|Back in the US: the land of huge cars, starbucks, fast food, and endless parking lots!|
A lot of the cultural differences that were behind this reverse cultural shock are the fairly obvious ones, the ones pretty well summed up by this picture I took during my 5-over layover in Chicago, which documents the first sights I saw upon my return: fast food places, malls with giant parking lots, starbucks, etc. So it's fitting that I celebrated my return with a vanilla frappuccino! I was primarily shocked by how big everything seemed: the cars in particular, the wide roads, the buildings themselves, and well, the people.
But like I said, now that I've been back for longer and have gotten past those first impressions, the more obvious ones you'd expect, I did notice some unexpected cultural differences, ones I hadn't necessarily consciously noticed myself. One of these differences is the pace of life, which is best illustrated by two examples. The Parisian lifestyle tends to be really fast-paced. Everyone is constantly moving, on their feet, going from one place to the next. I notice this particularity the most when observing how people walk. Here, (well maybe not everywhere in the US but this is the case at least in my small college town, with its tree-lined cobblestone walkways and where cars stop for pedestrians and pedestrians wave politely at these drivers) people walk more slowly, taking in their surroundings. But in Paris, it's always a rush from one place to the next, looking straight ahead. You can always pick out a tourist by where they're looking: Parisians will walk right by the Eiffel Tower at sunset, looking straight ahead and barely noticing the beautiful sight unfolding before them; but tourists will turn their head and soak in this beautiful sight every time. I for one considered myself to have fully adopted that typical Parisian fast-paced stride while I was there, looking straight ahead without trace of a smile, but even after passing the sight of the Eiffel Tower at sunset every day for 12 weeks, I'd turn my head to look every time, never failing to be taken back a bit by the sight of it. I'd cross the street with my coworkers on the way to lunch every day, and every day I'd think to myself what a narrator would say if I had one to narrate my life: "Oh look, a truck is approaching rapidly! Perfect time to step into the middle of the road and walk calmly across the street, never once losing that perfect Parisian model-walk."
My next example is actually one I'd thought about while in London, because it applies more to a difference between the French and British than to Americans. While my friends and I were in London for the weekend, every time we'd take the tube, we'd already be lined up at the doors waiting for them to open as it was rolling to a stop. And every time, the tube would come to a full and complete stop, and then there'd be a short pause, just for about one second, before the doors would open. But that one-second pause would surprise us every time. Every time, during that one second, I'd wonder if the doors were broken, and why weren't they opening immediately?! But the doors would always open, after the train had fully stopped. And it wasn't until returning to Paris after that weekend that it hit me: maybe the British are bit less impatient than the French in this respect! Maybe they actually wait until the train comes to a full and complete stop before safely minding the gap as they step onto the platform, as opposed to how we'd been trained to act by picking up on the Parisians' behavioral cues: impatiently lining up at the door and pushing the button to open the metro doors before the train had even stopped moving, and then stepping out onto the platform while the train was still not at a full stop. So what we learned is that there really IS some sense to that phrase "keep calm and carry on".
This next point, of course, may seem contradictory to what I just described above, but it's a pretty important difference. The French really tend to take the time to eat. I was once again in Starbucks today and it occurred to me that all the people would stand at the counter waiting for their drink to be made, and then as soon as it was handed to them, then all did the same thing: they all take the drink from the employee, thank her, and then put the straw right to their lips and start sipping away, instantly! They'd sip and sip, chatting to their friends, while walking across the room to find a table! Or, some wouldn't even go sit down: many would just walk right out, still sipping their caramel-mocha-frappé topped with whipped cream! That is something that the French would NEVER do. Every time my coworkers and I went out for coffee, it was always handled in a much more formal manner. We'd order, wait until everyone was served, and then carry all of the little espressos to our table on a tray, where we'd sit and drink slowly in a very civilized way. I do really miss that...the way it was treated as such a special thing. The way we not only took the time to really respect the drink itself by sitting down and sipping it slowly, but also the way that, by all sitting around a table, we could have a really good, intellectual conversation. It's a very different culture from the American "on the go" culture that Starbucks so perfectly caters to.
As for me, I think I'd be wise to try to take some of the best of both worlds:
- The French's genuine respect for food, which leads them to sit down and really enjoy their food and drinks
- The European skepticism with regards to adopting new technologies, which leads them to evaluate whether these new tools actually change our lives for the better and make them easier before adopting them blindly
- The British's politeness and good manners and seeming calmness
- The American fearlessness of trying new things
Well, folks, I think that's all for now! I'll leave you with a picture of a neat quote, taken on one of my very last metro rides:
|My best attempt at a translation: |
"I have often dreamed of writing a book on Paris that would be like taking a long walk without a destination and where we find nothing that we were searching for but many things we weren't looking for at all."
So in regard to this quotation, maybe my adventure in Paris didn't turn out to be exactly what I was searching for from the start, but I certainly found 'bien des choses' (plenty of things) that I wasn't looking for in the first place and that turned out to be even better than I was what I was hoping for!