One of the most persistent questions I get asked here in France is "What are the big differences between the US and France?" I also get asked that in America, but I'm here right now so I'm thinking about it from this perspective.
It's impossible to answer at this point since the more I learn about this country the less I know about it. It was funny when I first showed up a couple years ago back when I lived in Lorient, in the west of France, and it seemed like a new generality about the French or Americans was proven true every day. And then a contradictory generality would be proven true the next day. And then one would be disproven. It's a whole lot more complicated than it seems on the surface.
I've been here long enough now to be cautious before making any such pronouncements, now that I'm more familiar with the diversity in both the US and France. But that doesn't stop Americans from repeating the same myths about the French to me (they're uniformly more progressive than Americans, they're totally comfortable with homo/sexuality, they're all about community building and not building up individual fortune) or the French about Americans (we're all incredibly pious, we all love McDonald's, we don't care about anything but money).
So, funny story: as I was being driven to the airport to catch a plane to Europe, I saw a man in a truck next to my dad's car smoking a pipe. A real old-school tobacco pipe like George Wilson or Henry Warnimont loved to smoke. That was funny to me, I don't see people smoking those much anymore, much less in a vehicle.
Two days later I was in France navigating my way to the apartment I read about over the internet, and I saw another man smoking an old-school tobacco pipe like George Wilson or Henry Warnimont loved to smoke walking down the street. A few years ago, I thought, I'd have been perfectly willing to say that that's just the French.
So I'm thinking about this today because yesterday I had a French boy over and he asked me that question, "What are the biggest differences between France and America?" It was kind of a let-down after having a much more interesting conversation up to that point, but I mentioned a few things, like the public transportation is better here, cities are planned differently, and there are three aisles at the grocery store devoted to cheese, four to wine. It's the little things I feel comfortable talking about since I can see those differences, I know that they're there. And it's those little things that stand out to me so much more than a stupid generality like "French people love to talk and Americans don't! Can you believe?"
Well, that wasn't enough to satisfy him, of course, and as someone who's never been to America, began to tell me how the two countries are different. Americans love technology and hate nature. Americans are less racist. And they're so much better when it comes to the way they treat the gays.
I was getting annoyed so I said we should go for pizza just to change the conversation. What we were talking about earlier got to me, though. I mentioned that I just don't do anal anymore, I can't stand condoms but I don't want to take that big of a risk, so I just gave it up last year. It's not like I miss it all too much anyway. But how did I know that condoms made it worse? Well, there were a few times that I tried it without that I shouldn't have....
And that started him on how St. Etienne has been going in that direction. According to him, fifteen years ago no one would have sex without a condom. Now you're lucky if half the people around here would. And the youth, oh, the youth, they never think that they're going to get anything so it's all barebacking with them.
He visited the doctor for an STD test a month ago and was asked if he took any risks, you know, had he ever had sex without a condom. When he said that he had, a few times, the doctor repeated the line, well, you shouldn't, and told him about the risk of unprotected MSM for diseases. But what good does that do, my French friend asked, since it's not like anyone's thinking all that rationally when they're with a hot guy who wants to bareback, it happens so quickly and it's so good and that doctor who told you about the relative risk of various acts a month ago seems so far away?
Jeez, you could step out into the street and be hit by a car tonight, everything's a risk, he said.
And it's always going to be around, what with the men driving by the bowling alley, you know, the one near the train station, and picking up men to fuck next to the baby seat in the back of their cars. Haha, wouldn't it be funny if someone as open about his sexuality as you went there?
But going for that late-night pizza, after he put back on his AussieBum underwear, it was back to the distance between him and me, no sex jokes, no holding hands, and definitely no kissing. We were in public, even if it was 10:30 at night. I didn't even need to be told those rules - they're the same as in Indiana.
We're just two dudes hangin' out who want pizza at 10:30.