Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Monday, December 29, 2014

France vs USA

Living in a different country opens your mind to a different culture and challenges your deepest assumptions and expectations. More importantly it lets you complain about how backward and strange non-American's are. After five months in France, here are some head-to-head ratings for the differences that most caught our attention. Each country will get a one to five rating (1=horrible, 5=heavenly) and we'll add it up at the end to see who wears the red white and blue better.

1. Toilets
I can count on one hand the number of free public toilets we have found since we moved here. Also, French toilets are plagued with issues of splashback (and I'm not talking about bidets). I don't know if this is from the design of the toilet or has something to do with our supercharged American metabolisms, but in either case nothing can ruin a good evacuation like a cold backsplash. There is also a charming French custom of doing away with the toilet seat, leaving you to sit directly on the porcelain altar.
France: 1.2
America: 4.9

2. Artisanal everything
Painters, bakers, snail farmers, plumbers. As far as I can tell everyone is an artisan here.
France: 5
America: 2

3. American holidays
The French have started celebrating Halloween (along with the Catholic Toussaint), but it doesn't have the same epic momentum it has in the States. This year clown outfits were banned after some tricksters decked out in clown digs killed some people, and the one house we trick-or-treated told us they didn't celebrate Halloween because it was a satanic holiday. On the other hand we had one of our best Thanksgivings ever with over 40 people, delicious pumpkin pie, and a tiny turkey taken before its time (the French eat turkey at Christmas). Given the gradual descent into overt materialism most of our holidays are experiencing in the States, I'm calling it a draw.
France: 3.1
America: 3.1
Wait, they don't trick-or-treat here?

4. Greetings/Farewells
I have been amazed at how much attention the French pay to hellos and goodbyes. At most any social engagement (work, church, parties, etc) everyone says hi and goodbye to each other individually.

"Bonjour André-Jean"
"Salut Ben"
"Bonjour Alain-Hervé"
"Bonjour Ben"
"Salut Martine"
"Salut Ben"

In general I've been surprised at how social and involved in each other's lives my French colleagues and friends are. Everyone leaves their office doors open and if you try to eat your lunch alone people get worried and call a meeting on "l'amelioration de l'integration." I haven't been around long enough to say whether all the involvement leads to meaningful communalism or just the appearance of democracy but so far it has seemed genuine.

Oh yeah, and did you know they kiss each other here? From a hygiene perspective the bisous beats the handshake but it does feel a little weird at the beginning. We still don't know if your lips are supposed to touch the other person's cheeks or not but we just pull the foreigner card if we creep anyone out.
France: 3.5
USA: 3.2

5. Healthcare
All legal residents of France are promised healthcare with 70% of medical costs covered for everyday visits and 100% coverage for pregnancy-related and serious or chronic problems. Rachel was seven months pregnant when we arrived in France so we've tested out the system over a dozen times for her and the wee baby. Before we were issued our health cards we payed full cost for all visits and analyses and then sent in the receipts for reimbursement. At our 8-month doctors appointment and ultrasound, when the technician learned we didn't have our health cards yet he hesitated before telling us the price.

"Are you sure you want to pay now, it is pretty expensive."
"How much is it?"
"Fifty euros."
"I think we'll pay now."

He didn't realize that almost without exception, paying the whole bill has been less than our copay would have been in the US. The treatment, equipment, and quality of care has been great (though Rachel can't get over the fact that even doctors don't speak English here). The health care debate will have to wait for a different blog post but this article on the history of socialised medicine in the States is pretty rad.
France: 4.5
USA: 2.7

6. Food
Who knew there were enough varieties of yoghurt to fill four aisles at the grocery store? Who knew that you don't need to refrigerate eggs and milk (UHT milk at least)? Who knew that mixing straw and goat's milk then rolling it in oakwood ash made delicious, nutty, chalky cheese? It's not that we don't like American food. We miss Mexican food and wild Alaskan fare. It's just that they really know how to cook and eat here. French food is simple and engrossing. A few ingredients combined to maximum deliciousness. French eating is involved. A few hours spent for maximum deliciousness.
France: 5
USA: 4

7. Counting system
How do you say 70? Sixty-ten, of course. How do you say 80? Four-twenty, of course. How do you say 99? Four-twenty-nineteen . . . of course? 

Though they invented the intuitive metric system, it turns out the French couldn't get on the same side of the fence with their counting. The current system is an unhappy compromise of base-10 and base-20 counting. Not only does the system baffle foreigners, it also wreaks havoc with the exchange of phone numbers. Even for native speakers, if someone says sixty, seventy, or four you hesitate before writing anything down just in case some addition or multiplication follows. French math teachers reaffirmed their support of the system after World War II stating it was useful "for facilitating the learning of calculations." For an awesome official response to many questions about eccentricities of French check out the question and answer section of the Académie française.

France: 2
USA: 4.9 (minus 0.1 for eleven and twelve)

There are at least another seven items on our list so we'll have to continue the head-to-head next time. For now here is the subtotal:
France: 24.3
USA: 24.8

And two reminders of our shared history and common future.


  1. Love seeing your mind at work.
    Is that cheese around the stick?

  2. So in other words... France is better than America in the things that really matter? I think I'll take some extra backsplash using the toilet if I only have to pay fifty euros for an ultrasound (my wife is pregnant, by the way -- we're having a boy!). How quickly can we move to France?

    1. Congrats on the baby B-dawg! The comparisons and points aren't meant to be objective ;)

  3. Yikes for posting again before anyone answered me (I'm just interested, alright?). Do you think your view on American food could be a little biased? "Wild Alaskan fare" certainly isn't typical American food. Growing up in Las Vegas my family rarely had access to good fruits and vegetables (good quality, I mean), much less wild moose and other game. I think Alaskans (and now myself -- living in the Shenandoah Valley is awesome food-wise) have a little bit better access to good quality food than does much of the lower 48 (unless paying a lot of money to eat at a good restaurant... I guess good quality food exists in Las Vegas -- I just had to pay more for it than any human being should have to pay for good food). On the other hand, how much good quality food is accessible to all French people, especially in the bigger cities like Paris? That's an honest question I'd be curious to know the answer to. I spent some of the summer in France, but I could hardly say my eating habits were indicative of a regular French citizen (unless they also eat at gas stations [but even then the gas station food was far and away healthier than American gas station food, so I guess my question might be moot]). This is way too long of a post... Scott Abbott (whoever you are), if you read this, I commend you on your brevity.

    1. I can't speak for all areas of France of the US but there are some interesting trends that I've talked over with my co-workers. Organic food is way bigger in the states than in France (though the movement is growing here) but France has, in my opinion, a better pricing scheme where candy and soda is more expensive and produce is less expensive. I think there is a big cultural aspect beyond just what food is available however. Zee French take their time for meals and have meals rather than snacks.

  4. Americans with Disabilities Act is something I missed while there. Ramps, elevators, and automatic doors make hauling small children around so much easier. I did think it was pretty funny when we went to the doctor for a cold or something and they said it was so expensive... 25-31 euros on average? So cheap compared to American prices. Even took one kid to the emergency room for about 75 euros. We looked up how much the French pay in taxes at one point and I think Americans are probably paying more between taxes and healthcare. I loved that I got to stay in the hospital and actually rest for 4 or 5 days when I had my baby rather than get poked and tested for 48 hours or less and then get kicked out.

    1. I hadn't thought about that L-dawg but it is true there are lots of stairs. I wonder how much of that is due to the older age of cities/buildings versus the legal framework? Fun!