings–a neighborhood itself can be quite close-knit. If I get lonely on the weekends, I can hang out near the cafe downstairs and the waiters will come out and say hello if they’re not busy; many of the folks in the local stores know what I’m there for, and just grab it and hand it to me with a smile when I walk in. This is not because I’m in any way special–I’m just part of the neighborhood.
- Organ meats: the cafeteria where I work served kidneys in a subtle mustard sauce the other day. In the US, my impression is that organ meats are pretty much a men’s thing, and even most men won’t touch them, with the exception of the occasional piece of liver. They’re so disdained that if you can find them in the grocery store at all, they’re close to free. The concept of serving kidneys in an American cafeteria is not even laughable–it’s inconceivable.
- Seasonal fruits and vegetables: in France, the fruit and vegetables that I buy are rarely from farther away than the rest of western Europe. The upside of this is that everything is always ripe. (This is less true in a supermarket, but if you do the right thing and shop with your neighborhood fruit marchand (merchant), it will probably always be true.) The downside is that you only get fruits and vegetables when they’re in season. In the summer, there is an amazing selection of beautiful, delicious fruit, but in the winter, it’s mostly apples. In contrast, in the US, you can buy essentially any fruit or vegetable at any time of the year, but because they are all shipped long distances, they can’t be ripe, lest they rot or bruise in transit, and most fruits and vegetables don’t taste right–that’s the rule, not the exception.
- Professional service: this is going to shock anyone who has visited France, and undoubtedly most French, who hate the infamous French bureaucracy as much as anyone else. But, let me relate some anecdotes. One time I knew that I had some mail coming, but I didn’t have a mailbox. I left a note for the letter carrier asking her to leave it on top of the mailboxes in the lobby of the apartment building. She left me a long note explaining that they weren’t allowed to leave mail outside of mailboxes, but telling me which office I could pick up my letter at, and giving me her cell phone number and her boss’s cell phone number. When I went to pick up the letter, the post office couldn’t find it. The next day, the letter carrier’s boss called me on my cell phone, told me that he had found it, and arranged a time for me to come and pick it up. Can you imagine your letter carrier in the US giving you her cell phone number, and her boss’s? I think not. People here take their métier (profession) seriously, and everyone has one, whether they’re a researcher, a letter carrier, or an elevator operator.
- Bookstores: we have very few bookstores in the US today, compared to when I was a child. In contrast, in Paris there are bookstores everywhere. I can’t speak for every neighborhood in the city, but the ones that I go to typically have a small general bookstore (I have far too many hilarious interactions with the lady who owns the one in my neighborhood to describe them all here), and you can find bookstores specializing in pretty much everything, particularly in and around the Latin Quarter–language-learning, history, Africa, political science, sociology, law, philosophy, whatever. A couple very large independent bookstores with mixes of new and used books make it possible to find pretty much anything.
- Cheese: again, this couldn’t possibly be any more stereotypical, but cheese in the US and cheese in France might as well be entirely different foods–there’s not very much resemblance between them. In the US, we have maybe 6-8 cheeses. In the little cheese shop in my neighborhood, they have more kinds of sheep milk cheeses than that. It took me quite a while to get to know a bit about French cheeses in their many different varieties, but making the effort to do that really opened up a new horizon in eating for me.
- Diversity of media: French people complain about how crappy, superficial, crisis-of-the-moment-oriented their news media is, and that’s certainly true of some of it, just as it is with much of the US media. However, there is an amazing diversity of media outlets here, and some really amazing stuff. You want a magazine on judo, or public health problems in Africa? You can get one at the newsstand in the train station. You’re looking for a good philosophy series? You can pick one up at any news kiosk, along with your Eiffel Tower coasters. In the US, I live in a city of 2 million people that has just one newspaper. Here, there’s Libération (left-wing), Le Monde (centrist), Le Figaro (center-right), and a number of smaller papers, including the famous Charlie Hebdo and the less-famous (outside of France, where it sells 700,00 copies a week) Le canard enchaîné (investigative journalism and satire). In the US, I’m an NPR listener–the equivalent here is France culture, which makes NPR seem positively low-brow.
So: both countries definitely have their own personalities, and both countries have unique things to be appreciated. Much like people, I guess.