I doubt there’s an account of an American woman braving a year in Paris or Provence that I haven’t read. Before I embarked on a similar journey, I lived vicariously through these memoirs of falling in love with the French lifestyle (and perhaps a French man) despite the language and cultural barriers.
So it was incredibly interesting to read the perspective from the other side of the Atlantic. I just finished Une Française à New-York, the memoir of a Parisian who moved to New York with the American dream of a finding a fabulous apartment with a view of Central Park. Here were the points that stood out to me the most:
Disgust at American gyms: The author deftly points out that gyms are a way to deal with stress: mainly, the stress that we create by our crazy 60-hour work weeks. I used to need an hour at the gym every day: it was my time to unwind and focus on something other than work, mundane errands, the stress of everyday life. In France, I haven’t been to the gym once. And I’ve gone running once. While my body is screaming for a good yoga class, I’ve found that a more relaxed lifestyle doesn’t leave me craving an hour to unwind.
I’m also becoming more and more in line with the French way of working out without really trying. That is to say, why bother to put yourself through a sweaty hour on the treadmill when you can just wander along the winding streets and have one baguette instead of two?
Relationships with food: She simply can’t understand how Americans view eating: as a way to recharge energy, like a car that needs gas. Taste isn’t important, what counts is how we feel. This is exactly how I tend to view food: I eat because I’m hungry. If I don’t have breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack, I’ll be grumpy. I grab a sandwich if I’m running errands around lunchtime, I eat in front of my computer, I eat standing up in the kitchen. It’s all very un-French of me.
In France, eating is an experience: you must take time to fully appreciate the flavors. It also tends to be a social experience: evenings out revolve around three-course meals, and no waiter will ever pressure you to leave by putting the bill on the table before you’re ready.
The concept of dating: I grew up with the modern American fairytale of the perfect first date. Dinner at a restaurant with white tablecloths, the latest romantic comedy and the “foot-pop” first kiss on the doorstep. Apparently romantic French men and elegant French women do not indulge in this staged attempt at romance that consumes American women and empties the wallets of American men. I’m still not sure how to translate the concept of “dating” in French, which says a lot. Romance here simply doesn’t seem as forced as it does in America.
How much we work and lack of vacation: Even though the author consistently refers to the New York work mentality, I’m pretty sure Silicon Valley corporate culture has many similarities. Yes, companies like Google and Yahoo! are famous for laid-back corporate cultures but that doesn’t mean people don’t work 80-hour weeks. Two weeks of vacation is the norm, and today’s technology makes it hard to completely unplug for just 14 days. The author dreams of an August by the seaside, but realizes that in America, an entire month of carefree vacation just ain’t gonna happen. Long lunches? Also out of the picture.
It made me wonder about the work to live versus live to work mentality that is often a differentiating point in European and American lifestyles. Reading Une Française à New York made me see how crazy the American work style looks from the outside–and for what end?
Overall, the book was a great experience not only to improve my French but also to improve my understanding of the French point of view. There’s no better way to get inside the mind of a culture than to read its take on another culture, in its mother tongue.