Tag Archives: France

A Bad Case of the Wants

It is just another Saturday afternoon in Paris. I am being pushed along with the hoards of tourists near Opéra, admiring the sales of 30, 50, even 70 percent off! As fashionistas stroll by me effortlessly by the dozen, I grab my purse with a death-grip and keep on walking…

Madonna said it best when she sang, “’Cause we are living in a material world and I am a material girl.” Try as we might, we are all products of our culture, which in the West has come to favor consumerism and capitalism and all the nasty things that come along with them. Unless, of course, you are French, and then you might be able to proclaim socialism (which has become a serious gros mot in America) and weasel your way out of the blame-fest.

Lately, I can’t step foot into a Monoprix or Galeries Lafayette without enduring the wrath of insults about Americans and their spendthrift ways. As a friend said to me a while back, “I don’t understand you Americans – you make tons of money for the sole goal of spending it on more and more things.” Unnecessary, gratuitous things, is what she meant.

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Maybe my friend is right. Maybe we Americans are just gluttons for the latest new lipstick, speedboat or washing machine. But in the past few years, it seems that the French are catching up.

At a recent babysitting gig, I couldn’t help but choke over the inane amount of miniature plastic Petshop animals lying about the little girl’s bedroom. This was only seconded to her brother’s piles of Playmobiles, which threatened to burst out of the toy box. Granted, the family came from a certain moyen, but the consumer-driven sickness of wanting “more, more, more” seemed to be descending upon this innocent French household.

Cases of “The Wants” are even more prevalent in the French countryside, where home fix-ups and expansive yards give way to the ever-present desire for more useless stuff. A friend in the southwest told me she felt a thrill every time she made a purchase, whether it was a sparkly top for herself, the jungle-gym for her 2 year-old son or that new dryer for the garage. Some of the items still had the price tags on them months later, leaving little reminders of the sheer joy of spending her hard-earned cash.

In his article, “Consumerism and the New Capitalism,” American-turned-Switzerland resident Rip Cronk writes: “Consumerism is the myth that the individual will be gratified and integrated by consuming…. Self-worth is gauged by buying power.” Yet, the more we spend, the more empty we feel. We don’t ever seem to have as much as what’s-his-name next door, and the envy greens us from the inside.

The issue of Big Business and mass media controlling our consumer habits is not just an American problem anymore. A quick flip through French TV channels offers a bombardment of French and foreign-born ads hoping to catch you or your little one’s eye.  Advertisers have even snuck into the cinema with us, eating up our 10-euro ticket with over 15 minutes of commercials for everything from the local pizza joint to the latest Fanta flavor.

But maybe I should just hold my tongue and wait for better days ahead. After all, President Sarkozy has promised to eliminate TV ads from public channels by 2011. The phase-out has already begun, with ad sales dropping 5% in 2009 from its $4.6 billion of spending in 2008, according to ZenithOptimedia. The change is estimated to cut $700 million in advertising for state-owned stations, nearly 15% of France’s total ad dollars – bad news for business, better news for the average Joe.

So, while there’s still hope for the French, it would seem that we Americans are just too far gone to save. With our super-size mentality and increasing dependence on corporate America, all we can do now is hold on tight to our La-Z-Boys and giant slushies and hope for the best. Only our TiVOs can help us now.

Also published in Brit’mag

Getting Frenchified

So, you’ve been in France for a few years and pride yourself on being a self-proclaimed Francophile. You know exactly how baguettes are made, the entire route of the Tour de France, Edith Piaf’s birthday (down to the minute) and that there are precisely 32 bridges on the River Seine. But being a mere Francophile is one verre de vin short of being completely and totally French. How do you know when you’ve made it?

Perhaps you have a little mental checklist going for yourself already. Knowledge of the difference between “mûr” and “mur”? Check. French husband or wife? Got it. A black- and red-checkered caddy with which you bring home your market vegetables? Of course!

But you need to downsize. Think smaller. Much like what counts in love, being French is in the little things.

