12 August 2013

Comparing and Contrasting

It's not really fair to compare and contrast two different cultures and civilizations but, hell, I do it all the time. As many of you have figured out, my blog posts often follow the in-the-U.S.-this-and-in-Brazil-that pattern. But I've decided to give the U.S. a break today and turn my sights to France. How can I not? Three weeks in France gave me material galore.

Going beyond the famous Venn Diagram-style of comparing and contrasting, here are some in-Brazil-this-and-in-France-that observations that struck me the most, in no particular order:

These days, when you check in to a hotel in Brazil, you still have to fill out a form at the reception desk, informing them of your nationality, sex, age, your passport number, how you arrived at the hotel, where you're traveling from, where you're next traveling to, and so on and so forth. But at no hotel in France did we ever fill out anything, whether we had reserved or not. All they wanted was our name if they didn't already have it. Who we were, where we were from, our car's license plate number, our favorite foods, nothing was of interest. Remember when you used to have to leave your passport at the hotel reception desk in any European country for the hotel to register with the police? Boy, have times changed!

In Brazil they've kept the "service" in service station. They still have uniformed attendants who pump your gas, check your oil, fill your tires, wash your windows, and even serve you coffee. France, on the other hand, has adopted the annoying and human-less pump-your-own approach. Me, I'll stick to Brazil and New Jersey.

OK, but where's the red button of the instructions?
In Brazil there is a safe in nearly every hotel room we've ever stayed in, whether the hotel is two-, three-, four- or five-star. The instructions are clear enough for a child to operate. During our travels in France we stayed in a total of 11 different hotels. Only three had safes in the rooms and, of those three, only one had clear instructions! I guess there's something admirable about a country that has no security issues.

Brazilians use plastic gloves in restaurant kitchens, in bakeries, at the deli counters, in short whenever there might be the slightest chance that their hands will touch your food. In addition, every wisp of Brazilian hair is tucked carefully inside a hairnet so as to prevent contamination. On the other hand, the French grab your food and serve it barehanded, letting bacteria land where it may. And in at least one bakery, I watched with some amusement as an employee kept whipping her long hair around, and with each toss of her head her ponytail hit the breads on display behind her. The French do, however, use plastic gloves when pumping their own gas. The gloves are offered in handy dispensers, alongside paper towels. Very hygienic.

In Brazil the public bathrooms are cleaned constantly, whether they're in high-end shopping malls or lowly gas stations. Here I always know the public toilets will be as clean as they are in my own house. Over there in la belle France? Well, I only used one public bathroom, and I made sure never to repeat that traumatic experience. It was in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, an otherwise beautiful city.

Most Brazilian restaurants will serve you anything you want at any time of day, and stay open until the last customer wipes his chin, heaves a satisfied sigh, and leaves. In France, most restaurants serve within very rigid schedules (non, Madame, lunch is from 12:00 to 2:30, and dinner from 7:00 to 9:30). Hungry at 4:00 in the afternoon? Tant pis. Just want a drink during the hours of food service? You'll have to sit at the bar, don't even think of occupying a table. Tables are for diners only — even if there aren't any. All this rigidity and discipline, though, probably goes a long way to explaining why the French are all still so skinny.

In Brazil you hardly ever see a convertible and, if you do get the rare glimpse, the top is never down. I’m figuring that speaks more to fear of violence than to car preferences. In France I was really struck by the number of convertibles cruising the roads, all with their tops down. Could have been spring break in Fort Lauderdale.

I'm happy to announce that in Brazil, smoking in public places is mostly a relic of the past. In France? Oh, boy. Puff puff puff puff. Not inside, at least, but outside, on the café terraces, where the best people-watching seats are. Wherever we went we were relegated to the boring and empty interiors unless, that is, we wanted to inhale clouds of secondhand smoke. The most discouraging part of all — and this is serious — is that the vast majority of those who are smoking are young people.

I've written before about all the golden-age perks for the elderly in Brazil, half price at all cultural and sporting events, free rides on public transportation . . . but over in France there are no deals for the elderly, nothing, nada, zip, rien. Oh, unless you belong to the European Community, and even that only goes for an occasional museum. And surprisingly, when we took the French subway, Mark and I looked for the signs we used to see asking people to give up their seats by the doors for "the elderly, the pregnant, and wounded war veterans." But they're gone now. (The signs, I mean. The elderly, the pregnant and the wounded war veterans can be seen hanging on to the straps for dear life.)

In Brazil, and particularly Búzios, the locals wear flat shoes and the tourists wear high heels. In France, it seemed that the locals were in the high heels and the tourists were in the comfortable flats. Just a curiosity for those who, like myself, are shoe-oriented.


  1. Really difficult to compare and contrast two different cultures in my opinion it is better to understand and respect each culture.

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  2. It is only with the utmost respect that I tease my Brazilian and French friends in what was, of course, merely a humorous post.