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OC HIGH: STUDENT NEWS AND VIEWS : A French Connection : Customs: Group finds attitudes toward Americans generally favorable and finds its admiration for the host nation growing as well.

October 07, 1994|LAURIE CARPER

So what's it like in France?

Besides wanting to learn the language, our group focused on French life--the social attitudes, business attitudes and attitudes toward Americans.

The French supposedly have a reputation for showing not-so-good manners toward Americans. Yet after interacting and people-watching for five weeks in various parts of France, the seven in our group encountered mostly polite gestures.

"I found the people to be a lot nicer than the stereotype about them being rude," Costa Mesa High School senior Susan Channels said.

Sunny Hills High School junior Jessica Johnson agreed. "If they see someone who looks lost, they help. I was never looked down upon as an American."

The 50th anniversary of D-Day enhanced the warm reception for Americans. Pride in our American heritage swelled when we saw flags and banners strung between buildings, across streets and in shop windows reading "Welcome to our liberators."

The French appeared to be very generous with charities. Many French citizens budget a set amount of money for monthly donations to a variety of causes. An advertisement in the metro station asked: "What will you tell your children when they ask what you did for Rwanda?" Listed below the question were social organizations-- les O.N.G (or Organizations Non Gouvernmentales)-- to contact.

In general, public awareness of contemporary issues seems to take a high priority. For example, while the issues of sex and AIDS are cautiously discussed in the United States, in France there are billboards openly advising protection and the use of preservatifs .

"I really noticed the AIDS posters," said Michelle French, a junior at Los Alamitos High School. "Here, things dealing with the body are much more censored. In France, art with nudity is seen as beautiful art; here it (can be) pornography. It's a different sense of propriety."

Not all health issues are addressed so strongly. Very few French adolescents view smoking as a risk. For Americans who are used to walking into restaurants that prohibit smoking, the contrast is startling. Oxygen becomes precious at a discotheque.

Drinking seems to be a smaller problem. The drinking age in France is 16, and drinking is considered part of the culture rather than a rite of passage. Great pride in food and wine teaches French teens to consume responsibly. As a group, we avoided alcohol at summer school meals and parties--and were seen as prudish.

Americans fascinated the staff and other students at the language school we attended. They wanted to know what we ate for breakfast at home and if we constantly went to concerts and movies.

Many of the students at the school spoke some English. We wanted to practice our French; they wanted to practice their English. As a result, an alternative "Franglais" was often spoken.

An American pastime that seems to be just catching on in French stores is browsing. The French expect customers entering a shop to buy a specific item. Browsing with no intent to buy is often looked upon with suspicion. Some stores give permission to browse by posting a sign, entree libre --free entry.

"Culturally, I was surprised by the non-browsing thing," said Katie Tucker, a junior at Sunny Hills. "I'm used to walking in and looking and then walking out. Instead, I was getting the 'evil eye.' "

We noticed a large divergence between the retail and food shops when it came to politeness. Clothing stores, especially, had curt employees. Specialty food shop owners had the most patience and courtesy--and probably not surprisingly for teens, we spent most of our francs on food.

In French restaurants and cafes, there is a "self-serve" flavor. Instead of waiting to be seated, customers find their own cafe table and wait for service. There is no rush when eating. In fact, the customer must ask for the l'addition --or bill--because it is considered rude for the waiter to bring it without being summoned.

Negotiating the French language at school and in town attuned our ears to French rhythms. As comprehension increased, so did our confidence. We participated in everyday activities and grew accustomed to them starting a l'heure --on time.

Our admiration of French customs grew as we better understood the society.

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