Take your kitchen, for example. A plethora of evidence lies here. You know you’re French when:

–       You actually use your knife while eating, instead of leaving it abandoned by the side of your plate (or worse, still sitting in the kitchen drawer). Bonus points if you’ve picked up your non-dominant hand off your lap and placed your wrists on the table in between bites.

–       You set the table with a mini spoon above your plate. You use this mini-spoon to eat anything from yogurt – always at the end of the meal, of course – to kiwi to cake. A fork at dessert? Blasphemy!

–       When eating fruit, you imperatively peel it first, using a small and graying paring knife circa 1943 to pull the skin off towards you in one fell swoop, while miraculously sparing your thumb from amputation.

–       You are able to talk about wine, Camembert and/or melon for hours upon hours.

Of course, the kitchen is just one aspect of French life and thus, just one indicator of true Frenchness. Let’s step out of the house and onto the streets to see how far you’ve come. Do you do the following things? If not, step to it!

–       Argue to the death for anything from getting the Post Office to stay open an extra two minutes while you mail your rent check, to receiving the five euros your boss still owes you from last month.

–       Say “Bonjour” upon entering any establishment and “Au revoir” when leaving, even when no one is around and/or it is quite clear that no one gives too hoots about your presence.

–       Pronounce “Le P’tit Wrap Cheese & Sauce Ranch” with a French accent at McDonald’s without even flinching.

–       Go coin scavenging. When your friend pays you back with a 10€ bill for that 6€75 Vogue magazine you bought her, you politely ask if she has 75 cents. When she gives you the look of crazy, you ask her if she perhaps has 5 cents. No? 70 cents, at least? Just like the many small businesses here, you just don’t have the change!

Of course, work is also a great place to become more French. Check this list to see if you’re almost there:

–       You can’t start your day without one of those teeny 70-centime coffees from the office vending machine.

–       For lunch, you obligingly bring a Tupperware container filled with last night’s meal. You learned the hard way that one time you brought a peanut butter sandwich and watched your co-workers look onward with disgust.

–       Once you’ve said “hello” to someone one time, you’re done for the day. No more courtesy smile, no more “Salut”. Unless there’s a necessary interaction, you walk by your co-workers with a breezy aloofness.

If you’re still in the dark about any or (heaven forbid) all the above rules, I suggest you invite yourself over to your French neighbor’s house for dinner immediately to get a real taste of life à la française. Or at least rent the latest Jean Reno film. Even Gerard Depardieu will do. But please do something. Your friends won’t tolerate your two-hour discussions about how the Notre Dame was built much longer. It’s not too late to save yourself and become really and truly French. Allez, on y go!

Originally published in Brit’mag.

Women in the workplace – we’ve still got it wrong

I’ve never taken the time to look into why feminism is described in waves: second wave, third wave… not sure which wave we’re on now… but the analogy seems to be apropos, concerning its presence in our daily lives. One day it’s here, the next day it’s not.

Take Gloria Steinem and the 1960’s and 70’s in general. You couldn’t even look at a pair of bell bottoms without discussing the ins and outs of who wore the pants in the family. These days, feminism is a bit more subtle, with people like Rebecca Walker and Elisabeth Badinter creeping into the picture, causing a minor ruckus, before disappearing for another five years.

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But lately, feminism — particularly the issue of women in the workplace — has been coming out from behind the curtains in more conspicuous ways. Maybe the journalists don’t even realize they’re running comparable stories, but it’s happening: from America to England to France, people are once again talking about where women fit into the professional picture.

In a May 8th issue of The Economist, we learn that a new French law will force the country’s top companies to name a certain proportion of women among their top executives. With the goal of 40% by 2016, France has a long way to go, where women currently hold only 11% of about 580 board seats at the 40 largest firms. And then we learn that the French are making a mockery of this law.

Bernadette Chirac, wife of former French president Jacques, has been nominated to the board of LVMH with the following credentials, according to the company: “She was female and as a first lady she supported fashion and regularly attended catwalk shows.” Well, that sure sounds like a match to me.

