Our time in Paris is truly something that I will never forget. Between a private party in one of France’s most historic monuments with the French Alumni Network, a visit to the Moulin Rouge, and a number of adventures with my best friends, how could I forget? However, one of the things that I remember most clearly about our trip was a story that I heard about the building of the Eiffel Tower. Originally, the people of Paris resisted its building because they were worried that it would look out of place. It was supposed to come down when the World Fair ended, and yet, it stayed standing. I think there’s quite a lot of virtue to unpack there. A love of beauty, an appreciation for art, and an open-minded attitude that enable the administration of Paris and the World Fair to recognize the significance that the Tower could have for future generations if only it was left standing. On the subject of aesthetically pleasing things, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incomparable beauty of both the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre. What I found particularly interesting is that both buildings were not constructed to serve as museums… the first was a train station and the latter an administrative building. However, someone had both the vision and ability (what I would identify as significant intellectual and executive virtue) to transform those spaces into ones that celebrate beauty in so many different forms. I loved that each museum displayed art writ-large; they did not presume to judge what counted as art and what didn’t in cultures around the world, choosing, instead, to display the world and her people in full splendor. Especially for the Europeans, for whom art is such an integral part of their history and global recognition, this kind of open-mindedness and compassion for the experiences of others speaks volumes about the intention with which these exhibits were put together. Finally, I have to say that the shopkeepers of Paris exhibited compassion to a degree that was certainly not required of them. Despite the language barrier, I was constantly made to feel at home in the various shops and restaurants I visited. They were receptive when I tried to speak French, and gracious when I reached my linguistic limit. More so than the food or the items that I bought, I felt welcomed and accepted into their little corner of France. What a magnificent experience.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but Europe, and France specifically, is not the United States. In my opinion, that couldn’t be a better. While I’ve been abroad, I’ve been reminded that, when people think rationally and work to construct a society that rests on values like conservation and rationality, things work really well. Here in France, the priority is not work, but rather leisure and enjoyment. Meals last as long as you want, the workday lasts as long as there is work to be done… the only downside is that there aren’t really stores open 24-hours, but I’ve survived. I’ve also realized that there’s far less sugar in things in Europe. Despite a focus on food that many Americans might abuse in a cultural sense, the French relationship with food focuses on quality ingredients and a healthy balance of caloric intake and excercise. It is no wonder to me that there aren’t really many overweight people in France. The understanding of food is just a bit different.
There are certainly some things about French culture that have been a bit hard to adjust to. First of all, there is no ice. Anywhere. I am someone that really enjoys an ice-cold beverage, and the only place that seems to serve them is Starbucks. I’ve went to the one in Paris more times than I’d care to admit. There’s also sufficiently less air-conditioning, and it may just be that I run a temperature a bit above the normal Frenchmen, but I’d rather be outside than inside most of the time when it comes to climate control. The thing that has been the most uncomfortable for me has been the incessant propensity for smoking. I would never say that Americans are more healthy than the French, but there is certainly not a widespread belief that smoking is an activity meant to be avoided. I am shocked by the amount of pollution in cities like Paris that come from discarded cigarette butts.
However, other than that, I can’t fault France for much, especially because this week my president decided to walk away from the Paris Climate agreement while Machron stood up to Putin about the Russian state media’s influence (among other things). Machron has even gone so far as to invite American climate scientis to France in order to continue their work in an environment hospitable to their work (pun included). One last thing about French culture that I’ve found to be interesting is their relationship with the language. I am a novice of French, but I have learned enough to be somewhat functional in a bakery or similar place. That being said, without fail, the owner of the shop switches to ENglish when they hear my American accent. The French language is not to be mauled by foreigners, especially not by one that has only learned a few phrases for the purpose of the trip. THe message is kind yet clear: This is our language and our heritage. Either speak it with grace, or don’t speak it at all.