I spent more than one month in France during this summer and believe it or not, my biggest cultural shock was the way people eat. Cultural shock does not necessarily mean a bad thing (in this category I could put the fact that they cross the road everywhere and the relationship with the police, but after living in Morocco, it doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore). Cultural shock can be anything you notice is different from your culture, and it makes you realize many things about yours, even things that you weren’t even thinking about before. For example, the way people eat. I realized so many tiny differences. And talking again about collective mental programming in childhood, we can see the differences in how parents educate their children, which reflects in the eating habits (and the way to cross the road – I remembered that for example in Romania we have little poems and drawings about crossing only on green light, while in France they teach their children to look on both sides before crossing).
I had the pleasure to live with French people and to dine in several families. So to start with, an interesting thing I remembered: cliché or not, there is always wine on the French table. In Romania, wine does not make part of the everyday dinner (or even lunch). Also, I was surprised to see that the French cuisine is actually not as complex as I thought. The meals are simple, and it takes less time to cook than in a Romanian household. I am talking again about a regular meal in a family, because of course there are many complex French dishes, and every family is different. In Romania cooking is kind of a ritual: there are certain ways to make specific dishes, food is a lot more complex, spicy, sometimes greasy, and it is actually cooked food. The French meal is more simple, random and in pieces, while a meal in the Romanian family consists as a whole. And they eat a lot more processed food. We can barely cook together with my boyfriend because he can cook a meal by putting random things that he finds in the kitchen altogether, or mix pasta with cooked food, while I cannot accept this. He can easily cook by putting together random things he finds in the kitchen, while I prefer to go to the store, if an ingredient is missing in what I would like to cook. For me, if I decide to cook something, there are certain ingredients and ways to make it. For us, cooking is an art.
But as I noticed, eating is the art in the French culture. First, the table is arranged. Plate, knife and fork, and two glasses: one for water and one for wine. The big common dish, with the food and salad, comes in the middle. At a Romanian table, you usually put the food directly in the plate, from the pot, as much as you like, then take your plate to the table. Except for celebrations or when you are having guests (again, I am talking about the general practice). And we don’t always use fork and knife. At the French table it’s a must. They always use both when eating, while I was using the knife only when I really had to.
Related to the common dish, they are used differently. In the French families everyone puts first a little, and then again and again, until the food is over. In Romania we put on the plate as much as we think that we can eat, and if we want, we can put more after. This reflects the mental programming in childhood I was talking about, that shapes the culture: in French families they teach the children to put a little, so everyone has even and enough food. The Romanian child is taught to put in the plate as much as he can eat (we love to eat), and he can eat more, but as long as he doesn’t leave anything in the plate. Also, in Romania, we usually don’t use the common dish for food, but for salad. The salad is not a first dish, but a side dish, and everyone takes from the same salad dish while eating the main course. As my boyfriend noticed, while we were traveling, this is an eastern European practice.
The thing I missed the most while spending more than a month in France was soup. A month without soup in Romania is suicide. For us, it is an everyday meal, and we usually eat it as a first dish for lunch. Soups are also complex and based on certain recipes. But in France first dish is mostly salad, and tomatoes – separately. So you first eat just tomatoes, then just salad, then you can get some food. When I told this to my father, he called them rabbits. As I said, for us, salad is a side dish, and not an appetizer or main course. Unless you are on a diet. In France you put two-tree tomatoes on your plate, same with salad, until the bowl finishes. After, they bring the bowls with the main course, which can vary. If it is not processed food, I can say that it is healthier than the Romanian one, but I did not considered it many times as cooked food.
The bread is never ate by itself. If you eat bread, you usually put the food on bread, eat with some butter or clean your plate at the end. In Romania, we take some food on the fork, we take a piece of our slice of bread, after we put some salad on the fork and so on. Also, we eat way more bread. While living there, I was eating most of it. And they clean the plate with bread a lot more than we do. I sometimes do that too, but I felt like a weirdo, when after eating the salad, everyone was cleaning the vinegar left in the plate with bread, while I was doing it with a tissue, because for me it was disgusting to eat bread with vinegar.
After, especially in a meal with a large number of people, there is the cheese plate, with different types of cheese and wine, of course. I love wine and cheese, so I was pretty happy about it. And some desert, if you can still eat something.
In the end, all the dishes go in the dishwasher. I don’t know about you, but in Romania we wash the dishes after every meal, and a dishwasher is considered as luxury. Not because we are so poor, but because it is not considered as a necessity. In French households it is. Every time I told this to French people, they were telling me that it is more economic and necessary.
So by conclusion, it is not 100% accurate, but I consider it the art of cooking vs. the art of eating. For Romanians cooking is more like a ritual than eating, while French are the opposite with the dining etiquette. I was very excited to notice such differences, and to experience the French way of dining and cuisine.
But after returning home, the first thing I did was to eat a soup. And I still don’t use a knife, except when I really need it. I eat the main course with salad and bread. And I put as much as I think I will eat in the plate at once, then more if I am still hungry.
You know what my father said, when he met my boyfriend? “I like this guy. He filled his plate twice! He likes my food!”