Bon Appétit and Cultural Differences

Since I’ve been in France, I’ve eaten a lot of meals outside. During one of my first days here, I was sitting on a bench downtown and eating lunch with a friend from my program. A man passed by us and said, “bon appétit!” I was confused. In the first weeks of our program, we had been repeatedly told that French people rarely greet strangers in public, and that it would be strange to do so. And yet, shortly after the first man passed by, another person passed us and said “bon appétit” again. This happened on multiple occasions. After talking to a few different people about it, I realized that this was not uncommon. Saying “bon appétit” to someone eating similar to, in America, saying “bless you,” when someone sneezes. Before COVID, the phenomenon of saying “bon appétit” on the street may not have happened as much (because people typically ate in cafés), but now it has become commonplace. I still feel a little startled whenever a stranger tells me, “bon appétit,” though!

In America, it feels like only thing closed on Sunday is Chick-Fil-A. (In fact, it’s such a rarity that someone actually wrote a song about it.) In France, almost everything is closed on Sunday. I learned that the hard way when, during my second week here, I planned to go to the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. I took the bus, and when I got there, the store was closed. Using my phone, I Googled the closest open grocery store only to find that they were almost all closed! I couldn’t believe it! Even the busses and metros run less frequently on Sunday. Many stores, and smaller shops especially, also close for an hour or two for a lunch break during weekday afternoons. Now, if I know that I need to go to a specific store, I’m sure to look at the hours before hand. I was also struck by the fact that my program gives us three full weeks of vacation time. During a normal spring semester in the US, I can only remember getting a week of spring break and a couple of long weekends. Here in France, there is a much greater emphasis placed on time off, whether that be for lunch, on Sundays, or for vacation periods. Even though it can be frustrating when places I want to go are closed, I appreciate this aspect of the French culture. It’s a welcome difference from the American “work ethic,” and I think that we, as Americans, could benefit from taking a page out of France’s book when it comes to time off from work and relaxation.

It snowed in Rennes last week, and this snowman from the Parc du Thabor perfectly embodies French stereotypes.

Finally, the French love strikes and protests. I knew about this before coming to France, so I wasn’t too surprised. However, I was a little taken aback by just how common these really are. Every weekend, I get an Alert Traveler notification about a protest or strike happening in France. One day, I actually walked by a protest happening in the street! Given the frequency of protests, it’s very common to see posters related to the subjects of the protests posted in public places. I always like to read these posters because I feel like they give a unique insight into current events. I read one recently regarding a protest trying to prevent the destruction of a natural park, and another one in favor of the French Communist Party.

These posters are advocating for the Community Party of France and criticizing the integration of capitalism with the pandemic. This was located near a busy bus stop.

Before coming to France, I kept hearing about culture shock. I almost expected to be shocked, in one way or another, but the culture. But to me surprise, I wasn’t— at all. Maybe I had just mentally prepared myself for differences, but overall, I felt that cultural differences were typically minor, and while sometimes surprising, they were far from shocking. French culture and American culture are similar in many ways, though there are certainly differences. Overall, it’s not the big things that surprise me, but rather smaller aspects of the culture of daily life. Whether that be the closing of stores for lunch, or people saying “bon appétit,” every day offers me a new chance to uncover little aspects of the culture. To me, experiencing these everyday cultural differences is a true learning experience, and whenever I encounter them, they make me reflect on how my own culture and ways of thinking differ from those of other people.

Eating a sandwich outdoors while overlooking the Seine (a perfect opportunity for a stranger to tell me bon appétit).