Going, Coming, and In-Between: Perspectives on French Culture

By: Katie Petersen

Princeton Dean Rebecca Graves-Bayazitoglu’s journey to France was a long time coming. Her grandparents had moved from the Quebec area to Maine long before she was born to work in paper mills, and had brought their French with them. They would speak their difficult-to-understand dialect of French whenever they wanted to have a conversation their granddaughter wasn’t privy to, Graves says. Additionally, an uncle who was an important mentor for her was a French professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcestor, Massachusetts.

By the time she had the opportunity to fly to France for schooling, she was so excited that she could not be deterred by a friend’s concern over the possibility of the plane crashing. “At least I’ll die going where I want to be,” she exclaimed, and took off.

From his home city of Lille, France, Princeton Professor Florent Masse had fallen in love with America and New York City through cinema and other cultural snapshots from across the Atlantic. He still remembers his first English class when he got to the French equivalent of middle school. “I had been waiting for this,” he says, relating how learning English opened a new world to him. Because of his knowledge of the language, he was able to spend several summers in America with host families, learning English and practicing theatre. He now heads a program of his founding combining French linguistic and theatrical skills at Princeton.

Berengere Sim, a research assistant for journalist and author Elaine Sciolino, is Franco-Scottish but grew up all over the world. She attended school outside of the traditional schooling system and as a result, knows both French and English perfectly and can speak multiple other languages as well. Because of her unique education and background, however, she is the “black sheep” of her friends in France.

The three shared their perspectives on French culture, especially as compared to American, with a group of students visiting Paris.

Everyone defines themselves by their work in the U.S., and my experience in Paris was while that was really important, it wasn’t the case,” Graves said. Instead, it’s “important to cultivate a passion.”

On divisions in social circles, Masse shared that “there’s class in the U.S. as well, but it’s diluted.”

There’s a difference in social expectations of dress as well. “You’d never put your sneakers on and teach a class; we’re more conservative in that way,” Masse explained, but in the U.S., its all about comfort: you can go to class in your slippers.

Ultimately, “difference is sort of punished and looked down upon instead of celebrated,” Sim said. “I don’t really know if I’ll ever be French enough for France.”

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