One of my first days in France, I was given a firm but kind lesson in French culinary custom while at a café for lunch: you are not to order coffee before or during your lunch. In fact, if I wanted to take coffee at all, I would have to order it after my meal. The owner and waitress of the café laughed heartily when we were confused but explained that it is simply not done otherwise.
This would serve as the basis for what I would quickly learn as the most complicated culture in France: food and health customs. For Americans, we are permitted to take our coffee to-go and only order coffee at a restaurant. As for foods and practices bad for our health, such as smoking and fast food, our approach is again, much different.
For starters, walking and eating is a quick way to tell if someone is not French. Taking your coffee to go is only done from the vending machines outside of classrooms and at two cafés in all of Montpellier. This rushed approach is not tolerated for cultural and health reasons. Additionally, not ordering while joining your friends for coffee or lunch is not tolerated.
In Bozeman, where coffee shops are found on every street corner, there is a type of liberty I did not expect to lose when coming to Europe. At these cozy spots where one can order a caffeinated drink for less than five dollars, students are allowed to stay for as long as they choose, meeting friends who do not order, studying in large groups until close. No one is forced to have lunch first. However, in France, you will be shot nervous looks if more than four people attempt to have coffee together and if one person chooses not to order, they could be asked to leave. These unspoken rules have been one of the hardest customs to learn.
On the other hand, the culture of smoking in France is completely opposite of what is currently happening in the States. With smoking bans on campuses, restaurants and beaches, our culture is one that is moving away from this extremely unhealthy habit. In France, this is one area where the stereotypes are true. Students smoke constantly on campus, and professors have no qualms with stopping class for a 15-minute smoke break. As a non-smoker who has struggled in the past with cigarettes, France has truly tested my mettle. Smoking is acceptable anywhere and at any time. It is the main way men start conversations with women, the biggest social ritual. If you choose to not be a part of sharing a cigarette, loaning someone your lighter, or stealing away with those who choose to smoke, then it is difficult to feel included.
However, the underlying culture of cigarettes is different than in Montana. In France, they are labeled in every negative way possible, with “risk of death” very clearly marked next to skulls. In the States, the fight over cigarette labeling continues despite the very well accepted fact that smoking is one of the most unhealthy habits.
Again, in France, there is a parallel of this blunt labeling with fast food. McDonald’s, one of the only fast food chains in Montpellier, currently has ads plastered throughout the city. On the bottom, a public health message reads, “Eating foods that are too sugary, salty, or fatty, are bad for one’s health and should be avoided.” This expresses a widespread French attitude of avoiding euphemism. It forces me to ask why we, as Americans, are so afraid of calling something that is bad for us out in a truthful way? If you want to eat McDonald’s, then shouldn’t we accept exactly what we are eating?
However, sometimes this blunt approach can be hurtful. For example, at an immigration health consultation, a student who was above the average weight was given eight brochures on health, exercise and diet. When this student went to the doctor’s office with a friend, the doctor lectured her for nearly ten minutes on how “Americans think they can just eat whatever they want, whenever they want,” and advised her to only eat when she had “stomach cramps.” Again, while at a tram stop, this student was accosted by a man who told her she should take up smoking to become thin. My friend was hurt, and I was offended by these rude expressions against my friend’s size.
While these are nearly intolerable examples of when one blunt idea of health is taken too far, sometimes it can be revealing to compare them to cases where we are unhealthily dishonest. In a seemingly paradoxical custom, food choices are not free here, but doing things that are bad for health are up to the individual. These concerns are one of the hardest for an international student to comprehend, especially when compared to home.