I remember when I first fell in love with France. I was nineteen, a study abroad student fresh off the plane from Chicago, a bit naive but oh so curious, and far away from everything and everyone I knew.
Upon arriving in Paris, I remember being overcome with an overwhelming feeling– being amongst new surroundings and new people, I was finally free to become my own person and to explore and live my life as I saw fit, without the social, family, and societal pressures from back home. I quickly associated those things with France, and saw her through a rose-colored lens for many years that followed my semester abroad. After graduating from college, I headed back to France to be a teaching assistant, as many French majors do, wearing the same rose-colored glasses. In my eyes, France was perfect.
For a long time, I honestly and truly thought France did everything right. At first glance, France’s secular laws seem fair and make sense; free higher education and affordable health care are human rights; maternity leave and subsidized childcare and reproductive rights are a given; abortion isn’t a hot button topic; vacation and work-life balance are an important aspect of everyday life; people are open and accepting; salaries are much lower but there is so much more government support for people and families who need it to get by. I honestly and truly saw France as a land of opportunity.
And in many ways, all of these things ring true, and do make sense. But over the past six months or so, I’ve seemed to have replaced my rose-colored glasses with jaded ones, and can’t help but to have found a touch of grey in the silver lining. I feel so torn, because even though I still want to love France, I seem to have fallen out of love with her and everything I once loved about her. Perhaps I am finally embracing the phrase, “The grass isn’t always greener.” I used to think it was greener in France.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely do not miss gun culture or in-your-face-Christianity in America. However I find France’s secular laws outlawing religious expression and symbols (mostly in schools) to sometimes target specific demographics. And I know that La Laïcité is such an integral, important part to the French identity, and I although I do abide by the policies and understand where they come from, I’m not sure I’ll ever, really understand them. Just look at the most recent “Burkini Ban.”
In my opinion, certain parts of France are not as open and accepting as we are led to believe, because I find her to be quite conforming. From my experience, foreigners, and even French people who are seen as “different” are expected to conform and accept the French (Caucasian) ways of life if they want to be seen as “equal.” And in many ways, I understand that. It’s important to respect the place you are living– to learn French and try new foods and integrate into the workplace. But it’s much, much deeper and more problematic than that. I find that subcultures are not equally respected in France– I find that if you do not conform to the French way of life– in regards to what, when, and how you eat, dress, and think, you will not be accepted. Of course, this is not true everywhere– I find people in the north to be extremely open and friendly.
When in Rome, I do what the Romans do. I speak French; I eat French food; I don’t complain as often about the ridiculous store hours or incompetencies of the bureaucracy; I pay French taxes and follow French laws; but I get so, so sick of being judged or reprimanded for not reading books in French, for speaking English with my friends at a bar, for eating outside of “designated” meal times, or for something as small and petty as dressing in bright colors. Although America is not known to be open or accepting of world languages (the “In America we speak English!” comment is disgustingly ringing in my ears as I write this), but overall I find that the United States does better job of finding and celebrating the equality amongst differences and subcultures– we are equal because are not all the same and we have something different to bring to the table. The United States is still has a lot of racism, but at least we talk about race-related problems, such as white privilege and systematic oppression, and acknowledge that they exist. In France, many claim that racism doesn’t exist here because of the secular laws, as well as the fact that it is illegal to ask for one’s race on official government forms (yet interestingly enough, it’s still completely acceptable to require a photo with your age and marital status on your CV).
I used to think that free higher education was an amazing thing, until I saw what zero tuition fees brings to some universities in France in 2016– an unequipped classroom with only a chalkboard and not enough seats for all students; no free and accessible wifi; no computer labs or free printing or libraries with study rooms and places for students to just hang out– all things that I took for granted during my time at university. Now don’t get me wrong- we pay too much money for tuition and school in the United States. It’s not fair that young twenty-somethings begin their lives with mountains of debt. But in France, there are students who automatically receive grants and scholarships based on economic need to pay for the small tuition fees, but then some don’t actually use the money for university purposes, and then they are not required to pay the money back when the fail the year (which is SUCH a waste of tax payers’ euros). I also have a problem with teacher training in France– in order to become a teacher, you just have to pass a content-based exam. Thankfully over recent years, I have been informed that there has been more observation and pedagogical learning that has been integrated into teacher training, so that is changing. However, I find it so, so screwed up that brand new, inexperienced teachers are sent to the worst, roughest ZEP schools, instead of experienced ones who have some classroom management experience, and there is next to zero special education and French as a Second Language programs. Many teachers are still expected to teach without computers or wifi or even a dry erase board, in 2016. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some really great teachers in France and I know many of them, but in 2016, in a westernized, first world country, I find it absolutely astounding that these things still do not exist.
