I often get accused of being a bit of a francophobe because I yearn for things american while living in Paris for so long (18 years!), but there are things that I do appreciate here. Recently, on the French edition of buzzfeed, there was an article about the 20 things that americans do better than the French, so I thought that I would offer a rejoinder and list the top 10 things that I think the French do better. Back in 2010, I wrote a series of 10 posts about France and the French here: Fino’s Guide to the French but I thought it necessary to debate this more recent list and beat down some of the more pernicious and utterly false myths about France that seem to be evident in the article. So here you go…
First here is the list from BuzzFeed for which they felt Americans were “better”:
- After school activities
- Stores open 24/7
- Stores open on Sunday
- Diversity in food choices
- Friendly service in restaurants
- License tags
- Pedestrian cross lights
- Cash back
- 4th of July
- Presidential Press Conferences
- Public Toilets
- College campuses
- Religious Tolerance
Now, some of these in the list were redundant (BBQ and Burgers are nearly the same criticism, who cares about pedestrian crossings, and magazines – they have not been to Relais H recently where there are 100s of excellent magazines in French…) but here is my French top 10 where I counter the list above and add a few more…
- Public services – in the US, everything seems to come with a cost and the quality is not necessarily constant. I have heard real nightmares about health care for example. Sure, here in Paris we have postage stamp sized courtyards in the schools, but there are better public programs for underprivileged kids to get out of the city during vacations, there is excellent public health, and even free emergency care. France has this bit hands down
- Market streets – Walmart has destroyed 90% of what was left of small-town America by stripping cities of their downtown shopping districts in favor of low-cost and asthetically handicapped one-stop shopping. Despite the occasionally inconvenient hours (and yet there are at least in Paris in some places stores open relatively late) and the fact that you actually have to walk, it is a pleasure to shop on streets like rue Cadet or rue des Martyrs in my neighborhood (or for that matter ANYWHERE in France) where you can get to know the local butcher (remember those?), the local fishmonger (yes, those really exist!), the local baker (no frozen baguettes please), etc. Not to mention the SEASONAL fruits that are often coming from local growers as opposed to Central American greenhouses.
- Vacation time – When I worked in the US almost twenty years ago, my paltry 2 weeks of vacation really depressed me. I thought to myself that I would never be able to go somewhere really far away or have more than just long weekends. OK, so lots of stores are closed here on Sundays but imagine all the places I can go when I have 5 weeks (standard) to 9 weeks (including company holidays, 35h work week days, seniority, etc) of vacation. That has enabled me to spend nearly a month in Greece, Brittany, New Zealand, Australia, and Sicily (for the last 5 years). And that is in addition to going home to Miami for two weeks every year, a ski weekend, and other long weekend trips. I cannot even begin to imagine not having this kind of flexibility and freedom. And please stop spreading the myth that the French are lazy. Despite the long vacations, most French people work the longest hours in all of Europe when they are not on vacation. You get funny looks from colleagues when you leave before 6pm whereas I have seen empty offices in the US at 4:30pm countless times…
- Food Quality – I mean come on, yes, there is a variety of food in the US that is amazing but much of it is pumped with sugar and fat (fried butter? really?). In France, if you look beyond your Fodor’s Guide, you will find that we have Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamian, German, Italian, African, Carribean, Indian, Mexican, and American food all over the place. Not to mention the dozens of local cooking styles. And the health authorities are actually empowered and vigilant about kitchen cleanliness despite popular belief. I have only eaten the equivalent of variety of food in China and the equivalent in quality of food in Italy.
- Pharmacian helpfulness – OK so maybe the pharmacies are not open 24/7 here (other than the Publicis on the Champs Elysee by the way!), but the people working there are tops. If you have a cold or an ache, they are extremely helpful in suggesting something that could help and are – after 18 years of experience – nearly always right. They also all stock a huge range of alternative medicine – herbal cures, aromatherapy, etc and so will also recommend less chemically-synthetic cures when they can.
- French Journalism – having had my fill of the info-mercials that pollute the american TV and magazines, I have always enjoyed the variety and quality of French journalism. From the leftist but extremely well-written and deep analytics in Le Monde Diplo to the hilarious political satire of Charlie Hebdo, French journalistic writing is still excellent. Yes, it has its own equivalent of Fox called the abysmal TF1, but there is still excellent TV journalism on France24 and a plethora of choices in written journalism.
- Racial tolerance – The US still struggles with racism and France does too, but you see far more inter-racial couples here openly enjoying a Sunday walk whereas in the US, I think many places would be off-limits. I recall the stares and menacing looks I got back at university when I drove home one weekend with my black girlfriend at the time. Perhaps it has evolved, but I suspect that the changes are superficial. That is not to say that the French aren’t racist (as the recent debate about the veil revealed) or homophobic (as the recent debate about gay marriage proved), but gay couples are not savagely beaten here either.
- French literary tradition – The US has had some incredible writers – Melville, Faulkner, DFW – but nothing like the incredible 19th c and early 20c in France. Writers like Balzac, Dumas, Stendhal, Hugo, and my favorite Proust reinvented literature and the novel and are a rare pleasure to read and enjoy. I found that novels like The Red Badge of Courage age poorly whereas Le Peau de Chagrin by Balzac is still relevant and fascinating. The sprawling wonders of The Mousquetaires trilogy (yes there were actually three books, not just the one) remain one of the most engaging reads I have ever enjoyed. I think that my favorite writers are these in addition to Dostoyevski and Faulkner. And the books are so readily available in compact format! There are several massive libraries of pocket sized books: Folio, Livres de Poche, and Pocket to name a few – that are sold everywhere. The bookstores here have a much greater variety of literature than what you find at Borders or Barnes&Noble (besides just there being such a huge amount of independent booksellers fighting the rising tide of online book selling by Amazon…)
- Comic books – The US invented the superhero comic genre, I’ll give you that, but there is a huge French (and to be fair Belgian) tradition in beautifully illustrated comic books here. Classics like Peter Pan and The Bird of Time by Loisel, the black and white austerity of Nestor Burma’s investigations by Tardi, and the hilarious hallucinatory comics of Trondheim..there is a staggering variety. Given that comics have made a huge comeback in the US, I have to applaud that trend, but here the French were actually ahead of you because these comics are available in every trainstation and bookstore in the country and not just in specialty shops.
- French architecture – let’s face it, other than a few exceptions (San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston), America is not all that attractive from an architectural point of view. Yes, France too has suffered from urbal sprawl, but the architecture of her cities – Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Grenoble, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence…is astounding. And as you venture out of the cities into the countryside, instead of strip malls and suburban cookie-cutter gated communities, you find friendly small towns (yes, people are generally more friendly outside of Paris than inside) with beautiful churches and gorgeous, old architectural remnants of which the population is generally protective and proud. While it is true that there are inconveniences to living here (pollution, traffic, population density, etc), Paris itself is arguably the most beautiful city in the world with her homogenous architecture, planned avenues, sculpted buildings and famous churches. Just ask the 80 million tourists why they visit Paris more than any other city in the world.
So there you go, my own Top 10 to counter the French anti-French top 20. What are your favorite things in France? Let your voice be heard in the comments!
And don’t miss my previous entries: Fino’s Guide to the French!