What France Does Better
Le Pain – Bread
When we first arrived in France, we had a couple of baguettes and were slightly confused. Bread is not just bread in France, it is a phenomenon – a way of life. And honestly, our first experience was a little lackluster. Then we figured out the secret – timing. Now we know precisely when to go to our local boulangerie and get fresh warm bread, right out of the oven. And NOW we understand what all the fuss is about! It has a slight crunch to the outside crust and a delightfully soft, warm center. AND only 4 ingredients, never any preservatives – which is why getting it at the right time is crucial.
As we walk down the street, we both notice that glorious scent at the same time – freshly baked bread, every morning and every evening. And that stereotype of French people walking down the street with a baguette tucked under their arms, or riding their bikes with a baguette sticking out of the basket? It’s absolutely true. I could go on and on about the bread, but there are other topics to address.
La Laiterie – Dairy
The dairy section of the grocery stores here is something to behold. The first time I experienced it, I was completely overwhelmed. The cheese, yogurt, crème fraiche, fromage blanc, crème liquide, crème fluide, or crème entière. What does it all mean? I had no idea. Some I have figured out, like the heavenly le beurre aux cristaux de sel de mer (salted butter with actual grains of sea salt), but some not so much. I will say that the experimentation has been a delightful experience. France is definitely not for the lactose intolerant.
I am a big fan of cheese, and here it is truly a staple, an art form; with over 450 different types of French cheese to choose from. Camembert, Roquefort, Rocamadour, Comté to name just a few. I love them all – stinky, strong, mild, aged, soft. And they are all so affordable! Just writing this is making me yearn for some creamy Roquefort (my personal favorite) on a fresh baguette.
Le fromage has such status here that it warrants its own course during a meal – after le plat (main course) and before dessert. I’m not kidding.
La Communauté – Community
In France and Europe, in general, it seems there is a sense of community that I have not experienced in the United States. The central plazas where people gather for markets and meals, the established meal times so that people dine together. It seems as though it is important to spend time together with family and friends. And when they share meals together, there is no texting or checking Facebook – they are actually all talking with each other. I remember the first time I noticed this phenomenon at a restaurant when Neal and I were eating lunch. I whispered, “look, no one is on their phone!” and as we looked around a large crowded restaurant, we realized that not one person was looking at a phone, but all rather were engaged in conversation with their lunch mates. Amazing.
Work-life balance is also very important here. Although Americans tend to mock the French for their short work weeks and lack of commitment to the job, I admire it. They have significant time off from work and use it to spend time with their families. It seems from my experience here, that family and balance are more important than earning more money to pay for a giant house, new cars, and every Apple product that comes out. A friend who came to visit whispered to me on the subway, “look, they are still using AirPods”, and she’s right they are.
Les Bicyclettes – Bicycles
Not just a sport in France, bicycles are a mode of transportation. And the choices of upright and comfortable (not to mention cute) bikes are fabulous! They are such a part of the culture that traffic is very bike-friendly, and I feel comfortable riding pretty much everywhere. And I, of course, do love the wicker baskets on the front of the bikes that often hold baguettes or small dogs.
Le Vin – Wine
Like baguettes and cheese, wine is a way of life and dietary staple here. France produces 7-8 billion bottles of wine a year. And not only is it delicious, but it’s also cheap! Wine is available in every market and can be purchased for as little as 3 Euros. And even the cheap wine is good! After surgery, my surgeon even prescribed (unofficially) French wine for any pain I might have. I love it here.
Les Soins de Santé – Healthcare
After having worked in the U.S. healthcare system for 25 years (geez am I that old??), I know all the ins and outs and gaping flaws that exist. I have had the opportunity to experience the French healthcare system, which is a socialized system, a term making many Americans squirm. Also, I have no idea why Americans tend to be so repulsed by the concept of a socialized system because it works fabulously here!
I have had preventative screening procedures and even surgery since arriving in France. The result? Fantastic customer service (even though I don’t speak the language well), great quality, quick and accessible service, copies of my medical records, including x-rays, all at 1/10 the cost. I am absolutely shocked at the cost. I think because the care I get is so comparable (really better) than what I ever received in the U.S., and then they tell me the cost, and it is truly shocking.
A primary care physician visit? 23 Euros ($25). A mammogram and ultrasound? 85 Euros ($95). Bunion surgery? 2000 Euros ($2338) – including hospital, surgeon, anesthesiologist, physical therapy. I had minor surgery in the U.S., and my insurance was charged $14,000, and my out-of-pocket was $2500. My out-of-pocket was more than the total cost of surgery in France. 3 different medications for post-surgery, including a narcotic, totaled 24 Euros ($26).
