To say that Jeanne is the template of a typical french denizen would be an understatement. At a first glance, Jeanne radiates enthusiasm for her culture, she rushed to the shores of the United States to share her knowledge for the language and culture she thrives in, but also to learn more about others. Attending Jeanne D’Arc high school in France, Jeanne’s upbringing defined her strong interest in languages, learning German, English in her compulsory language classes, as well as opting for Spanish as an elective class. Her interest in languages intensified every year, “I’ve always loved languages,” she asserts with a tinge of pride.
After high school, Jeanne carried her new found affinity for languages into her college life, attending Blaise Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand. Her eventual goal of becoming a French Elementary school English teacher was soon to become a reality, she had already spent her first year studying English and German away. That is, until she spotted a brochure, she almost didn’t know it, but to Jeanne it seemed like an epiphany. Her quaint French life would soon be tucked into a suitcase before she would set on a journey to teach French in Eugene, Oregon as a Teaching Assistant at Roosevelt Middle School.
Jeanne recalls her first experience in Eugene, “Everything was so spread out, like the town was so spread out, and there was no historical city center, the streets were wide,” are some of Jeanne’s first impressions of the American suburbia she was greeted with. But differences didn’t end there, Jeanne was amused by the casual way her host family hosted dinners, “In France, I eat with my whole family, here I eat when I’m hungry,” Jeanne isn’t wrong in deciphering the differences of table culture in America and France. In France, more emphasis is placed on etiquette, spending time with family, and intimate conversation at the dinner table, while generally, Americans prefer a more casual approach regulated by their insatiable hunger meter. Jeanne noticed Eugene’s small-town friendliness too, “People here are really nice and always smile,” taking a pause, then continuing “but they don’t always say what they really want.” Call it being genuine, nice, friendly or not, Jeanne has a point, French culture is much closer to 70s American culture, known as “speak it how you mean it.” While American culture places more emphasis on acceptance, it can often spark a feeling of ingenuity from a foreigner.
Starting to see American culture through a new lens, I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous when Jeanne announced, “We have a two-month summer break, and three two-week holidays during the school year.” My mouth widened beyond accepted levels. She commented, in a typical French demeanor, “I’m super tired, I didn’t get my two week break in February.” Seeing my wrenching envy, Jeanne reminded me that things aren’t always idyllic on the other side, “But the days at school are longer and we have more periods to sit through.” Indeed, French students often have to stay in the classroom until 6pm, but enjoy a two hour lunch break – plenty of time to relish every tasty drip of French cuisine.
But despite these differences, Jeanne has found a liking to the Pacific Northwest, “I think I’d like to stay here for awhile, I might want to go to the University of Oregon in a couple of years.” I nod in surprise, envisioning an out-of-state future in college myself.
After some more conversation, I waved goodbye, and called “Au revoir” through a thick American accent. Learning more about Jeanne’s French life, culture, and experiences in America lead me to my own philosophical musing; my conversational mood evolved into a reflective one. Cultural differences usually garner more attention than similarities do, but my conversation with Jeanne reminded me of something more important: whatever culture we’re a proponent of, or end up being born into, nothing can replace our human underpinnings. It is the genuine human interaction that transcends the seemingly superficial barriers of culture and reminds us that as long as we’re human, we’ll have something to talk about, worry about, complain about, and laugh about.