The Economist reports that bosses are taking the new law so lightly that many executives are planning to nominate their wives or girlfriends – women with little relevant experience and a pretty face, who will sit down and shut up and continue to let men take the reins. The magazine writes: “One boss asked a headhunter for photographs of candidates and said he would treat looks as his first criterion, ahead of industry experience.”

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What is so wholly maddening is the way the French press has attended to this issue, or not attended to it, as the case may be. Months ago, the new law was mentioned in a five-line blurb and then never again. Then, in a May 29th issue of Le Monde, we learn that Claude Chirac, the 47 year-old daughter of the former president, has resigned from her position as director of communication at Francois-Henri Pinault, PPR, without knowing why — but that mom Bernadette has (as we now know) accepted the position of administrator for LVMH. No details are given as to how or why Bernadette qualified for this position, nor what exactly she will do for the company.

Perhaps this situation is evidence of French culture, which is taught from a young age not to question things. From elementary school through university, young people sit in filled Education Nationale classrooms worrying more about which colored pen they should use while taking notes than whether to challenge the teacher.

Or it could be France’s male-dominated culture. Men still outweigh women in the workplace and while paternity-leave does abound (unlike in America), men are the breadwinners in most families.

Now, it’s all well and good to bash the other team but unfortunately feminism is one area where America can’t play the “We’re the best in the world” card. Women held 13.5% of top positions in Fortune 50o companies in 2009, just a few measly percentage points over the Frogs. And even those who are there are not getting the respect they deserve.

In Time magazine’s May 24, 2010 edition, “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street” piece examines the female power players in the U.S financial and political systems who are picking up the pieces of the recent Wall Street crisis – a crisis largely created by men. Sheila Bair, of the FDIC, became a notorious whistleblower on the economic downturn back in 2007, when she noticed that American banks were in trouble. When she tried to point out the issues, the response was hostile: “They were shocked and horrified,” she said. By the end of 2008, Bair was proven right. Twenty-five banks became insolvent and were taken over by the FDIC.

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At a recent event to celebrate women’s role in finance, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made reference to a headline he had read that said, “What if Women Ran Wall Street?” He responded to the crowd with a low-brow joke: “Now, that’s an excellent question, but it’s kind of a low bar… how, might you ask, could women not have done better?”

In effect, the men have mucked up Wall Street so thoroughly that only a woman can clean it up. After all, that’s what women do best, isn’t it? Cleaning? The Mother-Son analogy couldn’t be more poignant than in this very moment. Whether in a romantic or family relationship, women have earned the heartwarming stereotype of spending their lives tidying up men’s messes. And women often fall right in line with this grim picture, doing just that.

As the few final months of 2010 fleet away and we embark on a new decade, I’m hoping women in the workplace won’t be just another newspaper headline we ponder for a few days before chucking it into the bin. Like race and sexual orientation debates, feminism is something that needs to be discussed openly and often if we’re ever going to get out of the woods. So I don’t know about you, but I’m grabbing my surf board now so I’m sure to be ready when the next wave of feminism happens to sweep in.

Beating the Holiday Blues

Another holiday spent away from home, another emotional meltdown narrowly averted. Easter has now long passed but I am still reeling from the aftershocks: the desperate calls home to Minnesota, the rapidly vanishing mountain of chocolate eggs, the box of tissues by my side (just in case). And my mental state does not discriminate. Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving – no matter the festive occasion, I can’t help but turn into a sourpuss each and every time. Without fail, I catch a horrible case of the holiday blues.

Upon careful introspection, I have determined that the problem is not the holiday itself. After all, despite my dad’s hopes for my Catholic confirmation in the 10th grade, I never had a thing for Jesus, or any religion for that matter. And the rare times where I have been invited to share one of these important moments with a French family, the doom and gloom is still roughly the same.

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So I know what you’re thinking – it’s an easy one, right? I just miss my family. But it’s not so simple. Take last year, for example, when I went home for Thanksgiving and spent a week guffawing and gorging myself on turkey with my immediate and extended family. It should have scratched the itch, non? Yet when I found myself alone in France just one month later for Christmas, my reaction was similar to that of stopping antibiotics in the middle of treatment – a nasty holiday funk that returns more vicious than ever before and is now even harder to treat.

