The Cultural Differences I’ve Seen While Living in France

People walk the streets of Rennes in the Brittany region of northern France. Photo by Keevan Kearns.

RENNES, France—I have spent the last eight months immersed in French culture in Brittany, a region in the north of France, through GDS’ partnership with the organization School Year Abroad. Even in a technological age where we are in some ways more connected than ever before, I saw that in other ways America and France are culturally disconnected.

Forming connections across socially constructed borders broadened my worldview and helped me understand how national pride affects individuals’ lives in France and America.

Before leaving the States, I only thought of the French as smokers, as rude and as baguette-, wine- and cheese-lovers. Conversely, when I arrived in France, it was not long before I noticed the widely accepted stereotypes of Americans—that we are not interested in other cultures or languages, that we are overly proud to live in America and that we are conceited and loud.

Even with modern technology and the power to connect across borders, the gap between Americans and French people, as with varying other groups, felt wide.

As months passed, I started to feel that disconnect disappear in my own life through interactions with my teammates on the local soccer team I play for, with my host family and with the French teens I started to hang out with.

Every practice and game, a girl named Jeanne on my soccer team asks me about America and how it compares to France. One night in the locker room after practice, she told me that I was one of the only Americans she had ever talked to, and just by being keen to learn about French culture, I was not at all how she expected.

Since learning French doesn’t offer the same practical advantages as learning English, she asked me why I would spend nine months of high school in France. When I told her I was here to experience a new culture, she told me that she hadn’t thought Americans cared to learn about anybody other than themselves.

It was shocking to Jeanne that those in my community in America, living in the so-called best country in the world, “le meilleur pays du monde,” lack a strong sense of national pride. I told her that many Americans don’t wear red, white and blue on the Fourth of July, as some believe being prideful of America’s history condones its racism and colonialism.

But that was hard for her to understand. The unspoken love that each person I have met has for their country and for Brittany is indescribable. As a matter of unity, each and every one of them makes their way to their local boulangerie at least once a week to restock on baguettes and pastries called kouign-amanns, a specialty of Brittany; Americans don’t make a point of buying a weekly burger as a show of patriotism.

When there is a soccer game on, the people here religiously sit behind their TVs until the clock hits 90 minutes, or, if they are lucky, are in the stadium chanting and singing with those around them. At get-togethers, I often hear the colloquialisms “vive la France” and “vive la Bretagne” declared merrily.

I must note that national pride anywhere should come with acknowledging all aspects of a country’s history. Many people I’ve met here fail to recognize France’s history of colonization and fail to include nonwhite people in their conception of the French national identity. 

Living in Brittany, I rarely hear social issues discussed—a far cry from my time at GDS. Towards the beginning of my time here, my host dad told me “les Francais sont racistes,” which translates directly to “the French,” meaning white French people, “are racist.”

In conversation, the French often romanticize life in America—so many people have asked me if I’ve met Hollywood celebrities or been to landmarks like Times Square or the White House—but if offered that life, most of them would say no. Being French, from what I’ve seen, is dreaming about living in the astounding New York City and waking up content that it was just a dream.

The importance of an individual’s national identity to his or her everyday life may vary between France and America, but in spite of the differences between us, I have managed to change the global perspectives of people like Jeanne I have met and they have changed mine.

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