The first time I left France for longer period of time than a two-week vacation, I was an au pair in Spain for about two months. Spain is not that culturally different from France so I had to wait until my two study abroad programs in the United States and my internship in Iceland to experience a real ‘culture shock’. Learning firsthand the American and Icelandic culture was very eyes-opening about my home country and culture. So here is a list of the things that were put into perspective about France when I was living abroad.
Let’s eat (and drink)! French food and winE
Before leaving the country I did not think too much about France and its reputation for gastronomy and high quality food. It was just regular food that everybody in France is used to eat. However, during my time abroad I quickly learned that there is really an emphasis on quality in the food industry in France. When comparing France to either Iceland or the US, in order to enjoy the same food quality abroad as in France the bill would be much higher abroad than what it would be in France. The same principle applies for the wine industry. Drinking wine with friends and family is very basic in France, if I were to do the same in the US I would go broke in order to have corresponding quality of wine. I also realized that we had quite strict table manners compared to the other cultures I interacted with.
Apparently we do not have the same meaning for ‘casual dress’ than the rest of the world. In the US and in Iceland it was not unusual to see people in the city center wearing sport clothes while shopping. By contrast in France wearing casual clothes it would be just wearing a pair of jeans with a t-shirt and a sweater. Wearing the described outfit when I was in college in the US would get some comments on how I was dressing up for classes which clearly indicates that we do not have the same fashion habits.
On se fait la bise ?
This particular fact does not really makes sense but it is what is: somehow kissing a stranger is alright in France but hugging is super weird. When we grow up in France we quickly learn how to great strangers and in most cases ‘faire la bise’ or kissing them on the cheeks is the appropriate way to greet someone. When I first arrived in the states it was really uncomfortable to hug people I did not know beforehand. This feeling was shared by many other French expatriates with whom I talked, awkward !
Social security or how not to go broke
This particular point did really take me by surprise. I already knew that France had a strong social security policy in place (healthcare, grant for eduction, etc.). However, I really realized how strong it was I when I got sick in the US and had to pay about 250$ for a simple visit to the doctor (not including medication). In France, I would only have pay 23€ that would be later reimburse by my health insurance.
Paperwork: Vive la France!
Everything takes time in France and paperwork is nightmare. There are so many forms to fill for a simple process and French really like to formalize any process with stamps and signatures.
The French culture and education does not really prepare people for public speaking. While speaking in public in the states is a regular activity, it is seen in France as a hassle and most French are not comfortable with speaking in public. We could really improve on this aspect.
Are the French arrogant? No way… (well maybe)
It took me some time to realize that French could be really arrogant. I argued with other students defending my country saying that French were not arrogant, a bit cold sometimes, but not arrogant in any case. That quickly changed when I worked in Iceland where every Icelander was speaking fluent English and where French tourists insisted in speaking in French to them. Then, I could finally see the arrogance of my country’s people. They were clearly thinking that everyone in the world should learn French while they could not bother with learning a few words of English.
The art of complaining: a French national sport
Complaining is an art in France, one can complain about almost everything: complaining because the weather is rainy, complaining because it’s too hot outside, and so on. So when I arrived in the US where everyone and everything was ‘great’, ‘awesome’ or ‘nice’ I realized that ‘raler’ was not something basic for everyone.
Religion: shhh keep quiet
We do not really talk about religion much in France (with the exceptions of politicians, of course). Religion is somehow considered a personal matter and you typically do not discuss it with people you barely know. In the US I realized that ‘laïcité’ or secularism was indeed a French crucial principle
Strikes and strikes (and strikes again)
This one was most obvious when I had to come back to France and had to worry that Air France or SNCF or any other organization would go in strike while I was trying to get back home. After not having to worry about that issue for many months, it was not something I looked forward to. Strikes are unfortunately a part of French culture.