What makes holidays abroad so tough is our pension as humans for traditions, and what they mean for us individually. Traditions come in the form of religious celebrations – like Passover or Christmas – or in secular, seemingly baseless forms like April Fool’s Day. At each fête, we come to expect certain things, based on what we have learned from our family, our culture and our country. If our tradition doesn’t deliver, a gut-wrenching, highly personal disappointment may ensue. Think, an overworked dad who forgets to play Tooth Fairy to his six-year old daughter, Sally. Sally is waiting for her 50 cents, and if she wakes up and no money’s in sight, there will be tears – guaranteed.

Thus perhaps why celebrating a holiday like Easter without family – your own family, to be precise – can be so excruciatingly difficult. Although you appreciate the invitation from your French friend to join him for Paques, his Oncle Pierre just doesn’t have the same comedic timing as your Uncle Jack, and you sort of miss that awful pink marshmallow and pineapple salad your Aunt Charlene always makes. It’s the little things that make our traditions so strong and without them, we are frankly a little bit lost. Add the fact that we may either be surrounded by French people we barely know or all alone in our apartments, and you’ve got a top-notch recipe for depression.

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The only way to save ourselves is to do what expats around the globe have been doing for years – create new traditions. So, you can’t go home for Christmas? Organize a dinner amongst your international friends and instead of opening presents, sing karaoke and play charades. Or at Thanksgiving, offer your chicken dinner (because let’s be realistic, there’s almost no turkey in France) to the homeless in your community. If you’re scared off by this much change, try to at least recreate your home-country tradition with the same people each year – this way, you’ll all come to know what to expect in future seasons.

With this plan of attack, instead of looking to the holidays with dread, you may even come to enjoy them. Just remember that nothing has to look the way it once did. You’re in France now and you are changed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go prepare my three-egg omelet, chocolate Nesquik and game of Scrabble for the 4th of July.

Originally published in Brit’Mag – May/June 2010

The things we do for freedom

In honor of the Human Rights Festival currently showing in Paris, I’d like to tell the stories of a few of my immigrant friends in France. As immigration laws get tighter in France and around the world, it’s worth considering their human effects. One must ask, what makes one human more worthy of rights than another? Are country borders more important than saving a human soul? Before we write a law restricting access to those in need, we must realize that in fact every person’s needs are the same, regardless of nationality: clean water and food, decent housing, education, medical care, etc. Governments must reconcile the need of those within their country borders and those who arrive seeking help.

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Mila is Serbian. She came to France 11 years ago with her Serbian husband, who worked in construction. She soon found work in a local grocery store, learned the language and integrated into society. Three years later, she and her husband divorced. She chose to stay in France, and had no problem renewing her visa. All she did when she moved houses following the divorce, was to go to the prefecture to change her address. Her new visa arrived soon after with the same status, even though now she had no links to France, besides having lived in the country for three years. At the time, her country was in the throngs of war – this may be the only reason she was not sent back home. Now, when she goes back to Serbia, she is disgusted by the prices in the clothing and shoe shops. The Serbian economy is no pitiful that an average salary is the equivalent to 150 euros a month. Yet, the prices in the shops are the same as in France. The distance between the rich and the poor is growing, and finding jobs is nearly impossible. Mila’s father has been out of work for 10 years, after the plant where he worked closed. He has since not been able to find work. Mila’s mother has never worked. Thus, every month, Mila sends part of her paycheck home to help her family survive.

Palden is Tibetan. He was born in India and has never been to Tibet. However, he was born with and always has had “refugee” status in India, given no passport but a special travel pass instead. Unlike France or America, one cannot be born into a nationality there. Your nationality is predetermined and the line between Indian and otherwise is strictly separated. For this reason, Palden came to France to find work, to leave his refugee status behind and to make a new life for himself as a French citizen. Once here, he had to stay mum on his life in India. If discovered, he would be sent back. After all, why would a Tibetan need to escape India? He is not in danger there, it is a safe haven. However, he will never have full Indian rights, so he has come to France. Thus, he says he was born in Tibet, speaks a few lines of Chinese at his visa appointment, and is given a French visa for two years before he can apply for citizenship. Once he receives it, he is free to travel anywhere in the world, in particular, Tibet. He can finally return to his unfamiliar homeland and use his knowledge from the Western world to make change in Tibet.

