Studying the Public and Private in France

By Layton Isaacs

Anyone who has ever studied abroad is probably aware that there is a public side and a private side to each country.  For example, in France, everyone is allowed to move in the France of cathedrals, hotels, shops, language classes, sidewalk cafes, parks, monuments and museums.  It is being able to see what goes on in the private homes of French families, which becomes the holy grail of those wishing to study the culture. 

Public France

The first time I lived in Paris and attended the Sorbonne, it was the expatriates in France with whom I connected – all the other international students living in the dorms near me who were also studying French.  People from seven different countries were in my French class.  We would stop in at MacDo near school for lunch or cook simple things together in the kitchen of the United States House where we lived.   I strolled many times through the grounds of the Cite Universitaire chatting with Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian students.  This pushed my French past textbook language to a more personal, spontaneous vernacular.   I found that it was easier to take linguistic risks with other people who were technically outsiders also, but whose French was far more advanced than mine. 

The only glimpse I had of real French mealtimes came from offerings in the university cafeteria.   The university food service provided good desserts, lots of French bread, French fries and white or red wine.  I learned not to shop for groceries at lunch time because the grocery store near campus closed at 12:30 for the workers to go home and have lunch with their families.   There were no drive-thrus, restaurants didn’t offer carry-out food and if you wanted to eat late at night you could order pizza aemporter with strange toppings from down the street or just wait until the next day.  I had to relinquish the demanding American time clock.

Private France

Ten years later, the second time I lived and studied in France, I was part of a group of 40 American French teachers who spent the summer in the Loire Valley in immersion taking graduate classes while living with French host families.   Although I spent mornings with other Americans at the Universite Catholique de l’Ouest in Angers, we were never allowed to speak in English with one another.  After morning classes, we all trouped over to the eating facilities on campus and had family-style meals with our professors which lasted about an hour and a half.   

For someone who normally eats on the run or sur le pouce, enjoying these drawn out culinary ceremonies required some patience.   France is the land of cream, butter, cheese and chocolate.  What does one do when one cannot digest dairy products?   I spent many a mealtime hungry in the midst of profound bounty.   At the same time, my ears were stimulated by the conversations the professors initiated and the ripening sounds of student gossip and joking.  The French love to linger for hours over a meal, observing intricacies of custom and habit.  One could argue that in France, there are three languages: French, food and art.  Mealtimes in France provide a fascinating intersection of the three. 

A Normal French Meal

There are several courses in a normal French meal: soup or non-lettuce salads, le plat principal of meat and vegetables, lettuce salad with vinaigrette, two to four kinds of cheese, dessert and coffee.  Cocktails before a meal are called aperitifs.  Most French people love red wine with meals and drink it in small table glasses at lunch and dinner.  The French don’t drink much water with meals, but when they do, they choose between the petillant (bubbly) and the plat (non-bubbly).   There is also a progression of white wine to red at fancy meals.  They eat cheese with a knife and fork as though it is a piece of meat.  The only thing they put on lettuce salad is a vinaigrette or creamy dressing – no cucumbers, tomatoes or croutons.  Fresh bread is always present and rests on the tablecloth itself next to the plate.  A small plate sits within a larger plate at each table setting at the beginning of the meal.  This is called les petits plats dans les grands.  After the first salad course, the top plates are scraped clean with utensils or bread and cleared from the table.  The larger plates are then used for the main course, lettuce salad and cheese courses.  Dessert comes on a new plate or in a new bowl.  I had to learn to eat small portions of each course so I was able to finish the meal.

