Spotting Cultural Differences and Similarities Between France and the US

Some of the biggest things you’ll notice when you study abroad are the differences in culture between your home and host countries. Those are often the motivating factors behind taking the leap to study abroad.

One of the most obvious (and fun) is the number of carnivals. While I have been in France, I have experienced lots of historically rooted festivals and parades in celebration of holidays that still go on today. These celebrations highlight the history and uniqueness of certain cities and towns.

While the French may not like to change their traditional celebrations, they do like to have change. (I apologize for how bad that pun was, but I wanted a smooth transition here.) The French people like change – always have coins and small bills on you. I’ve heard that some merchants won’t even take a large bill if they can’t break it or if it would drain their coin purse. Coins are more popular here than they are in the US. This is especially true in the markets.

Markets are a major thing here, and are beneficial to broke study abroad students. They occur several times a week from mid morning to early afternoon. Here you can buy your fresh fruits and vegetables of the week for a reasonable price. Charcuterie and fresh fromage are abundant, and you can get a baguette for around two euros. This is a great place to grab you picnic lunch for the day or prep for a hike. Many host families do most of their shopping for the week’s meals at the market, as opposed to the supermarkets which dominate American culture.

In general I have found that people here keep different hours.  Many small shops close for an hour or so for lunch. Smaller boutiques also tend to close on Mondays. It feels like almost everywhere is closed on Sundays. This should be remembered before you make your lunch plans. In addition to this, my French friends stay out much later than I am accustomed to. For example, salsa night at the local cafe does not begin to get popular until the wee hours of the morning. As someone who prefers to go to bed at 9 pm, I have had to adjust to this lifestyle.

If you’re planning on studying abroad in the future, I’d recommend bringing along a really good pair of walking shoes. Aix has more of a walking culture with everything being so near in the city center. I have seen that there is reliable public transportation especially in between different, nearby cities because of commuting. Trains are more popular and run frequently. While you are traveling between places, you might notice how dirty the streets seem and how prevalent smoking is. It is not common practice to pick up after Rover. The increase in smokers was surprisingly hard to adjust to because I felt like I was always inhaling smoke while on my morning runs.

Cultural changes in the typical morning routine are evident as well. My host mother is emphatic about opening the windows every morning to air out the entire house no matter the weather. When I drink my tea with breakfast it is done so out of a bowl. This surprised me at first but I learned that it is typical for the French to drink hot drinks out of a bowl so they can dunk things (like pastries) in the beverage.

Being green, like at home, is emphasized. Families are more conscience of conserving energy and water because utilities tend to be more expensive in France. Turning off lights, unplugging electronics and taking shorter showers are strictly enforced. Going further with that, things are typically smaller here. Apartments, streets, cars, even dogs. People just tend to have less stuff.

I’ve heard that it is more common to talk politics here, but so far I’ve found it pretty comparable to back home. I think it really just depends on your interests. At French universities there is more of a divide or distance between students and professors. IAU in Aix is an American university so I have not necessarily found that to be true. College is less expensive and so are textbooks. For example, at IAU I did not have to buy a single textbook. All the required chapters and readings were given to us by our professors or scanned and online.

While differences in cultures are important to highlight so that we as people can learn more about each other,  students shouldn’t focus entirely on them. That can be alienating and isolating (it’s a part of the culture shock timeline). We should remember that there are similarities between cultures and we are alike in both our practices and values. That is what matters as it is what unites us.

-Elin Johnson, Aix en Provence