France, Italy, and an Attitude Adjustment

Inside of its glass dome sits a beautiful scene—city or countryside—the setting may change, but the premise doesn’t. The painted porcelain depicts a place I don’t want to forget. Settled at the bottom is a dusting of white with a bit of sparkle thrown in for good measure. It’s a little something that can easily be tucked inside of a suitcase and then set on a shelf as memento. Though, I’m rarely content to just let the globe be. Instead, I instinctively shake it like a carton of orange juice until the once-clear liquid is littered with white glitter. I’m memorized watching it wash over the scenery, before it again settles at the bottom of the globe.

France and Italy Photos9 1

After being in France for six weeks, I grew accustomed to the French ways. Metaphorically speaking, the snow was comfortably resting on the bottom of my globe. Enveloped in the language, I instinctively responded to people in French, or at least whatever French I could muster. And thanks to my Bordeaux and Normandy trips, I started deciphering some conversations in French. I dressed simply in black, lowered my voice, and mastered the dainty double cheek kiss. I had a firm grasp on the metro system, as well as the stone-cold face required to survive it.

Yes, I was comfortably cruising along in my own little French world, until my flight landed in Venice. Walking into Marco Polo Airport felt like someone picked up my snow globe and shook the hell out of it. But it wasn’t someone who did the shaking. I did it on my own volition.

France and Italy Photos8 1

Bonjour became buongiorno and merci became grazi. The language change was just the tip of the iceberg. I’d flown a little over two hours and landed in what felt like a completely different world. This seriously messed with my head and took me a good three days to get acclimated. This wasn’t the first time I’d been in the country. I’ve always adored Italy—the culture, food, traditions, and even the crass catcalls and whistles. Something was different this time around, and honestly, I think I suffered a bit of culture shock. Black became white and up became down. I was befuddled.

Let me explain.

Even though it’s a city of millions, I find Paris to be a quiet place. Of course, I’m not referring to the squeals of sirens or honking of horns. Instead, it’s the people who are quiet. Nobody speaks on the metro. Even packed to the gills during the evening commute home, it’s like a college library during finals. In restaurants, ‘inside’ voices are used and loud bursts of laughter are often met with cutting of the eyes from fellow patrons. In France, I can always identify the tourists…because I can hear their entire conversations. It’s annoying, and I now find myself peering at offenders like a Parisian.

France and Italy Photos6

The rules are simple when in Paris. Strangers aren’t smiled at. Ever. Gregariously speaking with your hands is something only crazy people do. Hugs of any kind aren’t acceptable. A prim and proper kiss on each cheek is all you’re allowed. To make things even more confusing, these rules don’t necessarily apply to the rest of France, except for hugging. And despite my natural tendency for giving big, chest-to-chest bear hugs,  I’ve now been conditioned to the French way.

Kiss. Kiss.

Italians, on the other hand, are the antitheses of the French, with the exception of the double cheek kiss. But even in their kisses, Italians do it with more passion and gusto. It’s not some sort of ass-out, air kiss like the French. Italians smiles are broad, even to strangers. Voices are loud–like seriously loud. During the first two days in Venice, I thought everyone was angry with one other. Several times I even found myself shouting over my sardines just so the waiters could hear me.

France and Italy Photos20

When speaking, Italians move their arms more than a symphony conductor. And expecting them not to talk with their hands is like asking water not to be wet. It’s just impossible. Overtly passionate are the Italians, which is something I truly love about the country. There’s no need to decode how they’re feeling. It’s obvious to anyone within shouting distance. This is the antithesis of the French way.

Arguably, Paris and Milan are the epicenters for fashion in the world. There’s a mile-long list of acclaimed French and Italian design houses, and like two heavyweight champion contenders, they go head-to-head for supremacy. Countless books and articles have been written on how to dress like a Parisian or feel confidently sexy like an Italian. It may sound cliché, but French and Italian style is aspirational, but they are distinctively different.

After six weeks of seeing a sea of sleek black outfits topped with scarves tied a bazillion different ways and hipster glasses, it’s a refreshing change of pace to see color and patterns. Don’t get me wrong. I love the sophistication of a black outfit like little else, but there’s just something about Italian style that is fun and a bit less serious.