The Most Memorable Meal of My Life

My host family was an elderly couple named Jacques and Simonne.  Simonne agreed to make dairy-free food for me and was very skilled in the kitchen.  She arranged each plate of food like an artist arranges a still life.  The most memorable meal of my life took place at the home of Jacques and Simonne’s oldest child, Gigi.  It was a luncheon celebrating her son, Olivier’s 20th birthday.  We ate under a covering on the back patio.  A tiny, exquisite garden was next to the patio and a small river flowed behind the property.  The boys and men of the family played soccer between courses while the women washed the plates and re-set the table for each course.  The meat was cooked on an outdoor grill.   It was my first experience in a private house in France as Jacques and Simonne had a typical apartment in town.  Gigi’s husband was an architect and he had designed the whole neighborhood of houses I saw that day.  The house was gorgeous, modern and sleek with very tasteful, but minimalist furnishings.

There was homemade sangria with fruit in it and five kinds of non-lettuce salad, grapefruit au vin rouge, steak, marquez sausage and green beans, a smooth red wine in a special carafe, lettuce salad, four kinds of cheese (one was hand-dipped onto plates like ice cream) two kinds of bread and crackers, homemade chocolate mousse dressed with raspberries and mint leaves and champagne, complete with a sugar cube tossed in.  We sang the birthday song in French and I noticed it had an Auld Lang Syne feel to it, much different than the birthday song in the US.  We sat down to eat at 1pm and finished at 6pm.  We ate so slowly that I was hungry again by the time 6pm rolled around!   After dinner we walked into centreville together, saw an art exhibit the family teens had set up and then strolled back along the river.  I was dazzled by all that I saw and tasted. 

Se Plaire and Se Profiter

Se plaire and se profiter are two verbs that sum up the philosophy of life in France: please yourself and profit from your experiences.   When people I met in various social situations stated that working 35 hours per week was plenty for them (a new policy at the time in France) the protestant work ethic part of me was astonished and disapproving.   Yet, as I looked around and watched daily comings and goings, I noticed the French were more relaxed than Americans.  They enjoyed their month-long vacations without a smidgen of guilt and didn’t worry about stores closing at 7pm.  They were not preoccupied with quite the same things as the people in my medium-sized hometown in the Midwest.   Simple things pleased them even though labels could impress them.  I gave Jacques and Simonne a bottle of red wine which only cost me four euros and they were ecstatic.   It wasn’t the price that mattered, but theappellation (vineyard) that counted.    

People buy fresh bread and produce while walking home from work almost every day.  Meals are leisurely and the commute to work is less stressful because if you don’t want to drive or don’t have a car, you can take a bus or train or walk to work.  The sidewalks are well-traveled.  Much of the education to be gained in France lies in what you learn to do on foot.  Time is experienced differently when you have to depend on your own physical stamina and the use of public transit.

On Foot

During my first week in Angers, I walked around a wooded lake one day with Jacques and Simonne who were both approaching 80 years of age, and was astonished to discover how much more enforme they were than I was in my mid-30s.  Simonne walked over uneven surfaces in the forest in high-heeled espadrilles without a qualm and Jacques never tripped and fell even though he was legally blind, yet I was the one with back problems the next day!  Jacques also amazed me because he took the bus into downtown and did errands alone.  His macular degeneration didn’t stop him.  Most Americans I know would not have felt so empowered by the bus system and good sidewalks because of the fear of crime.

Wherever I went, my French opened almost all the doors I needed.  Waiters, cabbies and merchants were friendly because I had learned the cultural routines.  They complimented me.  I knew how to avoid projecting the ugly American stereotype.  I spoke quietly in public, said hello before making a purchase, didn’t turn my nose up to unknown food, used my knife and fork like a European (knife in one hand and fork in another, no changing of hands), ate neatly without putting ketchup on everything, left a tip even when the tip was included in the bill, wore sandals instead of big, comfy white tennis shoes, dressed with more care and learned to appreciate nature and walking.

Culture Shock    

There were moments of culture shock.  One of my French professors did not want to turn the lights on in the classroom while teaching because she felt there was ample sunshine.  This frustrated me at first, then made me sleepy.   I found, however, that many light switches in hotels, universities and apartment buildings in France stay on only a minute to save energy.  In the same way, many of my fellow teachers’ host families asked them not to spend more than ten minutes in their hot showers.   This reminded me of the showers in the dorm in Paris.  They came on for a few minutes then you had to hit the button again for more water.  The French seemed to conserve electricity very seriously.  We Americans all found out that it cost money to make local phone calls even from our host families’ homes.   This prompted me to purchase an international cell phone with a sim card for France so I could make local calls at the local rates.  

