A Famous Phrase

A friend of mine here at UTBM set up a photo exposition of various international students. When he came to take my photo,  he asked me what France is to me. In all honesty, I picked something that I had noticed and recently discussed with another friend. It was a small observation, but here is the result:

“Vous devez toujour appuyer sur le bouton pour faire n’importe quoi”

Photo Credit: Adrien Sinky

Photo Credit: Adrien Sinky

When my friend Ana and I went to the photo exposition, we stood a while and chatted with people, nibbling on tasty desserts and considering all of the portraits. At some point, Adrien, who had taken my photo, introduced me to the host of the space and I found myself explaining the phrase I had chosen.

It is, simply, an observation. It is something that I have to do every day and that I had to discover quickly to be able to function in France. There is a button to open the doors, a button to turn on the lights, a button for, well, just about anything.

I remember the first time I tried to open a door here. It took me a few moments to figure out how the door would open. There was no bar to push, there was no noticeable thing – until I saw the button that was on the door frame. It looked like a doorbell, but when I pushed it the door unlocked. From that moment, I took it upon myself to remember that there is nearly always a button to push if you’re not sure what to do next.

During the expo, I explained this to more than a couple people. Most of the reactions were ones of, “Oh, I never thought of that.” It is such a normal thing to them that they don’t even consider it. There are plenty of things like that in the United States: we flip a switch to turn on the lights, we push a bar to open public doors, and we don’t have to push a button to continue the hot water in a shower in hotels or apartments.

Exploration #2: Experience Collection

photo from "How to be an Explorer of the World" by Keri Smith

photo from “How to be an Explorer of the World” by Keri Smith

I have made a small list of things I have noticed so far in France:

  1. There are no drinking fountains in the UTBM, or in any other public space that I have seen
    1. Seriously, I’ve never seen a drinking fountain here. Most people use water bottles, disposable or not.
    2. There is also a very present push for recycling and Earth consciousness here. There are recycling spaces all over, and almost every product has something that says “Think about the earth, recycle!”
  2. Black beans are nearly impossible to find
    1. Black beans, cheddar cheese, thick yogurt, and a few other foods are much harder to find here.
    2. However, there were whole rabbits, various critters’ brains and livers that were available at the supermarket. The vegetables are also more varied and fresher than at home. I’ve already commented about the bread – it’s not meant to last more than a few days.
  3. Contact solution can be found at the pharmacy – but only by asking
    1. At home, contact solution is on the shelf and is easy to find. Here, I have to go to the pharmacy and then specifically ask for it. Luckily, it’s slightly cheaper here than at home.
  4. Chapstick bottles are built differently, and better, in my opinion
    1. In the USA, chapstick bottles are built with a small cap and a little wheel on the bottom. Here, the cap covers most of the bottle and though the wheel is still at the bottom, it affects the entire bottle. There is no way to accidentally push the chapstick up too far without taking the cap off.
  5. Sundays are complete do-nothing days
    1. The only things that are open are the cinema and various restaurants
  6. Though communication is harder, we actually communicate better with partial barriers because we work really hard to overcome them
    1. Whether I am talking to other exchange students or French natives,

It’s Cultural (vol.1)

The assumptions we make based on people’s behavior are no longer valid when we enter a new culture. Instead of taking things personally, we now need to take a moment and think: “Why does this upset me? Where is this person’s action coming from – is it simply cultural or is it actually malicious intent?”

Allow me to make a few examples:

1. In America, if we don’t say hello to a friend, that friend may be disappointed but probably won’t be upset. However, in France, to not greet a colleague, a friend, or a customer service person is to insult them. The French have an air and feeling of nobility, and to say “bonjour madame/monsieur” is to recognize that they exist and are your equal. To not say “bonjour…” is to tell them that they are below you and not worth your acknowledgement.

2. Crossing the street: most of the French students I’ve met cross the street much the way Americans do. They move quickly so that the folks driving cars don’t have to wait. My Spanish-speaking friends, though, (be they from Spain or South America), tend to sort of meander across the road. I don’t know if this upsets any of the French drivers, but I hope not.

3. Americans say, “Am I clear?” while explaining something to make sure that we (the explainer) is doing a good enough job. However, to ask a French person, “Est-ce que je suis claire?” (Am I clear?) is to ask, “Are you smart enough to follow what I’m saying?” or “You’re not stupid, are you?”

4. On my trip this past week, I noticed that one of my roommates would rinse a dish whenever he took one from the cupboard to use it. These dishes were of course already washed, and an American might think, “He thinks I didn’t wash the dishes well enough.” However, it’s more likely that it’s just something he does – it’s cultural, or perhaps it’s something his family does.

5. Folks from the Midwest (and apparently Brits) apologize too much. On my trip, I found myself apologizing to the three Spanish women because the guys had eaten too much of the pasta and there wasn’t much left. In my head, I was thinking that I should have made sure the guys took smaller portions so we could feed everyone. The women told me that it’s not my fault – and then I apologized again. At about the third or fourth “Sorry,” one of them simply said, “Stop apologizing. Just sit and talk with us.”