Tsering is also Tibetan. She was born in Tibet. When she was 18, she crossed the mountains with a friend to escape to India. The pair spent a month on foot, through dense snow and freezing temperatures, living off tsampa – patties made of flour and butter tea. They arrived in India, only to find the living conditions far less desirable than expected. Not only were they strangers in a strange land, but they had to adjust to the toxic water, polluted air and new food. The girls were often sick. They couldn’t find work and couldn’t speak Hindi or English. Eventually, they were fed up. They made the decision to go back to Tibet, fulling knowing what this meant: spending another month crossing back over those same mountains into Tibet, where Chinese police would most likely arrest them and put them in jail for 3 to 6 months. They might be tortured, they might not be. But at least they could see their friends and families again.

David is from Chad. His country has been in war on and off for ten years. After graduating from high school, he went to university in Cameroon. He also spent some time in Nigeria learning English. He decided to further his studies in France, where he was soon met with a visa nightmare. Because his country is at war on and off, he is constantly waiting it out, constantly wondering if he will be sent back home the minute peace breaks through for a few hopeful days. In the meantime, he is considered an “asylum seeker.” What he really wants is “refugee” status. At least this way, he will be on the fast track for citizenship or a more stable visa status. As things are now, he has to renew his asylum seeker visa every three months. He can never settle and never feel like he is moving in a linear, forward direction. The word “precarious” comes to mind. So does the word “stress.”

I read an article in Le Monde the other day about two Afghan men who decided to escape their war-torn country to come to London. Thus began a heroic, 6-month adventure halfway across the world. One man sold his taxi upon leaving in order to have enough money for the trip, the other quit his job. Both men spent approximately 17,000 dollars to pay traffickers to help them cross the borders of Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, then France. They were Calais, on their way to London (and thinking they were scot free) when they were found by police while sleeping in an abandoned house. The French police told them they’d be alright, that they wouldn’t be kicked out of the country. But upon arriving at the airport (even under the police’s pretext that they would be allowed to stay) they were hustled onto an airplane and sent home to Kabul. Once there, they found that their families had rejected them for having left. Their jobs were gone, they had no home and they now owed traffickers nearly 20,000 dollars each. They did all of this for freedom, making it to the last leg of their trip before meeting an untimely end in France, a country they trusted to provide them safe harbor. As one of the men mentioned to police, they were simply passing through France, not staying indefinitely. So why did the French police expel them?

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And my own story. I worked in Marseille from 2003-2005 as an English assistant. I came back to France in 2008 as a “jeune professionnelle,” which can be loosely translated into “paid intern.” I intended to stay for 18 months and hoped to stay for longer. I worked for a newspaper in Southwest France, run by a vicious alcoholic who polluted our work environment on a daily basis. Over half of the staff were clinically depressed. Eight months later, the business went under and we all got laid off. I found myself in a foreign country, alone and unemployed. When it came time to renew my visa, I did so as an unemployed citizen. My renewal was accepted. I was paid monthly installments to keep me afloat while I looked for a new job. After 8 months of searching, I found a teaching job in Paris. My visa has always said “salariee,” which means I am allowed to work in any capacity in France. However, when I tried to renew my visa this past February, it was rejected, on the grounds that as a “jeune professionnelle,” I had overstayed my welcome in France and had worked illegally for my current employer. I now have one month to do an appeal of the DDTE’s decision and if it doesn’t go through, I am expected to drop my entire life and jump on a plane back home. After a total of four years here, I speak the language almost perfectly, I pay French taxes, I have a full-time CDI (timeline undetermined) work contract – I don’t ask anyone for anything. Yet I am being told to leave.

I tell these stories because when we watch the nightly news or pick up a newspaper, we rarely hear the personal stories behind immigration. All we hear are the talking heads and their impressions of current laws. Perhaps if these same lawmakers took a few moments to listen to what is really going on around them, none of us would be in this mess. I cross our fingers for all of us.