France and Italy Photos7

The other night after a heaping bowl of Venetian seafood spaghetti, I strolled through the alleyways around Piazza San Marco, where I happened upon the Moschino store. In one of the windows was a purse that looked like a revolver inside of its holster, and in another was an entire capsule collection inspired by Sponge Bob Square Pants and McDonald’s. I realize that there are plenty of classic Italian designers {Giorgio Armani} and that Moschino is at the far left of the Italian fashion spectrum, but can you imagine putting such a thing in Chanel’s window on rue Saint-Honoré? God, I hope not.

France and Italy Photos3

It’s not just the style of clothes that differentiate the French from Italians; it’s the way they’re worn. French women tend to be a bit more modest, but certainly not in a Saudi Arabian sort of way. Maybe there’s an extra blouse button left undone, a leg peeking out of a skirt slit, or a shirt slipping off the shoulder. In general, their style of dress is sexy in an understated sort of way.

Italians, on the other hand, are more overt. Skirts are shorter and necklines lower. Everything is tighter, no matter the body shape. Hello, Donatella Versace? Let me put it this way: I’ve seen more cleavage in my few days in Venice than I saw in six weeks in Paris, and I was there for fashion week!

France and Italy Photos1

I’m drawn to both Italy and France, but for different reasons. I notice, appreciate, and celebrate the differences between the two countries. One is not necessarily better than the other. It’s simply a matter of preference {and I think everyone knows mine}. Though, it perplexes me how two countries sharing the same border can be polar opposites in so many ways.

That’s actually one of the reasons why I love Europe so much. For me, the continent is like a Whitman’s sampler of assorted chocolates. I can take a bite of the white chocolate, and if I don’t like it, I simply move on to the English toffee square. No big deal. However, France and Italy are the cherry cordial and cashew cluster of the sampler, the two pieces that I reach for first.

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I’ll be in Italy until the end of October, where I’m sure to have conversations at a high volume. I’ll most likely use lots of hand gestures, with a big smile on my face. I may even give a hug or two, just for old-time’s sake. And when I return to Charles de Gaulle Airport, I’ll revert to my adopted French decorum, and again, my snow globe will become cloudy.

Shake. Shake. Shake.

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  • Lynne Nieman
    October 18, 2014

    How eloquently you described the differences. I have only been to Paris and have been to Italy now 4 times (I’m in Toscana now). But, Italy is very different – loud, boisterous, grand, big, large, colorful. It’s woman wearing black bras under white shirts. It’s men openly staring at a pretty woman. Gotta love it! There is no perfect country and no one place that gets it right. We just all probably have our preferences. I probably prefer Italy as I tend to have a loud, from the belly kind of laugh that even gets me looks in the States. Love this article and plan to share it, Leah.

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      My mannerisms are far more Italian than French, so I’m with you. Thank you so much, and I hope you enjoyed Tuscany.

  • Traveling Ted
    October 18, 2014

    Interesting that two countries so close can be so different. I felt the same way when I spent a month in Thailand and crossed into Cambodia. I loved this look into the different cultures of both countries.

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      I’ve not been to Thailand or Cambodia. You’ll have to explain the differences to me over a pint or two.

  • Amanda
    October 18, 2014

    Very well-written – and I totally noticed these differences, too, though I certainly didn’t spend enough time in Paris to ever feel like I “fit in.”

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      Thank you, Amanda. Though, I’m not sure I really fit in in Paris. One can only dream…

  • Geri
    October 19, 2014

    I like to visit both France and Italy and I do so because I’m getting annoyed with the differences you mention. In France it is the scrutiny, in Italy the noise and extravagance that my taste can’t support for long time. But no doubt, these are the two countries in the world that give the visitor the most sophisticated and peculiar experience! Have fun in Italy! 🙂

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      You’re so right, Geri! It can get very annoying, but I just choose to embrace it. That makes life far less frustrating.

  • shikha (whywasteannualleave)
    October 19, 2014

    What a fascinating read & beautifully written post! I’ve been to both countries a few times and I have to say I couldn’t agree more with the observations you have made! I think I’d never really stopped to notice them though. I think I have a slight inclination towards Italy though I’d love to revisit Paris and see if I would feel differently after a gap of so many years!

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      I think people fall into a “France” or “Italy” camp. Obviously, I am a Francophile, but I still adore Italy. Just something about that place….

  • Kieu
    October 19, 2014

    I always knew there was a reason why I fit in nicely, loudly with the Italians! I’m on the same volume as they are! Hahaha..

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      You loud? Nooooooo….

