Breakfast was bread with jam — always bread with jam — and coffee and sweets for special occasions.
After growing up on barbacoa and chorizo breakfast tacos, the kind that drip grease down your arms as you eat, I initially found French breakfasts to be torture. As with all changes, I eventually became accustomed to – even fond of – these breakfasts. They were simple and effortlessly satisfying.
If one word can be used to describe French customs, it’s “effortless.” When I first arrived in the small village of Annecy, France, it felt like another world. The view from my train window revealed the French Alps in the east, which fed a crystal clear lake in the center of the town.
On the day that I arrived, the town was celebrating the end of one of France’s most rigorous marathons. I watched as one man finished the race and promptly lit and smoked a cigarette.
That stereotype about France is true: everyone smokes.
But like everything else, their health is effortless. Rather than being overtly healthy, French people simply eat real food. Only in large cities are there huge supermarkets, but in the small towns, small shops specialize in what they sell. Bread is bought at the bakery, meat at the butcher shop, toiletries at the pharmacy, etc. French laws limit the amount of genetically modified food and artificial sugars that can be sold. Before studying in France, I was careful to only buy organic, non-factory farmed meat in Texas.
Here, people here eat until they are no longer hungry, rather than until they are stuffed. Everything is done in moderation, but lacks a feeling of depravity. Moderation is practiced in other parts of life as well. Everyone has fewer, but nicer, clothes, and women wear less makeup. It’s a society that doesn’t rely on consuming to find happiness. Happiness is found in the company of others and company is often found at the dinner table.
Dinners in France often last for minimally two hours. They begin with a glass of Rosé, commonly drunk in the Rhone-Alps region where I’m living. Traditional dinners involve some sort of egg dish: crêpes, quiche, or omelets. Vegetable salad or tabouli is also served with raw, cured ham. After dinner, it’s common to eat some sort of dessert or yogurt with fruit.
In order to improve my French, I was placed to live with a French family with four children— an uncommonly high number of children for a European nation. The children only spoke a little English, but it was a little bit more than their parents.
I was initially taken aback by the French tendency to be very blunt. French people tend not to judge harshly, but will matter-of-factly state when they don’t like someone or something. I’ve never been one to have the energy for chivalry, so I found these habits to be a weight lifted off my shoulders. When someone here wants help, they ask for it rather than waiting for an offer. Rather than wondering if someone is sending me hints as to how they feel, I know that what they say is what they mean.
Being completely immersed in a new language is easily the hardest aspect of studying abroad. There are moments that not being fluent in French has been detrimental, such as my first day of class when I took the public bus in the opposite direction of my school. Other times the language barrier has been hilarious, such as the time we ate dinner and everyone tried to pronounce “fork,” but couldn’t quite manage the “r.”
Most of the time, living with a new language involves me simply nodding my head or asking “Comment dit-on en Français?” To say the least, not being fluent in French has given me a new appreciation and understanding for foreign and immigrant students in San Antonio.
European, and specifically French cultures, have always been highly regarded in the U.S. Whether it’s makeup, fashion, politics, or food, urban crowds tend to highly regard what it is to be “French.” While there are many things one can buy to feel French, living a French lifestyle doesn’t rely on consumerism in the same way Americans do. It’s living with an eye for detail and taking time for pleasure.
I love Texas, and San Antonio will always be my home, but there’s a lot to be learned from the French people and their customs. San Antonio’s identity is fluid and changing. A very diverse group of people crowd into a sprawling city and leave pieces of culture behind. French customs are very different from those of the American Southwest, but I feel more connected to my heritage here than I have in Texas.
There’s something about living in a different country that makes it easier to say, “I’m an American.” Perhaps it’s the long distance from home or the immersion in a different culture, but being in a completely new place makes one realize where he or she came from.
In a week, I will be back in San Antonio. I will have to use a car, air conditioning, and pay more money for French cheese. But I will always appreciate what it means to be French.