I could go on and on (ask my husband), but I will never understand why the American population is so complacent about paying 10 times a reasonable rate for healthcare that consistently gets low ratings in quality and access when compared to global markets. Unfortunately, I don’t see it changing any time soon, so I will enjoy my treatment in France while I am here!
Armes à Feu – Guns
Not to get too political, but I have to say it. There just isn’t the gun violence here that there is in the United States, and I like it. Automatic firearms are prohibited, and to buy a gun, a hunting license or shooting sport license is necessary. In France, there are 2.83 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 population per year, as compared to 10.64 in the United States. I don’t see people walking around with guns, and I never hear of children accidentally shooting their parents in WalMart here. Enough said.
Les Manières – Manners
A lost art in America, here, manners are alive and strong. Always greeted with a bonjour madame when entering a store or greeting someone, and then ALWAYS receiving a merci, au revoir, bonne journée (thank you, goodbye, good day) when exiting. Of course, there are also les bisous, the kisses on the cheek that Neal is not so fond of. There is quite an etiquette about the cheek kisses as well. When, how many, which side to start with. I just do my best and try not to land in the middle by mistake.
And children are very well behaved here. This isn’t just my biased opinion; it’s documented in multiple articles. When children get loud in public here? They are shushed. That’s right, shushed. I hadn’t heard that happen for quite a while, and I’m not going to say I didn’t appreciate it. On the Metro, if an elderly or handicapped individual enters the train, the young people leap up, offering their seat. Although if this happens to an individual not so old, it can be insulting (sorry, honey).
Les Transport Publics – Public Transportation
Here in France, the public transportation infrastructure is downright amazing. We live in a city approximately the size of Kansas City, Missouri, or Omaha, Nebraska, and have a Metro (underground subway), Tram, and an extensive bus system. We have lived here without a car and have been easily able to get everywhere we have needed to go.
Also, we have travelled extensively throughout France, England, and Spain without ever boarding a plane. Does that make my husband very, very happy? Yes indeed. The train system in Europe is fabulous! I love traveling by train – the comfort, the landscape, the ease, and the low cost. And there’s an undeniable romantic element to train travel. You know it’s true.
- How to Use the Paris Bus System
- Best Ways to Get Around in Paris
- How to Use Paris Night Buses
- How to Use Public Transportation in Paris
- Guide to RER Trains in Paris
La Politique – Politics
Here I am again. I have never considered myself to be very political, but the political atmosphere in the United States is maddening. It seems unproductive and self-serving, with large corporations and their lobbyists controlling policies, rather than the people. France also has politics, of course. But their political parties are not nearly as divided between right and left as in the United States. Here there is a smaller gap, without the extreme religious right that exists in America. So although they still debate (and absolutely love to do so), they seem to arrive at decisions, and those decisions tend to be aimed at what is good for the people, not necessarily big business. And here religion has no role in politics or policy. They take their separation of church and state very seriously. Refreshing.
Perspective Globale – Global Perspective
On the United States news, you tend to hear…well, news about what’s happening in the United States. I’m not sure if we don’t care about the rest of the world, or just don’t think they are as important, but the global view doesn’t seem to be as widely available or discussed there. Here, on the news and in conversation, there is a discussion about what is happening in France, but also in the U.S., the rest of Europe, Africa, Russia, and really all over. I have even had some European friends ask me about it. They have experienced life in the United States and found it odd that we don’t seem to want to know what is happening in the rest of the world. I wasn’t sure what to tell them.
Through watching French news, I have found out about countries and issues around the world that I didn’t even know existed. But sometimes (often) world news is harsh and depressing, and this week I long for clips about the upcoming Puppy Bowl.
Les Arts – The Arts
Art and culture are an ingrained part of everyday life in France. There are stunning sculptures, architecture, and fountains as far as the eye can see. Every village it seems no matter the size, has an art museum. The flea markets consist of paintings, furniture, fabrics that look as though they were last housed at the Musée du Louvre. And then, of course, there is the rich history of literature, poetry, and winemaking (yes, you have heard about the wine before, but it deserves another mention).
The country is rich in history, with collections of gorgeous structures, vineyards, paintings, and gardens that date back to Medieval times. That is hard to beat.
So France, we have been living here for 9 months, and are enjoying every minute. We have learned a lot about you, and so far, we like what we see (and I didn’t even mention the adorable little cars and salted caramel!).
What America Does Better
My wife is a Francophile. She loves French people, French cities, French food, and pretty much anything else found within the boundaries of France. Six months of living in France have done little to cure her. I, on the other hand, am more skeptical. I’m skeptical of pretty much everything and everyone. It’s an attitude I believe to be very French and therefore, just one more reason for my wife to love me.