  • Pola (JettingAround) (@jettingaround)
    October 21, 2014

    Hey Leah, I really enjoyed reading this because Italy and France are two if my favorite countries and those I always want to go back to. It really is perplexing how different that are, despite being so close geographically. Somebody once described me as having French and Italian traits (and i thought i was an Americanized Pole) and honestly I couldn’t choose between the two. Depends on my mood I guess. Oh, I love your little black dress!!

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      It’s tough to choose. When I was in France, I didn’t want to leave for Italy. When I was in Italy, I didn’t want to leave for France. Life is so difficult some times. 😉

      Thank you…that’s the dress I wore to Fashion Week in Paris. 🙂

  • Lance | Trips By Lance
    October 21, 2014

    I never paid attention to these things until traveling to France with an outgoing American child (my own). Watching those Parisian children compared to our son was amusing. They are very subdued. I think I fit in more with the Italian way. I do love how classy everyone is in both countries. And speaking of those children, when my son was on a playground in Paris those French kids are just like everyone else in the world: they like to have a good time. They just do it in a hushed voice.

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      Parisian kids are so well behaved, for the most part. The Italian kids? Well, let’s just say I walked by a school in session and my eardrums almost broke.

  • Erin at The World Wanderer
    October 22, 2014

    SpongeBob! Haha, I can’t get enough of that!

    It’s funny, I recently revisited Italy, but haven’t been back to Paris in years. The two places are so different, and it’s so funny that they reside on the same continent. Italy is a place I could return to year after year, month after month, and never grow tired of. I find the Italians so entertaining and interesting.

    I really must get back to Paris and soon! I barely remember how I felt when I was there.

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      The Italians are absolutely entertaining. Just watching them speak to one another is like watching a soap opera–so expressive.

  • Francesca (@WorkMomTravels)
    October 29, 2014

    You’ve pretty much put into words the reasons I have felt no desire to go to Paris. I’ll stick with Italy.

    Very enjoyable read. Love the snow globe analogy.

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      Come on! Give Paris a chance, for moi?!?

  • Jenna
    October 30, 2014

    What a fun autumn you’re having! I prefer the Italian way and feel more comfortable with it since Brazilians are similar in many ways. It will be interesting to see how we adjust when in Paris next year. And I agree about the draw of Europe–it’s fascinating how different places can be even though they are so close geographically.

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      Yes, I found the Italians very similar to Brazilians. Must be their shared Latin ways. I’ll be curious to read your observations on Paris. When are you going?

  • Stephanie
    October 31, 2014

    Nice description on the differences between these two cultures. It’s hard to believe they’re so close yet the people are so different! Though I’m not sure what to think about the new Moschino line.

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      Check out the Moschino Website. In Rome, I saw a elegant gown, but it had cheese crackers screen printed on the front. That’s just crazy!

  • Dee Dorsoduro
    November 4, 2014

    Italians are Latin. French are not and both countries have been very, very heavily infiltrated by immigrants.

    • Leah Walker
      November 17, 2014

      Yes, that is true.

  • cecile
    December 26, 2018

    Im french and was with an italian for decades. At first the differences are interesting but after awhile the loudness and ability to tell anyone your life story grates on your nerves, to be french is everything in moderation and to be italian is everything over done…. to be french is little emotion if any unless you know the person well and italian is over the top drama all of the time. being anti social of groups of loud folks, being involved in politics and causes, being a person that questions all are typical french traits . i really thought a loud popular italian would be good for me and vice versa but it wound up to be a nightmare. no middle ground as far as the italians are concerned and no frankness no criticism of any sort, French people like to know what s wrong and work on it but italians freak and for french wasting all that time hanging out drinking eating and being jolly at loud establishments is not a french thing,

  • Margo
    June 3, 2019

    I think it’s a little unfair to compare the two countries when most Americans have only ever been to Paris in France whereas many travel to various cities in Italy… Even people in the comments are talking about ‘Paris vs Italy’. Why are you comparing a city to an entire country? You cannot claim to know a country and its people if you’ve only ever been to the capital. Paris is a world all on its own, most French do not associate with the Parisian lifestyle. I recommend you visit the south – Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon – and then see if your thoughts have changed (talking to people in the comments, not you specifically).

    • Leah Walker
      June 27, 2019

      Yep! I agree….it’s like thinking that all Americans are like New Yorkers. I’ve lived in France for over four years now and agree that France is not just Parisians.


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