It’s now been nearly a week since I’ve returned from France, and while I’ve finally recovered from the jet lag, I still can’t get over how much I’ve learned in such a short time. Of course, I knew that taking classes in French politics in the midst of Paris would be a fascinating experience, but unexpectedly enough, it was the cultural knowledge of what being “French” meant that I found to be the most important thing I learned through this experience.
When we first arrived in Tours, I found myself wishing that I could spend all six weeks in Paris, the heart and shining jewel of France. Like many others, I associated Paris with France, and France with Paris. They were one and the same in my eyes, but through conversations with both people in Tours and Paris, I quickly realized that, by thinking this way, I was leaving out a significant chunk of what being French is.
In the US, there may be a slight difference between lifestyles in large, busy cities and those in smaller towns and more rural areas, but that difference, I found, was extremely pronounced in France. In French, there’s a term called “Province”, which is used to refer to all the parts of France that isn’t Paris. When my host family told me about the term, it struck me as quite odd, since I knew that many of France’s other cities, like Strasbourg or Bordeaux, were equally vibrant compared to Paris. I quickly found out that there was a difference, however slight. My host parents had trouble describing exactly what the difference was, but there most definitely was a difference in the way people work and the speed at which life happens.
The way they described Paris made me think of Primate cities in South America, where one city is extremely developed and Westernized at the expense of other cities. However, technologically and economically, the difference is far less pronounced in France. Although significant inequalities still remain between Paris and other French cities, the difference appears to be more cultural than anything. I found this to be very interesting, since in the US, there really isn’t one city that is clearly dominant, unlike France. Even within regions, there are several dominant cities (New York, Boston, and DC on the East Coast, for example). Having spent time in both Tours, which is considered to be in the countryside, and Paris, the shining jewel of France, I could definitely tell the difference between them, and this subtle, but important difference, gave me more insight into what it means to be French than anything else.
When people think of France, most people associate France strictly with Paris, and perhaps with a couple other regions, and their identity is reflected as much in the use of “Province”. However, that usage doesn’t account for the important cultural identities of those who don’t live in Paris, and having now returned from France, I’m very grateful that I was able to spend two weeks in Tours to better understand what it’s like, outside the City of Light. Without those two weeks, I feel like I would have had a much more distorted idea of what France is, in context of the entire country, and not just Paris.