Cultural Encounters and Personality Clashes
By Rachel An
I arrived in Paris on a chilly Saturday afternoon. After a red-eye flight and an extended metro ride, my body ached and buckled under the weight of my luggage as I climbed up the five flights of stairs to my host mom’s apartment.
The apartment was in a small building on a narrow street, six floors tall sans elevator, with a white-washed courtyard shared by surrounding buildings. When I finally reached my host mom’s floor, I was immediately ushered into my bedroom. She immediately snatched my bag and unpacked all my belongings, including my course books, government documents, and even very personal items like medication and lingerie, arranging them around my bedroom as she saw fit. I was too tired and knew too little French to ask her not to go through my belongings. This was my first perplexing cultural encounter.
My relationship with my host mom quickly revealed itself to be both enjoyable and strained. I had been assigned to live with an elderly woman, who, as I was later told by the head of the host family arrangement company, exemplified one type of a very Parisian persona: warm, but overbearing and critical; unselfish, but petty and dramatic; cultured in world affairs, but at the same time very insular in her ideas about living. Everything about her lifestyle, from her old apartment to her manners, was supposedly very French, and to her there was no other way of life.
The apartment’s living room doubled as my host mom’s bedroom and dining room. The apartment had a tight kitchen equipped with compact appliances, along with two rooms that constituted the bathroom – a miniature one with only a toilet, and a bigger one with a sink and a bath. I soon learned that this arrangement – flexible living rooms, tiny kitchens and separated bathrooms – are typical in Parisian apartments. This treatment of space was the first aspect of French society that I found distinctly different from what I’m used to in the United States.
I soon learned that French and American customs towards food are also vastly different. When I asked my host mom if I could bring home a few groceries for snacks and lunch, she immediately refused. French kitchens are arranged in a very particular way, and even the smallest changes can offend. Having grown up in the United States, where everyone brings lunch home from home to school and carries snacks with them in their bags, I couldn’t understand my host mom’s reactions.
The more I learned about it, the more it became clear to me that this French attitude towards food stems from a culture where food is deeply revered. Dinner in France is treated more ceremoniously than in America: it generally takes more than an hour, and is seen as a time to relax with company. Also, while multiple courses might be expected only in nice French restaurants, I was surprised to find that dinner also at home also followed a regimented, multi-course structure. During one of my first dinners with my host mom, I received a literal slap on the wrist for reaching for a cherry (a dessert) before all the other dishes were finished.
Yet not everything was about cultural differences. Although there was a lot of mutual effort between both my host mom and me to make the situation work, by the end of the week I was feeling unhappy. My host mom’s dramatic personality made every faux pas I made into an incident. For example, in response to my not knowing the former presidents of France, my host mom exclaimed, “How do you not know the former presidents of France – I know all the former American presidents!” I would somehow find a way to make her upset a few times a day, which made me feel incompetent, dense, and stressed. When the head of the host family arrangements told me she personally thought it would be best if I switched, I agreed.
I have now spent a full week with a new host family in a new apartment in a different section of Paris. Having experienced living with two different host families, I have gained a better understanding of what differences I have encountered while in France have been personal rather than cultural. When I thought about French culture in the weeks leading up to my arrival here, I thought mainly about art, music, architecture, sports, and food. But during my first two weeks here, I’ve also been learning that culture is about a lot more, from nuanced living habits to entire worldviews.
Rachel An is a rising sophomore in Branford College. Contact her at email@example.com.