With this issue on social life in France, there are so many things I want to tell you about that I know I will forget some of them along the way. I want to speak about chameleons, cats, bubbles, about mirrors leading to other worlds, and about a thousand other things that are important to enjoy your social life in France – no, really, you’d be surprised how important chameleons are… And I think the best way to speak about it is to take you with me to Lyon, the city where I live when I’m not abroad.
“The French hate us”: a world of chameleons
I heard that sentence five times in my first two weeks at Willamette. I was surprised, at first, because I had not noticed any French “hatred” (such a strong word) towards America – at best some distrust during the Bush administration, but on the whole, more admiration than anything else, actually. It turned out that the few people I asked about this told me that the hatred showed in the behavior of French people when they identified themselves as American, in Paris. And then I realized that the problem was all about different conceptions of social life.
Your social life, in France, is often similar to a chameleon’s skin: it will change depending on your environment. If you are a waiter, for example, you are expected to be just that. No “how are you”, no “hello”, no smile is required, as long as you do your job of taking the order and bringing the bill. If you also happen to be nice, all the better, but it is not expected that you’ll be smiling and engage in conversation with people that you don’t know. It might seem cold, but don’t worry, it gets warmer.
Life #1: the professional skin
The first “social life” I’ll talk about is the “professional life”. It might seem colder to people looking at it from the outside, because when you’re working, you’re supposed to leave your private life behind. A waiter has to act like a waiter, a professor has to act like a professor, and a student has to act like a student. This is even reflected in the language: “he’s a baker” will translate as “il est boulanger”, without an article between “est” (“is”) and “boulanger” (“baker”). The profession is almost the equivalent of a name or of a title. It isn’t only a part of your life: it becomes a separate life (there’s work, and then there’s the rest).
This will influence the lives of students as well. Universities, for example, are a place where you come to work. Once your classes are over, you just go back home or downtown with your friends. There is no campus, and a student’s life is divided between at least three places: university, home, and any kind of HQ that they might have for get-togethers with friends (sometimes, this can be “home”, but it is very unlikely to be the university buildings – if only because they usually close after classes). In class, also, things are different. The relationship between students and teachers, because of the roles that everybody assumes in their professional lives, are more distant: a teacher will be “sir” or “madam”, and a formal “vous” is often used on both sides during conversation.
Through the looking-glass: life #2
In that environment, how do I meet friends? Well, it might be paradoxical, but College (“l’université”) is often the place where you build the strongest friendships ever. Most of the time, you’re asked to choose a “specialty” before you start your first year, and once you do, you are given a list of classes that you have to attend (which may be one of the reasons why French students “follow” a class rather than “taking” it). As a result, you’ll often end up spending three or five years with the same people, and chances are that you’ll work together (solidarity is an important feature of a student life, except in some more scientific fields where the competition makes it more difficult to share notes, etc). Among the people you work with, you’ll most probably find some kindred spirits, and there you are, you have stepped through the looking-glass! Once you start inviting people over and being invited over, you can tell that you have some real friendships going on (we’ll see why when we speak about a third kind of social life).
A short point on greetings. We have in France what we call “la bise”: the first few seconds of the video below this paragraph (from the British show “Doctor Who”) illustrate what is meant by that. I would add that most of the time, the cheeks of the two persons greeting each other will touch (but the lips should not touch the cheek, unless it’s someone you really really care about, like a close family member or your boyfriend/girlfriend, then it’s ok). Not everyone “se fait la bise” (greets each other with “la bise”). Among friends, or when meeting people at an event organized by friends, girls are greeted and greet others this way. Guys only use that greeting with girls, and shake hands with other guys. When meeting someone in a professional setting, shaking hands is the most frequent greeting.
