I’ve always harbored disdain for tourists, especially since I grew up in a tourist town that becomes a nightmare to navigate come tourist season. This has been why I’ve always strived to blend in with the local culture wherever I visit and not stand out like a stupid American tourist. I loved the way Rouen was small enough where I felt comfortable in the city after only a few days, and was confident in my navigation skills. A huge factor in my comfort with living in a foreign city, is my grasp on the French language. So even though I haven’t taken a French class in over a year which makes verb conjugations a bit fuzzy and hard to remember, I’ve been around the language long enough to know I have a discussion in French when necessary. I was so excited the first time I was asked for directions in Rouen, because not only did I look like a local to a French woman, but I understood her and gave her directions that I knew were right. I will definitely remember that moment as a success of being a French student.
I LOVE BEING 21!!!!!!!!!! WAHOOOO!! ….oh wait. I’m only twenty. But I can drink legally!?! Thank you France for the liberating feeling of being able to sit at a bar or restaurant and order a drink without feeling like a criminal. Even though being able to buy alcohol legally has caused a sharp increase in our intake amounts compared to when we’re back home (we can buy a bottle of champagne for 1.50 euros!!), I’m certain that after a few more weeks the novelty would wear off and we would again return to an accepted level of drinking. The American drinking age is the cause of much debate around the world, and I believe that it is in fact much too high. Twenty-one is an age where one can legally kill another person if they’re part of the right organization, but cannot have a drink at the end of their day to take the edge off the feeling of ending another persons life. How the hell does that make sense? Studies have proven that countries like France, where the drinking age is eighteen have lower rates of alcoholism. I believe this to be true because it is apparent in how people act about drinking. France still has its crazy college-aged kids who party all the time, but they seem to be more responsible about it than their American counterparts would be.
Considering that I’m quite the world-class procrastinator, (as evidenced by every blog but one, being written on the penultimate day of the trip) I have run into quite a big problem while living in France for a month. Just as siestas are frequently known to shut down cities in Spain for an hour or two in the middle of the day, often catching tourists off guard, a similar practice here in France has posed a problem to us American étudiants who are used to 24-hour gas stations, supermarkets and fast-food places. Sundays in France seem like the country has been emptied and nothing remains but vacant buildings and vague reminders that a city one existed where a ghost town now sits. A café or two will perhaps be open for the solitary soul venturing out for some unapparent reason, although whether or not they serve food is anyone’s guess. Liquor stores, shops, supermarkets, pharmacies, and almost every other type of establishment in a given city are almost guaranteed to be closed on Sunday. This unfortunately has caught us off guard many times and we’ve been stuck with very little food and no wine. (quel horreur!!) The societal dichotomy has been interesting to note and is a great example of a cultural difference that has made quite an impression on us spoiled American kids.
One thing I’ve found particularly interesting to pay attention to while in Europe are the ways in which la vie en France est plus sustainable de la vie en les Étas-Unis. My Sustainability minor is brand new to the university and I will be one of the first students to ever graduate with it. It is a subject that I find very interesting and practice in my daily life. I’ve found examples of sustainable living in almost every aspect of European culture that we’ve come across. Toilets have two flush settings to conserve water, bathrooms have hand dryers instead of paper towels, showers require the pressing of a button every 15 seconds for a constant water stream, public transportation is paramount in cities and towns and even lights have timers on them. While I found some of these things very annoying and inconvenient at first, I have now come to appreciate the benefit they have on society and the earth. Not only do these things conserve natural resources, but they also create an awareness of wasteful practices and help to change society’s attitude towards it.
A stark difference that has been very apparent between the United States and Europe is the amount of attention you receive from your waiter or waitress at a restaurant. In both France and Belgium where we have had more than just a few meals at restaurants, it has taken our server much longer to initially come to our table than it ever would in the United States. Even after initially coming to the table, it takes quite a long time to get the menu and your first round of drinks. In some cases, our server will come around for the first time to ask for our drink orders and even Kyrie will have already decided what she wants to eat for her meal!! (For those of you who don’t get the joke, Kyrie takes light-years to do everything…) So after getting your food, your server will typically only come to your table again to clear your dishes. They will never ask how your food is, never ask you if you want a drink refill, and certainly will never give you the check until you explicitly ask “l’addition s’il vous plait.” It creates a much different dining experience than one would typically have in the United States and a possible cause of this is the fact that tipping is not customary in Europe and therefore your server does not have you make you feel like the Queen of their restaurant to work for a good tip.
To be the stupid American, or not to be. That actually is a question frequently asked by members of our group, posed only when searching for information or when trying to get your way with locals. We have learned during our month in Europe that if you get in trouble or if you are doing something that you probably shouldn’t, playing up the “stupid American” ignorance will help you get out of it. We’ve learned that the French would rather just not trouble themselves by attempting to communicate with someone that doesn’t speak their language. Also, it seems as if they are satisfied to use you as an example to bolster the typically negative stereotype of Americans. In other situations however, it is better to use the native language and make an effort to blend in. For example, we have learned that when asking to use a restaurants bathroom of which you are not a customer, it is better to ask in the best French you can possibly muster while still making it clear that you are just an American attempting to speak their language. They will appreciate the effort and almost always let you use their facilities. This is just one example of many instances this knowledge can help you achieve your goal in. We discussed this phenomenon as a group a few weeks ago and agreed that this appreciation of using the native language probably stems from the extreme pride of the French and the hostility towards a dominating country and language.
Upon arrival to Charles DeGaulle airport, after a harrowing 6.5 hour flight with cramped seats and screaming children, (kidding. I mean Nyquil and champagne…) we regrouped and crammed into two vans that Caroline and her father had waiting for us. The meandering drive through the picturesque French countryside allowed plenty of time for Cara and I to ponder the next month while sitting shotgun in Caroline’s van. Having Caroline’s help to shake off the cobwebs of a language not practiced in recent months by either of us was a pleasant challenge. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect for the next month while living in Rouen. After a few detours, a long drive, a couple pit stops and a lot of hurry up and wait, we arrived at the University of Rouen dorms and finally got to unpack and rest. Thirty-four hours of being awake was definitely getting to everyone and we were all a bit cranky. After our much needed sleep, we convened in the kitchen for some yummy fresh croissants and fruit pour le petit dejéuner! After traipsing around town sampling various bits of local culture for a week, I can now say that one of the things I truly love most about Europe is that no matter where you are, and no matter where you look, there is evidence of a rich culture developed by centuries of historical events that most Americans only connect with via textbooks. Being able to walk down the cobblestone streets that Joan of Arc herself has walked down gives you an eerie feeling that maybe the past wasn’t really that long ago… Seeing le Gros Horloge and learning what all the symbols and dials mean helped me understand just a little bit more about the ancient people whose footsteps we’re tracing around town. I truly appreciate the beautiful architecture and cultural practices that make France such a rich place.