Believe it or not, not all French people live in country chateaus or tiny (but charming!) garrets in Paris. Just like in the US, a large portion of the population lives in the suburbs.
During my stay, I’m living in a suburb of Toulouse called Tournefeuille. If you are like I was and are curious about what French suburbs look like, search no further.
My street looks like all the others in the area: most houses are one story with a large wall/fence in front. Cars usually park on the sidewalk as driveways are very small.
In my neighborhood in the US, Vlad always commented on the paradox of Americans having perfectly manicured lawns, and yet keeping their shutters and curtains closed. (“Why do you spend so much time on your yard if you can’t even see it?”) I had never noticed this before, but day after day in my neighborhood his observation proved to be true. Being the philosopher that he is, we expounded upon this observation and decided that this paradox belies an interesting American characteristic. On the surface, from the outside, Americans like to look as perfect and welcoming as possible. And yet, the windows to their house, and therefore to their lives, are closed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there was some truth in our little musing.
At my university in the US, I live in the exchange student residence hall (how I met Vlad) and spend a lot of time with foreign students at the Language Institute. All my non-American friends say the same thing: Americans are very friendly, yet hard to befriend. A Malaysian friend put it this way: “A stranger in the US will ask you how you are doing, whereas in Malaysia they won’t, but they don’t actually want to know how you’re doing. That took me some time to get used to; in the beginning people would ask how I was, so I told them. Then I began to realize people don’t really care, they just expect me to say ‘Fine, and you?” An Italian student lamented “All my friends here are foreign. It’s hard to befriend the American students; they already have their own friends. When they learn I’m an exchange student they don’t want to make the effort since they know I’m leaving soon.”
So what could houses in the French suburbs say about France?
That’s right: there’s a big wall up. Some people who come to France say that the French can be cold and unwelcoming. But in France it’s just not culturally expected to interact with strangers. My friends think Vlad is so shy and timid, but really he just doesn’t know how to make “small talk” – that’s not done in France. If you have a conversation with a French person, it will be meaningful, an exchange of ideas, a way to truly get to know the other person. Anything less is seen as unnecessary. “Chit-chat” is just a waste of words. But once the effort is made to form a true relationship, the metaphorical “opening the gate” if you will, you are welcomed into their life – open windows and all.
So that’s my suburbs theory: Americans seem very friendly and open, but there’s still a barrier to cross to form a friendship. That barrier can be surprising due to the initial appearance of welcome. The French aren’t open to the whole world, but once a relationship is formed, you are let into their lives.
Do you think there could be a connection between houses and cultural characteristics? Do you have similar impressions of the Americans or the French? Which way of life do you prefer? I personally like the American friendliness, but at the same time I’m not naturally inclined to small talk either; I prefer silence or a meaningful conversation. As with everything, I think the answer lies somewhere in between. What do you think?