Small-Town France Vs. Small-Town America

I enjoy trips to the city and have lived briefly in medium-sized cities in the past. However, I have to say I connect with rural towns on a certain level. After all, I grew up in a town in central Virginia where it was completely normal to see an escaped calf loping across high school property, men and women in hunting gear trekking through Walmart, and a farm-use tractor going ten miles per hour on a local road with twelve cars lined up behind it. Now that I’m living in a rural French town, I thought I would write a post comparing small French towns to small U.S. towns in general.



Small-town France

So how is small-town France similar to and different from small-town America? Based on what I have observed so far, I would argue that there are more similarities than differences. While I can answer this question solely based on the few small U.S. towns in which I’ve lived and the one small French town in which I’m currently living, I feel that I can make a few generalizations which hold true regardless of the town’s exact location.

Since this is an education-related blog, I feel that I should begin my comparison with student opinions on small-town life, which are usually freely offered:

A 16-year-old small-town American student: “Living here sucks! There’s nothing to do.”

A 16-year-old small-town French student: “C’est le pire! “Il n’y a rien à faire ici.” (Translation: “It’s the worst! There’s nothing to do here.”

In both countries, students ask me, with a certain amount of disbelief in their voices, “Why did you come to teach here?”

I sympathize with the students briefly, then ask them for positive reactions to living in [insert name] small town. Responses are generally along the lines of, “Well . . . you can go hiking/biking/skiing here.” I then ask whether students have to worry as much about problems like excessive pollution or high crime rates. The answer: “I guess not . . .” For those students who grew up in the town and are not recent transplants, another (generally) positive factor is that much of their extended family lives in the area.

I understand students’ (and adults’) frustrations with living in a small town. I freely admit that at times, it’s simply necessary to leave town to meet friends or just get a change of scenery. In Virginia, I had a car and left town many weekends. Here in France, I don’t have a car, but I am getting better at figuring out the infrequent train and bus system, as well as determining opportunities for covoiturage (carpooling).

As with living anywhere, there are trade-offs to living in a small town versus a city. The higher cost of living and increased crime, pollution, and stress that often correlate with city living are offset by perceived benefits such as more varied and higher-paying job opportunities, an increased number of venues for intellectual engagement, and a wider range of social events from which to choose. Furthermore, “outsiders” wanting to blend in usually have an easier time doing so in the city.

Here are some further similarities I’ve observed in small-town France and America:

  • In a time of need, there is almost always someone “just down the street” who can help you out. You’ll likely be expected to repay the favor sometime, but it’s nice to have someone you trust help you out without expecting monetary compensation.
  • Businesses often operate in unexpected ways. Here in France, my WiFi box was not delivered to the post office as one might anticipate, but to the épicerie (a grocery/ABC-type store).
  • There is a close-knit culture among co-workers, especially teachers. They understand the need for support in a small town, especially for those who are not natives and have few contacts in the area outside of work.
  • Small-town natives often have an intense amount of pride in their town, which sometimes is only evident when an outsider makes a disparaging remark about the town. The native vehemently defends the small town, despite just having complained about the lack of things to do in said town.


Small-town America

Now for some differences I’ve observed:

The small French ville is different from the small American town in certain ways. Notably, the French ville has a tightly clustered nucleus. The post office, schools, mairie, grocery store, médiathèque, banks, etc. are all typically within a five- to ten-minute walk from one another. In contrast, a “small town” in the U.S. may in fact sprawl for miles so that it’s unreasonable or impossible to walk from, say, the library to the post office.

Another difference is that French towns typically shut down for one to two hours in the middle of the day. They also shut down on Sunday and partially on Monday–banks are closed. Yes, boutiques and novelty shops typically keep similar hours in American small towns, but the U.S. still has many stores that remain open 24/7. In the small French town in which I’m living, the main grocery store and a few other stores are open until 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, but that’s about it. The kebab joint a few blocks from the center of town is one of the few available options for dining out on Sunday.

Keeping businesses open on Sunday in this region is a controversial topic. It made front page news in the regional paper, Le Progrès, last Sunday. The headline was, “Travail le dimanche: le Jura n’est pas Paris.” This translates to, “Work on Sunday: the Jura isn’t Paris.” Michel Dronier, president of the Jura Commerce Federation, opines that the weekend should be devoted to family activities. “Sinon, cela posera un problème sociétal…” (“Otherwise, there will be societal issues.”) He goes on to say, however, that it might be a good idea to reflect on having businesses stay open in tourist areas on Sunday.

So there you have it. Small towns in the Jura are caught in a conflict. From the paper’s stance and its opinion poll, it seems that many people (perhaps a majority) believe that businesses in the region shouldn’t have to adhere to big-city commercial standards. Family togetherness on weekends is of great importance. Notably, religion is not mentioned as a reason for closing businesses on Sunday. The flip side of the issue is that businesses need to combat economic stagnation and/or failure. Staying open on Sunday is often a good way to do that. I don’t recall the American towns in which I’ve lived having this discussion, but perhaps other towns in America have done so.

To sum up, I look at living in a small town as enjoyable, although sometimes a challenge. I do feel like an outsider here in France, for obvious reasons, despite the welcoming efforts of teachers and students. Yet I also felt like an outsider when I moved back to my hometown in Virginia to work for nine months after graduating from college this year. The town had changed a lot, but I had changed even more. I knew a couple friends from high school who were living in the area, but I mostly recreated my life in the town. I was now an employee of the public school system, not a student. As a substitute teacher, my elementary, middle, and high school teachers were now co-workers. I also made friends with people of all ages and various professions, whereas my younger self would have made friends only with people around my age.

Despite my limited experience in small-town France, I’d say that the majority of differences between French and American towns are actually larger cultural and linguistic differences characteristic of each country as a whole. There are many more similarities between small-town France and small-town America than I initially would have thought.