Run for cover, she’s got the grippe!

“Help stop the spread of H1N1flu today! Notify staff if you have a fever and cough.”

I read these fateful words upon entering my neighborhood Paris clinic, gulping hard. After spending the latter part of my month with a congested head and burgeoning chest cold, I had finally decided to see a doctor. It didn’t hurt that I had woken up that particular morning feeling like I’d been hit by a Mac truck, slight fever in tow. But it couldn’t be the dreaded swine flu… could it?

I consider myself an educated person, someone who reads the news and has at least a fraction of common sense. So I am not ignorant of how germs are spread. However, the thought of entering a crowded municipal clinic waiting room with a blue paper mask engulfing my face felt like the modern-day equivalent of attaching a scarlet ‘A’ to my chest. And so, as my internal body heat rose with every step, I willed myself not to cough for the next two hours and walked quietly into the room.

Two hours and two degrees of fever later, my name was finally called. I walked into the doctor’s office, explained my symptoms and awaited the deluge of guilt-tripping as to why I didn’t notify anyone about my chances of being Paris’s next silent killer. To my surprise, my doctor plainly said: “You have a virus.”

“How do I know if it’s the regular flu or the swine flu?” I whimpered. My response was an unenthusiastic shrug. “They’re both the same, then?” I asked. Another shrug.

And so, with my prescription for bed rest in hand, I walked out of the clinic coughing at full force, awaiting my next victim.

Unfortunately, having just a “virus” wasn’t good enough for my workplace, which involves children ages 2-6, and I was instructed to promptly get an H1N1 flu test. The doctor may have thought H1N1 and influenza were interchangeable, but the media has shown us otherwise. My employers wanted proof.

What I discovered on my forthcoming lab test adventure, was that the spread of this illness – whether truly life-threatening or not – is incrementally more likely when no one in France is willing to test those who may be sick with it.

“We take a sample from your nose [called the Rapid Flu Test in the U.S.] and then you’ll find out if you have a flu or not, but not which flu,” said the woman at the lab the next morning. “If we find out that you have a flu, it will be sent out to see if it’s H1N1 or not… but it’s not very accurate.” How inaccurate, I wondered? “If you have H1N1, it often tells you that you don’t, and if you don’t have it, it can tell you that you do. It has between a 10% and 70% accuracy rate.”

Well, that certainly cleared things up.

The other option in France is to take a specific H1N1 flu test, which is 80 euros and not reimbursed by the national health insurance. Only five or six clinics in Paris perform the procedure, much less in other parts of France, and it is only done in cases of critical need – like, say, a pair of Parisian football players awaiting their next televised match against Marseille.

Things in the U.S. are no better. While there are significantly more cases than in France (349,491 confirmed/probable cases in the U.S. versus 25,103 in France, according to FluTracker and Rhiza Labs) the testing and vaccination methods in place are, as of yet, inefficient. Currently, the CDC is only testing flu-sufferers who have been hospitalized or are at high risk for complications. Treatment options won’t change based on results, plus there is simply not enough time or money for all other cases.

Same goes for vaccinations. During the first week of October, the first batch of H1N1 flu-vaccine nasal sprays arrived on U.S. soil. However, out of the U.S. government’s total order of 251 million doses, only 2.4 million were administered. Demand can’t keep up with supply, so health officials decided to send the vaccine over as it was ready, instead of waiting for the entire amount to accumulate. Already, the shortage in New York State alone is palpable, where the government has mandated that all health-care workers be vaccinated. Where does that leave the little people?

As for me here in France, I am finally able to enjoy comprehensive medical coverage – a coverage that hasn’t come as a result of selling my soul to a full-time job like in the U.S. But what good is that coverage if I am forced to self-diagnose.

In the end, I decided not to have the test. My doctor said my chances of having H1N1 were too slim and preferred to save the exam for really dire cases. Ten days later, I still don’t know what I had, and when I go back to the classroom next week my employer will have to be fine with that.

