Skip to main content

What makes the French French and the Germans German

In this post, I’d like to attempt a humble comparison between what I know about French culture and what I observed on a summer trip to Germany this summer (Munich in particular).

grounds of the Schloss Nymphenburg
Some of the highlights of our trip were a tour of the Munich city center, a visit to the Neuschwanstein castle and surrounding area, and a visit to the Dachau concentration camp. We also ate a lot of great food, and of course, drank a lot of beer. Although I realize we really ate at quite a few tourist spots, the food was always hearty and filling. We also had a Bavarian breakfast one morning, including sausage, pretzels and beer. For me, the simple goodness and heartiness of the food felt like the mentality around us, people were open, direct and generally friendly. In France, food is such a complex affair, still regulated by traditions that date back to Louis XIV. That’s one of the things I love about France, but I think it also reflects the mentality of the French in general: life is complex, should be based on tradition, and requires thinking.

Whenever people ask me about French culture in general, I’ve come to the following conclusion: based on just a little travelling in surrounding European countries, I find that France is in an interesting position between what I would consider both ‘Latin’ culture and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture. Germany, however, felt ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to me. When I speak about an Anglo-Saxon influence or culture, I simply mean that there were certain social behaviors that you could observe, that you don’t see in France. For instance, the subway worked on the ‘honor’ system, meaning there was no barrier to keep you from entering the subway or getting into a subway car. If you got caught, however, without a validated ticket, you paid a hefty fine. That kind of system wouldn’t work in France because people would take advantage of it. Here there are barriers to get into the subway (like in the US), and it’s common to see people jump over them, or try to follow closely behind you to get into the subway. 

I also noticed that people (strangers) seemed to smile more in Germany than in France. I can’t really speak to the reason why they smiled more, but if it’s anything like American culture, it seems like people smiled out of friendliness or when they were enthusiastic about explaining something. Here in France, one of the first things I was told was to not smile at strangers, especially at men (or else they’ll think you’re trying to hit on them). People who smile too much look foolish in France.
view on the hike up to the Schloss Neuschwanstein
Germany was very organized and strict about recycling, and recycling centers were very well divided into different materials. France definitely promotes recycling, but there is usually only a division between glass and all other materials. And most public spaces in cities have just a normal garbage can and not necessarily recycling.

One other anecdote in particular: there was a night we were waiting for a late tram. We saw a couple of girls riding a bike, and then get off the bike and chain it hastily to a lamppost. If this were to happen in France, there would be a strong likelyhood that the bike would be stolen. Our German informant (A., who’s been living in Germany for a while) told us that the bike would definitely be there the next morning, and very likely even a couple weeks after that.

The Augustiner brewery, in Munich
So what’s the point of all of this comparison? As an American, it’s really interesting to have a certain insight to a culture like France, and be able to travel and witness other cultures in Europe. It’s fascinating to see such diversity in such a small amount of space. I think there’s often a general feeling in the US that Europe is somewhat cohesive in a way: it’s a big landmass that, although it has different countries, all have rich and long histories, share a common monetary unit, and are currently trying to work together in the face of an economic crisis. It’s easy to forget how individual they all are, in their mentalities and cultures. This is what struck me about Germany. Just as I learn more and more about France and its subtleties in daily life, I realize that there is just as much to learn in all other countries in Europe. So I guess my trip to Germany showed me how little I actually know about Germany, it’s culture, daily life and overall mentality.  

The nice thing about traveling to other European countries is also feeling 'at home' when I come back to France. Even though I spend a lot of my time dealing with my foreign status, it's nice to come back to a culture and way of life that I recognize and appreciate.


  1. I learned the same thing when I went from living in France to living in Spain...time spent in France does not make one a European expert! Each country has its own quirks and charms.

  2. 'Quirks' and 'charms' are really appropriate words for this, too. Some differences are easy to adopt (i.e. more vacation time, long lunch breaks) while other 'quirks' can be really frustrating.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Autumn Blues (English version)

Why the French Don't Get Fat

If you were intrigued by this title and are looking for the answer to this question, I'm sorry to disappoint. There is no magical French anti-fat gene. The French do, in fact, "get fat". I chose this title because it's a common stereotype we hear of the French, things like "they eat all that cheese and fatty food, and yet have lower levels of cardiovascular disease". People tend to attribute this to drinking wine, or the Mediterranean diet based on olive oil.
Let's look at the facts. An OECD study published in 2014 showed that France has a rising rate of obesity, whereas countries like the US have levelled off.[1]But other statistics show clearly that the US is still far ahead of France in terms of the obesity rate. Depending on your source, the US has approximately twice the percentage of obese adults as in France (anywhere from 24-26 % for the US, and 12-18% for France)[2]. So yes, the French do get fat, but seemingly not as fat as Americans. Even with…

The Aftermath of the American Election

I'll admit, I wanted to post sooner but I have been avoiding the elephant in the room: politics and the American election.
We talked a lot about the election in my lessons with my students, starting with the primaries last winter. We looked at the general election procedure, talked about the big issues, studied the electoral college, watched debate excerpts etc. There is no doubt that this election was particularly rich for discussion. And it also caused great disappointment.
I was surprised actually after the election how much solidarity French people expressed with Americans and the election results. And I quickly realized that their solidarity wasn't just because they were sympathetic. It was because they were scared the same thing is going to happen in France...and it could.
The win of Donald Trump reflects back their own fears about the rise of the French right-wing populist and nationalist party, a party that has been gaining in momentum and popularity since the last elect…