The main difference between France and America can be summed up with one tiny example, no bigger than the top part of your thumb. So small and yet so significant: the seedless grape. You can find seedless grapes in France, but they are not the norm. In fact, most supermarkets don’t even carry them. But in the US you are hard pressed to find grapes with seeds.
Why? My two cents worth: in France they like for things to be difficult. The harder the better. Passing your high school exam in France is a rite of passage because it involves about a week’s worth of tests, including oral ones. Learning to drive is nothing short of an ordeal, with a tricky written test called “le code” and a 35 minute driving test that potentially involves parallel parking. Not to mention that getting an exam date can take months!
It sometimes seems that life in France is a series of hurdles and tests to be passed at nearly every turn. Maybe people like to suffer or at least whine about it afterwards. Don’t even get me started on anything involving the government administration. I spent my time in the civil servant equivalent of hell each time I had to get my foreign visa renewed before I actually got married here.
Meanwhile, back in the US of A, we seem to pride ourselves on the exact opposite. Convenience is our motto. That’s why we invented convenience stores. And Lunchables and pharmacies that are actually open on Sundays. And drive-through doughnut shops! And, oh, yeah, we sell seedless grapes! Because why would you want to spend all that time spitting out seeds (or like some French people do, actually swallowing them), when you can just enjoy the sweetness more simply. For Americans, this just seems to be a given. And it makes feeding kids a heck of a lot simpler.
To be honest, I will admit the taste of the grapes here is different, heartier, richer. Perhaps the breeding to get seedless grapes has indeed made the flavor more standardized in the US. But as I said, it really does epitomize for me how radically different these two cultures can be. The French system isn’t all bad. The idea of slow food (actually an Italian concept) vs. fast food and taking your time to enjoy and savor is a worthy one. But sometimes I wish the French would lighten up a bit. Life doesn’t have to be so hard and tortured. Strangely enough there is a French expression about having a problem, in which the word for a pit or seed is used to signify a problem: on a eu un pépin. Literally, we had a seed.
Maybe it’s all part of a “toughen up” approach the French favor. Suffering to build character? When Juliette got her booster shot last month, I expected the doctor to pull out stuffed animals and reward her with a cute band-aid. Instead he told her to wrap her arms in a certain way and that I was to hold her still. He instructed her not to look but she did anyway, and he said neutrally but firmly, well, too bad for you. There she was looking so fragile with her blonde curls over her bare shoulders, and suddenly big fat tears were dropping down her red cheeks. The doctor, who is actually a really nice man, said she cried because she had looked. Then he put a bit of cotton and a non-descript piece of medical tape on the spot. And that was that.
I guess I like a bit more sugar-coating in my seedless life. I expect sympathetic smiles and reassuring words from health care workers and waiters who are happy to see me in their seating zone. I’m American like that. And no matter how long I live in this seedful country, I will always be a little surprised and very nostalgic for my more convenient and comfortable homeland.