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Going Home: 7 Lessons on life in France for an American Scholar

As my time in France as a Fulbright scholar ends, I have given some thought to what a wonderful experience it has been; what I have learned, what my children have experienced, what observations I have gathered from my time abroad. I was in France during a particularly eventful period and witnessed the Arab spring, the killing of bin Laden, the “DSK” affaire, the Greek debt crisis, the American debt crisis, the Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster, and war in Libya from abroad. I increased my knowledge of the French constitutional and political system and gained new perspective on the U.S. Constitution and political system. I made many new friends and colleagues, and was deeply grateful for the time, energy and enthusiasm they had for me and my work. I finished one book and started another; survived my daughter’s riding accident (yes, the French health care system IS better than the system in the US); reconnected with old friends and colleagues; and came away with many new ideas, colleagues and friends.

For the benefit of those who might follow me, here are some of the 7 “lessons learned” I took away from this experience. (Note: some are serious, others less so).
1. America and France have more in common than they sometimes realize. The “DSK affair” led to a great deal of comparisons (mostly negative) by the French of the American criminal justice system with their own. But what the discussion overlooked was that in both systems, the accused are presumed innocent, victims receive certain protections, and it is a lawyer’s job to aggressively promote the interest of his or her client. Tocqueville and Laboulaye loved America even though they saw her faults; both countries share a deep rights-based tradition, a profound commitment to democracy and faith in the rule of law.
2. Most “rules” about manners, ways of doing things and culture are just habits. But you need to learn them. It is perhaps irritating to think that folks will believe you are a boorish, uneducated savage if you don’t cut your melon with a knife and fork, and avoid grabbing the wine bottle off the table (if you are a woman) to douse your own glass. But, hélas, manners – while often completely arbitrary – matter. (This was something my kids didn’t like to hear). When in Rome, as they say, or in Paris, do as they do and everyone will at least not be so distracted by your doing things “wrong” that they may actually listen to what you say. Following the local customs anywhere helps enormously.

3. Don’t stress out if you make a mistake on Lesson number 2, and make a faux pas – everyone does, even the French! The hardest one for English speakers is when to use “tu” and when to use “vous”. The “rule” you learn in school is to just copy the French person to whom you are speaking – if they use “vous” so do you. The only problem with that as you get older, is that you become (in their system) the one that has to blink first in terms of the whole vous/tu thing. So, while those accustomed to dealing with Americans will immediately propose “tu” (knowing that you would never dare), bringing a smile of relief to everyone, sometimes they won’t and you are stuck in a conversation with 3 “tu” members, 2 “vous” members (and a couple of people you don’t know what to call – M. le Président/juge, etc. might work, or silence might be golden). Just make bold mistakes if you do, and keep smiling. After all, you are an American!
4. “Bureaucracy” is a French word. It’s not as if we don’t have red tape or civil servants in the United States, but in France, the notion of bureaucracy and paperwork is taken to a whole new level, and combating it is an extreme sport. After extraordinary efforts to get a visa, I then had to make extraordinary efforts to get something called a “titre de sejour” which supposedly entitled me to lots of things, except that I didn’t get it until I was almost ready to leave the country, had a chest x-ray, my origins re-examined (they didn’t like my birth certificate it seems, but were perfectly happy with an (unverified) certificate from the U.S. embassy that I was who I said I was). The only advice I have is that getting through the French paper mill is NOT for the faint of heart, and may cause you, once again to violate Lesson No. 2 about manners.
5. Eating inside at most cafés and restaurants will get you a smoke-free meal. You know all those cute little sidewalk cafés you saw in Midnight in Paris? They are now the smoking section for all those eating establishments, so if you don’t want the delicate aroma of someone’s Gaulloise in your salade nicoise or croque monsieur, eat inside!
6. Smiling really is the universal language. You may have heard that the French are often grumpy (well, maybe unpleasant is a better description). But what you haven’t probably heard is that this external grumpiness covers the most tender-hearted individuals you can imagine. A smile can do wonders as can an immediate admission of inferiority (“I’m sorry, I am American . . . . ); and if you have small children as I did while living there, the most disdainful Parisienne will often smile winningly at your offspring even if they won’t give you the time of day.
7. Paris really is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and you are lucky to be there. Sometimes the stress of Parisian life masks  awareness of the extraordinary beauty around you. Bad day at the library? Eat amazing chocolate and visit the Rodin museum. RER commuter troubles getting you down? As you exit at the étoile, take in the view and pinch yourself – you really are an American in Paris. The art, the culture, the traditions, the history, the richness of France – all are there for you to take in and enjoy.

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