(Faire la bise 101, by Matt Smith – notice that he uses it the wrong way, since guys are supposed to shake hands)
Other times and places to meet friends include: lunchtime (between noon and 2pm, there is lots of time for interesting conversation), breaks between classes (since you’re all following the same classes in the same building, you’ll wait together for the next class to begin), and student nights! The fact that there is no one on campus after classes are over (usually, the latest classes are done by 8pm) doesn’t mean that there is nothing happening. Student committees can organize some events in the local pubs, but usually the city itself will take care of providing events for you (universities are often located in cities or other lively places): concerts, movies (Lyon has more than twenty cinemas), restaurants, drinks, etc. Once you know a group of people (usually, about a dozen), you can end up spending the night at someone’s place, talking, playing games, having karaoke nights and so forth. Usually, people meet around 8pm for dinner, and the evening lasts until midnight if you have to take the last bus home, or until 2 or 3am if you don’t.
A night in a night-club (“une discothèque” in the 1980s or, nowadays, “en boîte” – literally “in a can”, because people are crammed in like sardines in a can), will typically start around 11pm or midnight, and last until 5 or 6am. Week-end excursions are also a frequent thing, once you have a car (you cannot get a driving license before the age of 18, and the examination is extremely difficult and expensive).
To keep in touch with your friends, a cellphone is the best tool. Receiving texts and calls is always free in France, so calling someone is a way to show that you care about them, too (they don’t pay, but you do, if you’re the one calling).
Texting is always an interesting thing to speak about, so I’ve included a few typical abbreviations right here: can you guess what they mean? (answers at the end of the article)
1/ 1 SMS…………………………..6/ T OU
2/ JTM……………………………..7/ KOI 2 9
3/ @+………………………………8/ DSL
4/ MDR……………………………..9/ A12C4
5/ MR6…………………………….10/ STP
Life #3: a secret family life
Friendships are strong when you spend time at each others’ place because, much like a bird’s nest, “home” is often considered like a very private space. It is where someone’s family life, someone’s private life, will take place, and you can only enter it if you are invited to do so – and if you are, it’s usually quite an honor. Of course, things are different in every family, but I think it is fair to say that family life is more private in France.
You get to be an entire person with your family: they’ve known you all your life, and the social codes are not the same as with your friends, for example. You can be caring without too much fear of being intrusive, since you’re already in that inner circle, for example. I was asked why French students were not as willing as American students to get their independence and move away. After reflection, I think that there are several reasons. First, there’s money: since one semester at uni costs only between $250 and $500, housing becomes the main expense. Staying at your parents’ place is a way to remain independent by not borrowing their money and by not taking a loan to rent a place just a couple of miles away. All universities have a pretty similar level and reputation, and most of them offer the same classes, so the choice often goes towards the closest one – or towards a “grande école”, which means moving away, but then the tuition is much higher or the school itself gives you enough to cover your housing, so it’s a different matter.
Another reason for staying close to your family, sometimes, is that you’re part of a network of support that you will not find elsewhere: in other words, they might need you or you might need them. This doesn’t mean that you have to stay together all the time, but just that it qualifies “family life” as the “inner circle”. If you think of your several social lives as circles or bubbles, you can see that they would stay separate most of the time, revolving around each other, but that the smallest of those circles, the one at the center, would probably be family life. The notion of “community”, in France, doesn’t seem to be as strong as it is here: one could say that if something’s wrong, you look for help among your family and your close friends if it’s personal, or you turn to the politicians if it’s a public matter since they’re the one with the power to change things (hence the numerous demonstrations every year in France).
This is just a short personal view, but I’m sure that we all have more than just three lives. We step from one bubble to another, and sometimes we don’t even notice it. Some pictures in this article come from my different chameleon lives in France, but what’s exciting is that these chameleon lives are also influenced by every new experience abroad, by every new person I meet, and it makes my whole world a lot richer. So, even if it means getting out of your own bubbles, I really encourage you to step through the mirror and to discover new bubbles abroad… Maybe in France?
(Answers for the texting abbreviations: 1/A text 2/Je t’aime (I love you) 3/A plus (see you!) 4/Mort de rire (LOL) 5/Merci (Thanks) 6/T’es où? (Where are you?) 7/Quoi de neuf? (What’s up?) 8/Désolé (Sorry) 9/A un de ces quatre! (See you later) 10/S’il-te-plaît (Please).)