First impressions last a lifetime, or so they say, but should first impressions outweigh one’s collective experience? On a recent trip to France, Stephanie and Stephen found themselves at odds with some preconceived notions of French culture. Would the people be kind to them? Would they feel unwelcome? Or worse, would they be denied their fair share of French crêpes?
The French way of living was nothing like they thought it would be. And, like the bites of their first French éclairs (and they had plenty of delicious pastries!), they were surprised by the structure and warmth of the French way of life. While the laissez-faire way may feel aloof to some (they French are very hands-off in others’ decision-making), they are warm and inviting in both lifestyle and personal connections. Stephanie and Stephen’s photographs from their time in the Loire Valley, Brittany, and Paris reflect their appreciation for the beautiful French culture and way of life.
From Stephanie: “What was most influential in how we took photos was our understanding of the culture. We initially thought France would be beautiful, but we would really love Italy. France was a lot different than we thought it would be, but in such a beautiful way. We had a lot of presuppositions of French culture and people, assuming they'd be standoffish or snobby, but we found that wasn't true at all. They were very helpful. The French have a cool, aloof initial contact, but the governmental structure of laissez-faire was evident in their daily actions. We found that in speaking with the locals, we’d be given all of our options for a specific choice, and then we’d be left to our own decision-making.” Whereas Americans value opinions, suggestions, and being told what to do, the French value the exact opposite! The misunderstanding of cultural norms leads us to think about other cultures in jaded light, when in reality, we just value different things.
Stephanie and Stephen’s first overnight stay in Amboise found them in a 14th-century farmhouse. Their host was friendly, but generally kept to himself. While seemingly standoffish, they were pleasantly surprised to find that the next morning, the host had gone to the bakery and provided the couple with fresh eggs from his farm and sweets from a local bakery, including an éclair (a nod to a conversation they had earlier about how amazing éclairs are!) - a gesture of sincere hospitality and kindness.
Throughout their trip, they found that everything in France was orderly, but organic. In shops, customers are greeted with a sing-song “bonjour!” and warm smile, almost as a request for the same enthusiasm and warmth, a show of mutual respect. While language would typically be a barrier, with a little effort (and some humor), a replied sing-song “bonjour!” made all the difference.
To make the most of your experiences, whether local or across the globe, it is important to both learn about the culture before you go and to not have any concrete preconceived notions about what the experience will be like. Research the natural cultural customs of the area, like how locals greet one another and what they wear. Stephanie and Mark followed Condé Nast Traveler, watched countless Rick Steves documentaries, and used Duolingo to practice their French. Learn about cultural norms so that you don’t experience something in a culture you don’t understand.
Stephanie’s advice? “Give yourself time to sit and soak in the culture. When you get there, spend some time to watch people and notice intricate details. Keep a journal so you remember the big and small things. And from there, dig in and enjoy everything, because it's just so beautiful!”
Things aren't quite what they seem when you first experience a new country. Give yourself time to see beyond your initial experience, as that will not be the sum of your whole experience. There is so much more to be found and enjoyed than what meets the eye.