This post was contributed by Zoe Howard, a Global Ambassador for fall 2020. Zoe is a French, English, and Rhetoric and Writing junior studying abroad in Paris, France. Read Zoe’s first blog post. Stay tuned throughout the semester as Zoe shares more of her experiences abroad!
During my first month and a half abroad, I have noticed many cultural differences between the United States and France, some anticipated, others not. Before I dive in, I would like to note that these differences are based on my personal experience in the United States and France and that they are generalizations. Like the United States, France is split into many different regions that each have unique aspects of their own culture. I will also be focusing on the culture of Paris, which is where I have spent the majority of my time this semester.
The prevalence of public transportation
The first thing I noticed about Paris when I arrived was how prevalent and accessible public transportation is. The Paris public transportation system consists of the metro, tram, RER suburban express train, and bus, all of which make it easy for people to travel throughout Paris and beyond, into the suburbs. Riders can purchase tickets for single trips, or they can buy passes that can be reloaded on a weekly/monthly basis.
The first time I took public transportation in Paris was from the airport to my apartment. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated by how complex and intricate the system seemed. Sixteen different metro lines weave throughout Paris and intersect with each other at certain points, making it very easy to get lost if you aren’t paying attention or are just unfamiliar with the system. However, with a little practice and the help of Google Maps, the Paris metro system will quickly become your best friend.
The metro and buses can get quite crowded in the morning and evenings when people are commuting to work or school. However, at most stations, metros arrive every 2-3 minutes and are typically on-schedule. In the U.S., most public transportation systems are not as extensive nor reliable as the Parisian system.
The prevalence of public transportation in Paris also makes the city more environmentally friendly. People still drive cars in the city, but they are far less common than in Austin and other cities in the U.S.
Parisians speak much more quietly than Americans, especially in public spaces. On my first night in Paris, I went to a restaurant for dinner with one of my classmates. The moment I walked into the restaurant, I noticed how quiet it was; however, the restaurant wasn’t empty. In fact, most tables were full, yet the overall noise level was impressively quiet. I am a naturally soft-spoken person, but I found myself having to lower my voice several times throughout the night.
The importance of meals and community
While the environment of most restaurants in Paris is quieter than in the U.S., that doesn’t make mealtime any less important. Meals differ in Paris and the U.S. in two main ways: length and community. The United States is known for its fast-food options, making it easy for people to grab quick meals to eat on the go. It is also common in the U.S. to see people work through their designated lunchtimes, which is something that I have definitely been guilty of doing.
In Paris, however, designated lunch breaks exist for a reason, and people take full advantage of them. The French phrase “joie de vivre” (joy of living) encapsulates this phenomenon quite well. While the French value the work they do, they also value and find joy in leisure time, especially with friends, family, or co-workers.
On one of the first couple of days of my internship, I went out to lunch with a couple of my co-workers. During our meal, I was very conscious of what time it was, not wanting to return to my internship late. We finished our meal in about an hour, which is already longer than I am used to, and I was expecting everyone to return to work promptly. However, the first thing one of my co-workers said after seeing the time was “le dessert?” We did, in fact, end up having dessert and some coffee afterward before returning to work.
You were probably expecting this one, but probably not in the exact way I am going to talk about it. It’s obvious that Paris is a city of haute couture, and it is true that you will occasionally see people flaunting designer brand clothing. Still, on a day-to-day basis, people dress rather casually. The main difference between fashion in the U.S. and Paris is athleisure. Leggings, sweatshirts, and baseball caps have taken over in the U.S., especially on college campuses. In Paris, athleisure is not worn on an everyday basis, nor are graphic t-shirts or anything that is super “flashy.” Parisians tend to follow a pretty classic but casual style, opting for more muted colors and simple makeup and hair looks.
Art is extremely important in Paris, so much so that the government makes continual efforts to promote art and make it accessible to as many people as possible. There are over 100 museums in Paris, and many of them have free admission on the first Sunday of each month, including The Louvre, Musée Rodin, Musée Picasso, and Musée d’Orsay. The great thing about Paris, however, is that you don’t even have to go to a museum or exhibition to see great pieces of art. A brief walk along any one of Paris’s winding streets will allow you to experience Parisian history through the different architectural styles of buildings, street art, and monuments.
One of the most significant cultural shocks I have experienced in Paris is the general level of formality. In the U.S., it is relatively common to smile and greet strangers in passing, and in some cases, to make small talk and potentially overshare about one’s personal life. In Paris, strangers are more formal with each other. Smiling and saying hello to people you pass on the streets will frequently garner strange looks, and people don’t divulge details of their personal lives upon meeting someone.
Compared to the outward amicability and extroversion many Americans exhibit, Parisians may appear to be “cold” or uncaring. Yet, my personal experience has shown me otherwise. Almost everyone I have met in Paris so far has been very welcoming and friendly, and I have already formed many personal and meaningful relationships with others.
So many parks!
In Paris alone, there are over 400 parks and gardens open to the public, which Parisians use for leisure daily. At any time of day, it is common to see parks full of people relaxing, catching up with friends, or playing sports.
My favorite park in Paris is Parc Montsouris, situated in the south of Paris in the 14th arrondissement (sub-division of Paris). At 38.3 acres, Parc Montsouris is one of the largest green spaces in Paris. It is also one of the many public spaces that have free wifi offered by the city, making it easy for students to get work done while being in the presence of nature.
The Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens) is another one of my favorite parks in Paris. It is situated in the 6th arrondissement of Paris and is full of historical statues and buildings, including the Luxembourg Palace, where the French Senate currently meets. I am currently interning near the Jardin du Luxembourg, so it’s one of my favorite places to relax and eat during my lunch break.
My third-favorite park in Paris is called the Coulée verte René-Dumont or Promenade plantée. The Coulée verte is an elevated linear park built on top of the old Vincennes railway line. It stretches for 2.9 miles, allowing visitors to see a significant portion of Paris just by walking the trail.
While there certainly are parks in the U.S., there typically aren’t near as many in any one concentrated area as there are in Paris.
Obviously, there are many differences between the culture in the United States and in Paris, some of which take time to get used to. Culture shock is a very real experience that can be intimidating, unfamiliar, and even isolating. However, taking the time to observe and reflect on cultural differences is a rewarding experience, as it broadens your worldview and enriches your ability to empathize with others.