- De La Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America) – Alexis de Tocqueville: You might be thinking, Damn, Paige. I am just studying abroad for a semester. I only need to say “Bonjour! Où est la bière?” No, you are living in another culture and no matter why you are there or what you want, these books are the way you are going to get to the bottom of the cultural differences you encounter. I know it’s 2017 and there are a million listicles about how to survive in your host family or whatever, but go below the surface and you will grow from having read these. So what is it? Tocqueville was a young guy who came to the newly formed United States and said he was going to studying the prison system. Instead, he made numerous observations about American society that is still relevant today. Before I speak on cultural differences on the podcast, I always consult his book to see what he thought about the topic. The relevancy to Franco-American relations today is brilliant. It is truly a timeless text that everyone interested in anything Franco-American should read. I have his portrait in my house. He’s really important to me.
- Des Cannibales – Michel de Montaigne: Now this is just an essay. It’s in English or in old French. It is one of the first texts about Franco-American cultural differences. Now, keep in mind this is long before the US was a thing and so it’s about interactions with the native people who were cannibals and was in the Americas somewhere in general. So why read it? Montaigne takes a refreshing and important perspective on the comments from his peers about their observations of the new world that were fueled by superiority. His peers describe the cannibals as savage animals and he responds by saying, “Well, aren’t they more pure? Aren’t they closer to God? You are mad that they eat their enemies? We eat our God every Sunday at Mass. (Not a direct quote.)” This essay is all about recognizing the cultural lens we see the world through, being able to take it off and turn it onto ourselves. It’s an extremely important tool for truly understanding another culture and not only French culture.
- A Year in the Merde – Stephen Clarke: This is much lighter and from a Brit. It’s laugh out loud funny and well known amongst French people and English-speakers. I’ve read all of his books and find them amusing. When you are experiencing France for the first time, it’s fun to have Mr. Clarke along as a funny companion. After all, it is inevitable that you will have some laughable encounters in this country. It’s part of the allure.
- Almost French – Sarah Turnbull: I’ve read pretty much all of the books about Franco-American cultural interactions that I know of. This one I read when I was quite new to French culture, but it stands out as one that was enlightening and the author seemed sincere.
- A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway: This list is not in any real order. In a list that was in order, this one would be close to the top. Anyway, this book does a lot of things. It provides a context and understanding to the Lost Generation and gives you great cultural references. It is a love letter to Paris and great piece of literature. With Hemingway’s simple and profound prose you are lost and thankful someone has already said what you want to say about Paris.
Quite a plethora of levels! But I don’t mind being deep and shallow and the same time. I truly think that all of these books will give you tools and charm to navigate a new world. Best of luck to you on your travels.
Bonus: Here are some books in my collection of Franco-American Cultural Differences.