Secret Life of an Expat: What’s the Difference?

Lately, I’ve been working on lists, that could lead to fun blogumns, like “Words in French For Which There Are No English Equivalents,” or “Things That Are Different in France.” So far I have, defenestration (the act of jumping or falling out a window) and “dairy creamers in France are made with evaporated milk instead of half-and-half.” But I think defenestration might actually be an English word that I’m not smart enough to know, and who really cares about dairy creamers anyway?

I think the problem is I can’t find other things to add to these lists. When I first arrived here, it was pretty easy to answer when people asked me what was different in France. But the longer I stay, the harder it gets to identify these details. I wonder if it’s because I’ve gotten used to the ‘French stereotype’, beautifully defined in Stephen Clarke’s book Talk to the Snail, Ten Commandments for Understanding the French.

When I first started visiting France, dealing with the French bureaucracy and getting to know random French people, I was constantly reminded of the book. Oh my god, I would say, Stephen Clarke was right. Again.

People do bring baguettes home after work every day. And ride bicycles in cute skirts and striped shirts. They smoke cigarettes and drink tiny coffees in sidewalk cafes and they are constantly kissing each other.

It’s just, normal.

When the novelty wore off, I searched for other stereotypes. Back when I still took French classes, I developed a theory that French people’s mouths were shaped differently because of the contortion required to create the “eu” sound that is so crucial to good French pronunciation. I postulated that francophones’ lip muscles were overdeveloped at the corners, creating a tight line there that, say, anglophone mouths wouldn’t have. I spent hours inspecting every face on the metro to validate my theory. Then I forgot about it.

Now, I would say that I don’t know what’s different about French people. In fact, the other day someone did ask me. An Italian woman who’s been living here for six years. She said she’s just now starting to grasp what it is about the French. The thing is, can one person really understand another person’s culture?

French media is saturated with American movies, music, and TV shows, and people seem to like it. But the stuff that is aired here, the stuff that is generally popular and widely accepted isn’t necessarily our best work. The Oscar noms and blockbusters have the juice to jump the pond, but not the little films, the thoughtful indies, the series that critics and nerds loved but were ultimately cancelled because they didn’t appeal to the wide American audience. On French TV, it’s easy to find CSI or House, or a French knockoff of an American reality show, but Arrested Development? No. This is probably why I was once asked how many guns I own. I said five.

I don’t think they realize just how big the U.S. is, and that we’re not just shoot-em-ups, Lady Gaga and corny sitcoms. They see our military invading countries, our celebrities going mad, or our teenagers shooting their schoolmates. They don’t hear about the recession, or NPR, or Japanese Tsunami relief efforts , or the First Lady’s organic garden.

It’s the same for us. We only see the French movies that are good enough to get a buzz going in the US. We only hear the news stories that are important or weird enough to make it to the international feed. Even while living here, I’m starting to think it’s impossible to see the full French story, even if it’s all written out in a book. Maybe you can only truly feel a part of your own culture, and the rest is superficial. Are there any immigrant/expat types out there who have thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments.

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