I have spent six months in France sans rose-colored glasses (refer to the confession of skepticism above). My conclusion thus far is that the French people are very much brothers-from-another-mother. We share the most fundamental beliefs. Family and friends are cherished. Individual freedom is sacrosanct. Justice for all (Europeans & North Americans) is foundational. The French people that we have formed even the most casual relationships with have been generous, friendly, and interesting. No doubt, there are plenty of assholes here, just as there are in America, but we’ve been lucky enough to avoid them.
The closer you get to the “individual,” the more alike we are (could this be true even outside of Europe and America?). Strip away government, culture, and religion, and we all share the same fears and desires. Of course, that’s only ever going to happen in John Lennon’s imagination. The point here is that French people and American people are very much alike in ways both big and small.
But it’s the little differences that make our life here so interesting, so foreign. If there were no differences at all, we could have stayed home, and I would never have been tortured by the 20 French verb tenses and moods or the coffee (more about that in a minute).
When we recognize these little differences, it is impossible (for me) to avoid making judgments about them. My wife is an unreliable judge (refer to the confession of Francophilia above) in these matters. Conversely, I am completely objective and without bias and, therefore, more qualified to present this indisputable list of things Americans just do better.
Music – La Musique
I’m not sure many French people would even dispute this one. The world is in love with American music. We hear American music everywhere we go in Europe. The Spanish especially have embraced the golden age of popular music. You can’t walk more than a block in Barcelona without hearing Tears for Fears or the Human League (yes, the ’80s was the golden age, it’s a fact, look it up). The French don’t even make their own popular music that well (the Belgians do). One of my current favorites here in France is Stromae (yep, Belgian).
Movies – Les Films
This one is a little less definite. There are some French films that I love. There are even more that are unbearable. My wife and I will differ here. I see no point in taking two hours out of my life to watch people yap at each other on the big screen. I can get that any time I want. Right now, in Toulouse, the following American movies are playing at the biggest theatre. How many French films are playing at the theatre where you live? I think I’ve made my point.
Parking – Le Parking
The French motto liberté, égalité, fraternité comes into play here. At least liberté does, as in – I’ll park wherever and whenever the hell I want to! I believe there are actual parking laws in France, but I cannot confirm that. I think the only time anyone gets a parking ticket is when they’ve committed a violation (parking on top of grandma maybe) that just can’t be ignored. Other than that, it’s like a Mad Max movie. Every man for himself (so much for fraternité).
Not smoking – Non Fumeur
Not much to say here, they smoke too much and treat the world as their ashtray (as do smokers everywhere, it’s disgusting, please stop).
Smiling – Souriant
Our French friends are not at all stingy with their smiles. French strangers, on the other hand, hold onto them like the last piece of pain au chocolat. Come on, French people, smile! Why not lead with a little openness? Be generous and give us a grin, it’s fraternité after all!
Pets – Les Animaux De Compagnie
We have seen French people dote over their pets with the zeal of upper-middle-class American DINKs. Unfortunately, we’ve seen way too many pets (dogs) off-leash in places they shouldn’t be with owners blocks away apparently not caring whether the dog is playing in traffic or peeing on that little old lady who just got parked on.
Combine #5 with #6, and you’re breaking my wife’s heart. It’s torture for my dear sweet wife to walk down the street and be ignored by the passing pooches. Apparently, the dogs have been taught not to smile too. I’m not even going to bring up the poop.
Worst of all are the vagrants with pets. Apparently, French law makes it a real pain in the butt for a police officer to detain someone if they have an animal with them. The officer becomes responsible for making sure the pet is properly cared for once mom or dad is in the slammer. The cops don’t want to deal with it. The result is that every vagrant/free spirit living on the street has a pet. Do you think these animals are being well taken care of?
Coffee – Café
As promised in the sentence above, I’m going to talk about coffee. The French use mostly Robusta beans in their coffee. Apparently, the bean is a remnant of France’s colonial aspirations in Southeast Asia. They’ve been drinking it so long that they don’t realize how bad it is.
So you start with an inferior bean, then what do you do? Burn it. I’ve heard “French Roast,” defined as “Burn until you can’t taste the coffee”. Could this get any worse? Yep. Take that burnt coffee and pour it into a thimble. Voilà, you’ve got a French cup of coffee.
To make your coffee drinkable, it will come with two giant packets of sugar. You’ll also get a small cookie or piece of chocolate. This is provided to help remove the foul taste from your mouth. It’s baffling to me how people can spend hours on a cafe terrace sipping one thimble of “coffee”. Maybe they just put their cigarettes out in it…
After six months, that’s all I’ve got to complain about grumpy dogs and bitter coffee. I guess I think this place is pretty great too.