I admit, having affordable health care is amazing, and it is WAY, WAY too expensive in the United States. However, I joke a lot with my anglophone friends that many French people go to the doctor for literally every single tiny little thing from a slight head cold, because you need a doctor’s note in order to be reimbursed even the most basic of medicines (which you MUST purchase in a pharmacy. Don’t even get me started on the fact that you need a doctor’s note to run a race or join a gym or do remotely anything physical.) On the contrary, I find teeth cleanings here to be an absolute joke– the philosophy here is to “fix problems” rather than to “prevent them.” (Literally my own French dentist said this to me.) To date, I pay out of pocket for a proper cleaning when I come home to America. And sometimes it takes months, months, to see a specialist (not reassuring if you have a dire or pressing need).
I love French food and French dining culture. It is probably the number one thing I have most conformed to whilst living in France. I snack a lot less and I cook a lot more. I enjoy having hors d’oeuvres/apéro before dinner and taking my time at the table. I indulge in a glass (or two) of alcohol every night and do not enjoy eating whilst walking. But sometimes I miss big coffees and eating on the go, and not being judged for doing so. I miss drinking a Diet Coke without having so many people comment on how unhealthy it is (while they blow cigarette smoke into my face). Sometimes I just want to say, “Please just mind your own business and let me eat my food in peace!”
The French Labor Laws have definitely made me look at France in a new light. With an unemployment rate at 10%, it is so, SO difficult to be hired in this country; it is even more difficult to be hired on a permanent contract, and then once you have a permanent contract it is nearly impossible to get fired, even for things that merit being made redundant. Salaries are extremely low here in comparison to the United States, but there are more social programs and government support. It’s still a foreign concept to me to find it normal to rely on the government to take care of you and give you money. Why can’t France just pay people normal salaries and drive down income taxes so we don’t need to give families extra money in order to afford children and basic life necessities? Furthermore if a family or a person needs extra money, why does the government stop them from taking on extra work, and instead give them government subsidies? I love that the French place so much emphasis on work-life balance and find vacation / rest time to be important, but at what point does the government intervene just a little too much?
When you ask foreigners what they think of America or Americans, many respond by saying that Americans are positive and optimistic. We see nothing wrong with thinking outside the box and we believe we can do anything. I used to be ashamed of this fact– people viewed my culture and by default me, as childish and out of touch and a bit in the clouds. After living in France for three years, I have never been more grateful to be American and to have kept this “can do” mentality. I believe it’s what helped me to find a permanent contract here. I’m grateful that at 26 I still feel like it’s possible to change my path and start over and do something new. I don’t always feel that is always the case with some French people. I find people here to be a bit more straight forward about possibilities for work and for life. Don’t get me wrong, the French know how to vacation and they know how to relax– I’ve learned a lot from them because I bought right into American work culture in the USA. But when talking about possibilities for the future, I sometimes find mentality is still more like a straight ladder and less like a curvy, multi-layered jungle gym (thank you Sheryl Sanders for the imagery). In my opinion, this probably is in part due to the fact that kids here kind of have to choose a general career path at fifteen and then (mostly) try to stick to it; it’s less culturally acceptable to start over later.
And, just like in America, there is an astounding amount of hypocrisy in regards to family life. I love that domestic partnerships exist here, and people can be legally together without being married, and that Christian-based prude virginity culture isn’t being poured down everyone’s throats. But the fact that homosexual couples cannot adopt children (BECAUSE THINK OF THE FAMILY!) and women cannot freeze their eggs while men can freeze their sperm is beyond me.
All in all, France is not the worst place to be female, but it’s not the best place by any means. There are still subtle gender roles and subconscious expectations about how females are expected to be– there is a lot of body shaming. Even more so, if you wear a headscarf (or some derivative of it), many try to claim that it is a form of oppression in order to justify la laïcité laws, and that outlawing headscarves/religious symbols helps liberate women (because let’s have a white Christian male mansplain female oppression). Headscarves are also not allowed to be worn it in public K-12 schools, in addition many areas of work. I shared a carpool with a man to Brussels who was on his way to visit his financée who was an engineer but whom was not allowed to work in France because she wore a hijab. On a positive note, women can bathe topless and breastfeed in public without reprimand (but God forbid she wear a burkini!). Sex education is much more comprehensive in France, but cat calling and street harassment remain HUGE problems, and is not taken very seriously (although it is beginning to change). Additionally, I distrust the French police force. They are not reactive and I feel that every time I have called (to report domestic violence nonetheless) I was not taken seriously, nor was the call. Finally, I am not a huge fan of dating culture and male-entitlement / machoism that exists here (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist in the US either, because it does, but in different ways).
I’m afraid I have fallen out of love with France, and I am desperately searching for that spark I had when we first met all those years ago, because I am so, SO excited to begin my new job– it’s a perfect fit and I know it’s going to be the positive change I need. Plus, I know deep down I still love her. And despite all of my negativity, I am very happy here- I have smart, interesting, worldly friends, I do work I love, and I have enough time to travel to new places.
I realize that I’ve come round full circle- from hating the USA and loving France to completely hating France and loving the USA, to finally having a bit of a love-hate relationship with both.
For now, I’m in between, and my grass is green.