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Paris Post: the US edition

October 8, 2009

Hello to everyone. As some of you know, I’ve been taking a longer-than-planned stint in the U.S. Here’s to hoping I’ll soon be back in Paris, but meanwhile …

Coming back to the United States always makes me realize that a lot of what France has taught me isn’t about France at all; it’s about that home of mine the U.S. of A. — and even more about my hometown of K.C.K. (that’s Kansas City, Kansas to you out-of-towners). Here’s a few things I’ve realized over my time in Paris:

1. “Socialism” isn’t a dirty word everywhere. In KC, calling someone a socialist is almost like calling them an evil mastermind, but in France it’s more like calling someone a democrat. In fact, most of Europe’s politics are skewed a little further left than American ones. The French right-wing UMP (Popular Movement Party) is more equivalent to our democratic party, and their left-wing PS (or Socialist Party) falls even further left of center. But what did I learn from all of this? The “line” in politics that divides right from left isn’t immovable, which is good news for both sides.

2. Etiquette is relative. Growing up in a place where it’s perfectly acceptable (and I still think rightfully so) to eat fries with your hands, I was shocked to find that in France people eat nearly everything with a knife and fork. Adjusting to this rule was tougher than I expected. In fact, I still find myself realizing that I’ve eaten half my fries by hand and resignedly taking up my fork. Tant pis.

3. “Fast food” is both more universal and less so than I expected. Coming to France, Starbucks junkies will be relieved to discover that there is indeed at least one on nearly every corner (and I’ve seen as many as three). There are also McDonald’s and Subway. However, in fast-food battle, McDonald’s has beaten Burger King out of France (though the King is still live and well and hanging out with Dunkin’ Donuts in Germany. Go figure).

4. Compared to the rest of the world, we know very little geography, and not enough languages. It’s sad but true. I know that despite Sporcle’s countries of the world quiz, I cannot name much on the map.

But there’s a reason for this one. America is a lot bigger than most countries in Europe. Unlike France and Germany, it is divided into 50 distinguishable states — some larger than France herself (Holla, Texas and Alaska!). This puts us in a tough spot. While most little children in France were memorizing European countries and nearby African ones, we looked at those as a second priority because after all just mastering the U.S. was going to take awhile for a fifth grader.

5. When I attended Sciences Po in Paris, the first question was not, “What’s your major?” but, “How many languages do you speak?” Needless to say, my measly “two” wasn’t impressive compared to the threes, fours and fives (of which there were surprisingly several),

Here again, though, there is a small (if somewhat inadequate) explanation. Growing up in Poland, you realize fairly quickly that few people outside your country will understand what you’re saying. But wait, by learning French only France and parts of Belgium will begin to understand you, so why not pick up English as well? If every Kansan needed to know a different language to speak to Missourians and another for Nebraskans, I bet we’d all be at least trilingual.

I’m not saying that this should excuse us, though. Globalization is fast a-comin’, and learning another language can only make you more valuable (especially if it’s one like Chinese or Arabic).

Hope all of you are having a lovely autumn. Stay tuned for more adventures.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 19, 2009 11:03 am

    You’re totally right. Living abroad teaches us more about our own country than anything else, and I think that’s a good thing!
    But I do have to add my two cents about your comment that French is only useful in France and parts of Belgium. Our French Canadian neighbors to the north are not switching over to English anytime soon. Switzerland is also a French-speaking country (in addition to Swiss German), and many African and Caribbean countries (former French colonies) use French as their main language. When I was in Italy I found more people who spoke French than English (but that could be the Venitian exception); same in Budapest in 1996 (may be different today). Don’t give up on the French language just yet! 😉

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