I breezed through this past year, but not without a few jarring realizations to my ‘Burg bubble. I spent the fall semester studying abroad in France and then returned to the ’Burg in the spring, and while I expected the two semesters to be polar opposites, I came to realize over the course of the semester that this wasn’t always the case. Thanks to technology, globalization and numerous other factors, it is now possible to recreate France in the United States, and vice versa. You might think that this scenario would only hold true in big cities of both countries, but I found differently. While in France, I studied in a small city in Brittany, and I think we can all agree that Williamsburg has never quite qualified as a bustling metropolis.
While in France, I managed to find a cafe that sold bagels and peanut butter — a rarity in Europe. The French find peanut butter ghastly and indulgent; apparently high levels of cholesterol and fat are simply too much to handle for the French. But you’d never know that when considering a French favorite, confiet de canard, which features duck meat encased in a solid layer of the bird’s own fat and then cooked in liquid fat –— clearly a recipe that, though delicious, is just begging for a heart attack. But suggest combining an already unhealthy spread with sugary jam and white bread, and you will cause widespread panic in any French town.
The cultural exchange doesn’t stop with peanut butter. While in France, I watched “The Eclipse Saga: New Moon” in theatres on opening night, read about American celebrities in French tabloids, and listened to Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas in bars. This spring in Williamsburg, I could still eat scrumptious croissants at Aroma’s, stroll the Saturday morning market on Duke of Gloucester Street, catch a French flick at the Kimball Theatre and devour some crispy frog legs and escargot at The Blue Talon — a menu offering of which I chose not to take advantage. which I chose not to take advantage.
So why then did I travel across the Atlantic to spend a semester in France, a place where one U.S. dollar only got me 0.6960395 euros, plus or minus a few euro cents, where language barriers caused me to tell my host mom to “have a great time” when she left for what I translated as a “book club” but what turned out to be a funeral, where sweatpants are never to be worn outside of the house?
Despite the consumerist similarities, the cultural experience found in foreign countries is still a world apart from the United States. For one, the French don’t religiously watch “Jersey Shore” or “Glee.” As they only have a few dozen French television stations ,they will gladly watch dubbed versions of “Friends” and “House,” both wildly popular with my 70-year-old host mom.
The French scoff at the American paucity of paid vacation time. French law requires that workers receive a minimum vacation time of 31 days per year not including national holidays. In the United States, there are no laws requiring any vacation time at all, and nearly a quarter of Americans receive no paid vacation time. (Note to self: move to any other Western nation when applying for jobs, preferably Finland, where the average worker receives 39 days of paid leave per year.)
The French love food, and won’t bat an eye at the thought of spending four hours eating a five-course lunch. Americans will worship Wawa, Dunkin’ Donuts and drive-thrus. The lack of free refills and jumbo-sized popcorn covered in an unidentifiable “butter” substance would astonish any American in a Parisian movie theater.
No matter how much culture in our world is globalized, nothing will ever erase those differences. An American would never dream of opening every single window in the house at 7 a.m. on a brisk 24-degree morning just to “air out the house,” even though this task simply delighted my French host mother. To the students at the College, something dating from the 17th century is considered ancient, while to the French, 1693 is mundanely modern — sorry, William and Mary. From my experiences in France, I’ve learned that some things are just exclusively American, and others uniquely, and often delightfully, foreign.
__Emily Walker is a Confusion Corner columnist. Her new life goal is to learn Finnish only for the extra vacation time.__