In the streets of Paris, you can buy a beret in any color of the rainbow. Of course, these iconic hats are sold at touristy sidewalk stands rather than high fashion shops, which is probably because they are the foreigner’s fantasy of what the French wear, not what the French actually wear. In reality, berets aren’t any more popular among the French of today than they would be in the United States. Nevertheless, they catch the interest of eager tourists because these tourists have come looking for just such clichés.
Think about it: Croissant. Beret. Eiffel Tower. Wine. Authentic or not, these images are the quickest way for our imaginations to evoke iconic Paris (or even the entirety of France, since the country and its capital city are so often confounded in our foreign consciousness). And street vendors catering to foreign tourists, rather than offering something authentic, will simply give their customers the experience they’ve been expecting — because that’s the experience that they really want. Have you ever heard the term “tourist trap”?
My own time as a tourist in France this past week has caused me to wonder: how much has France measured up to my expectations? But more importantly: how much has my perception of the country been influenced by these expectations?
My parents came to meet me in Nantes at the end of my program and they stayed with my host family for a few nights. After the three of us had moved on from Nantes to continue a tour of the north of the country, we were free to discuss my parents’ first impressions.
“Your host family must be pretty atypical for France,” my mom said one evening. “I mean, did you see the way your host mother dressed? That wasn’t all that fashionable.”
“I don’t know, I don’t think the French are really that concerned with fashion,” I countered, eager to extinguish her misconceptions.
“Maybe not in smaller cities like Nantes,” my mother replied, “but I’m sure it’s different in Paris.”
The truth of the matter is that, after living among the French for four months, I honestly couldn’t tell you how they feel about fashion. My mother, arriving in the country with her preconceived image, was unwilling to accept the evidence before her eyes: the French that didn’t live up to her expectations were conveniently labeled “atypical,” and she retained her stereotypical image. I, on the other hand, felt that I should refute all stereotypes, since living among the French must surely have opened my eyes to how much they don’t adhere to our small-minded generalizations. I was quick to say my mother’s conclusion was inaccurate simply because refuting stereotypes seems to be the responsibility of an “enlightened” study abroad student. In reality, we were probably neither — or both — correct, but we’re a little too entrenched in our own perspectives to really see the matter clearly.
I have this sense that, as a study abroad student, I’m supposed to come back as some kind of French culture authority, an ambassador prepared to correct misconceptions and replace them with generalizations of my own. “Actually, most French have never eaten frogs’ legs” but “they really love their strikes!” I think, however, that this is too big of a responsibility. My view is not objective, and my scope is quickly contracted. My host family was only one family out of an entire population. Nantes was only one city out of an entire country. My semester was only one season out of an entire year.
Don’t mistake me, though. I’ve learned plenty through my experiences here. I’ve made friends, eaten crêpes, figured out the tramway and functioned in a francophone household. The results of the semester, however, are not necessarily what I expected. I’m no expert on the country, and my language skills, while improved, still don’t allow me to understand every French conversation I hear. Perhaps that, after all, is the real preconception for me to correct. A study abroad student doesn’t come home knowing “everything;” she comes home with a greater awareness of all there is yet to learn.