Perhaps, ultimately, I was socially irresponsible. Maybe I should have worn the mask in the clinic, should have insisted on taking the test – if anything, for public conscience’s sake. For now, I have just been telling people I had a “virus” and that it really was no big deal. But when my lingering cough takes off with a start, there isn’t a face in my vicinity that isn’t turned the other way, heading swiftly for cover.

First published in Brit’mag, November 2009

The Online Game of Trust

I still remember one of the lessons I learned in my ninth grade French class. It was about cultural differences and what we should be prepared for, assuming we ever A) made it through high school French, thus gaining an only slightly pathetic capacity to speak the language and then B) actually got to the Motherland one day, in which case we could use said pathetic French in our daily interactions with real, actual French people.

Among our required reading, I distinctly remember a three-word phrase that seemed to epitomize the mysterious Français at the time: “Stranger means Danger.” The line in one of our books told us that the French wouldn’t smile at us in line for the bank or sitting on the bus, but that we shouldn’t take it personally. They were just sussing us out before making sure they could trust us.

While I now, years later, try to figure out what sitting on a bus seat has to do with trust, I realize that this little phrase sums up quite a bit about how the French interact, in contrast to us American folk. But while “Stranger means Danger” was, at the time, most likely meant to refer to a trip to the bakery, it has larger implications for how the French live their lives today, specifically regarding the worldwide web.

Take Facebook, for example, which has become the most used social networking website in the world as of January 2009, according to ComScore. While America still wins big, with more than 700 million users, Facebook is steadily gaining momentum in France, where it recently edged out its main competitor Skyrock to become number one. With all these enthusiastic users, virtual friends must be hurtling through cyberspace at warp speed, right? Well…

Go on any American’s Facebook page and they’ve got upwards of 300 friends, maybe even 600. I know a guy who reached the 1000-friend mark last month. Ask him if he regularly sends personal messages or writes on the Wall of all these “friends” and he’ll laugh at you incredulously. But take your average French user, and you’ll find that each of their Facebook friends are real-life friends as well.

“I don’t understand people who accept or add me as a friend and then make no contact with me whatsoever,” spouts my French friend Jean, over a coffee. Our mutual friend Cecile agrees: “I had a guy from high school try to add me as a friend. But it’s been years since he’s contacted me so I ignored his request. If I barely know him then what’s the point?”

The point, for Americans, seems to be the opposite of the French: Add them as a friend first; make them a friend later. Or maybe never. My French co-workers were mildly horrified to hear that I had added many a Facebook friend with the click of my mouse, never to have any contact with them ever again.

So, who’s got it right? The French, who tend to take a guarded view of the intangible internet friend, or the open-armed, smiling American?

Being too trusting can cost more than just the unwanted online pal. In 2007, Katherine Ann Olsen of Minnesota lost her life after innocently responding to a babysitting ad on the online classifieds website, Craigslist, by a woman named “Amy.” However, Amy turned out to be 19-year-old John Michael Anderson, who lived with his parents, and was waiting to shoot Olsen in the back when she turned up. Craigslist again made headlines this past April, when a Boston University medical student allegedly killed a New York City masseuse after responding to her Craigslist ad for massages.

Of course, it’s not to say that the French don’t ever get themselves into online trouble. But, it just doesn’t seem to be quite to the same extent as the ol’ Americans. Or maybe, as the old adage goes, everything in France happens ten years later than in America. In this case, I hope not.

The online dating world seems to be the one area where France and the United States are at match point. With millions of users in each country, finding love online is no longer stigmatized as the lonely way to search for a mate.

Marc Simoncini, the founder of popular French site Meetic, says that online dating is different depending on your culture. In a 2007 Times Online article, he said, “There are only two philosophies in this business… the American philosophy and the French one. The Americans try to sell you love. We sell une rencontre [an encounter] and I don’t care what happens afterwards.”

So as French and American internet users attempt to navigate the online world successfully (dodging sexual predators, murderers and casual friends when necessary) it looks like love is still the one thing that connects us. Maybe strangers aren’t so dangerous anymore.