The afternoon I returned from my first day of classes, I was grateful to find the right building again.  I had walked home for about half an hour.  When I arrived, I used the key to open the basement door, then groped for the light sensor on the wall.  I got to the elevator (a luxury) and pushed the second floor button.  Feeling I was in the homestretch, I eagerly got off when the elevator stopped. Suddenly, I found myself on an unknown floor.  I was so tired I thought the world had moved, then I realized that the French don’t start numbering the floors of their buildings until after the ground floor.  What is the second floor of a building to an American will be the first floor to a French person.  Relieved, I walked down the flight of stairs one level and stared gratefully at Jacques and Simonne’s nameplate on their front door.

Café Culture

After our long lunches with professors on campus, I found myself using internet cafes (Jacques and Simonne had no computer) or roaming the streets for a good place to people watch and study.  That’s when I found La Creperie du Ralliement.  It was across from one of the big department stores and next to a music shop.  One of the main bus stops was just down the street.  I got to know Patrick and Martine, the couple who ran the place.  I would order an Orangina or Perrier to quench my thirst, chat a little in French, eavesdrop on other customers, smile at the dogs on the floor and then use the spotless restrooms.  It was an ideal solution for coping with the lack of water fountains and free public restrooms.   The company was also good.

The Typical French Picnic

Our professors took us on cultural excursions on some Saturdays.  We visited castles and wine caves in the Loire Valley, menhirs and dolmans in Brittany (druid-like structures) and Rabelais and Balzac’s homes.  We had several picnics and I learned to expect the typical menu of bread, wine, bottled water, cheese, an apple, shredded carrots, vinaigrette tomatoes, a piece of cold meat and something sweet.  We always ate with real silverware and usually sat on the ground if there were no picnic tables.   Inevitably on the way back to Angers, the professors would break out a box of chocolates and pass it through the bus.   There were a lot of quiet American French teachers then.  Mouths full of chocolate, they smiled at the end of a good day.

Politics and Religion

Were the French like I thought they would be?  In many ways, yes; in other ways, no.  Jacques and Simonne were very similar to my grandparents.   They were wise and opinionated and passionate about politics.  Every evening we would turn on Les Guignolsduring dinner.  I grew to love the French satire which reminded me of Saturday Night Live with marionettes.  I was embarrassed by the depiction of George Bush as Rambo, but I laughed, too.  The political roasting of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy was hilarious.  The moment in conversation when Simonne told me America’s president (Bush at that time) was nul was uncomfortable.   Watching the nightly national French newscast I began to understand why the average French person was so critical of the American military.  Every night, the French press announced how many innocent Iraqi civilians the US military had killed that day.  

I gradually learned from my host family that the French had no more appetite for war because of seeing their loved ones and cities blown up.  They had no appetite for religion because of the pointless, bloody, religious wars between Protestants and Catholics centuries before.  They knew their history.  The past wasn’t so far removed from the present.   It was a different relationship to history than I had ever experienced in my young Midwestern hometown.  I realized that American soldiers had fought in Europe also, but if they survived, they were able to go back home to an unblemished world.    At the same time, 21st century France was an ocean away from the aftermath of 9/11.  People in each country had reasons for their opinions, you just had to discover those reasons.   What point was there in arguing?  At the end of the day, nationality defines many things.  Few people ever truly learn to transcend this.   And isn’t that just like life?  The possible connections with others are plentiful, but in the end, separateness also marks the human experience.   What can we know if we have not lived it? 

And that is why people go abroad.  They learn to test their boundaries and challenge themselves to openness, to see through different eyes.   I have found over time that I like public and private France equally.   I’ve also learned to respect the demands of both of my identities – the American and the French.