Bringing French outlook to Windy City life

Women crossing Michigan Avenue with shopping bags

Small niceties make life in the big, bad city more civilized

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been back in Chicago for over three months. In many ways, it feels as if I left France years ago. Sure, it’s a completely modern country with all the conveniences we enjoy here in the States, but it often feels a million miles away. As I said in my last post, what I knew for sure was that my year in France would “continue to shape my perspective and worldview in ways I can’t yet imagine.”

Often, it’s the small things that can be the most profound. Just this weekend, I realized that living in France – even just for one year – has had a real impact on my behavior here in the Windy City.

Here’s an example. In France, whether you’re talking big-city Paris, small village or elegant Riviera town, you always acknowledge people who provide you a service. It’s terribly rude to walk into a store without exchanging the greetings Bonjour! or Bonsoir! with the clerk or owner when you arrive – and equally gauche to leave without saying Merci – au revoir (thank you – goodbye). Or when you get on a city bus, you never forget to greet the driver of said bus when you board.

Now that I’m back in Chicago, maintaining these niceties is important to me – and in fact, they’ve become second nature. If I’m picking up something at a city or suburban department store, I make eye contact with and smile at sales clerks as I walk by, even if I don’t need their help. When I enter or exit the elevator in my South Loop condo building, I say a general ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’ to those already inside. (Think that’s no big deal? Folks do this far less often than you might imagine.)

When I go into the cozy, family-owned Sandmeyer’s Bookstore in my Printers Row ‘hood, I don’t just thrust my purchase and credit card at the owner. I make small talk; we talk about our travels and shared experiences in Europe. It makes this crazy big city feel much more like a friendly village. CTA bus drivers may be shocked to hear my lyrical hellos (mine may be one of the few pleasant greetings they get from passengers all day), but isn’t that a far more civilized way to behave?

Another example: since returning from France, I use my feet to get around. On purpose.

Here in Chicago, it’s easy to jump in a car—or even jump on a bus, El or Metra train – to run errands. Walking is a last resort for many of us, something we do only when forced. But in France, walking is so de rigueur – and probably has much to do with the commonly held belief that ‘French women don’t get fat.’ You can savor rich cheeses, hearty baguettes and red wine daily without gaining weight if you move your feet on a daily basis.

So as long as I can spare the time, I slip into some flat shoes and hit the pavement. I especially love doing this now, as I now spend most of my weekdays driving back and forth to work or parked in front of a computer. When running errands this past Saturday afternoon, what a treat to walk from the South Loop to Oak Street, mixing up my route with a stroll down bustling, tourist-filled Michigan Avenue and quieter, off-the-beaten path streets farther north. When I got home, I felt the wonderful exhaustion brought on by fresh spring air and leg muscles put to work. Before living in France, I wasn’t nearly as passionate about walking. But beyond the exercise you get, it lets you experience city life up close and personal – not merely whizzing by in a blur. For better or worse, it’s all in your face.

We’re all the sum of our experiences, so tell me In what ways have your travels, or other places you’ve lived, changed the way you now behave at home?


About Maureen Jenkins

Maureen Jenkins is a food/travel writer and communications professional who's visited nearly 35 countries and territories, lived in Florence, Italy, and recently spent a year living in a charming village near Paris, France. The self-proclaimed 'urban travel girl' talks travel, food and wine – abroad and in Chicago – in "TCW Travel Connection.” Read more of her thoughts on living globally at