Bonjour à tous!
…so you’re planning to move to France? Whether you’re going abroad to work or to marry the Frenchman (or woman) of your dreams (one can dream, can’t they?), moving to a new place, let alone halfway across the world, can be a daunting experience. Even after you finish dealing with all the immigration paperwork and finally pack your bags to fly over to France, that’s only half of the process. For the next weeks, months, even years to follow, you’ll encounter plenty of things that, while possibly similar to that in the U.S., can also be so different from what you’re accustomed to back home.
True, one can say that many of these differences can be attributed to cultural dissimilarities, if not all of them. But to realize them, as well as adapt, it can take quite some effort, as well as one’s willingness to do so. For me, I’ve spent a good amount of time living abroad in France, both for studying abroad and teaching, and I can say that getting used to the French way of life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows- in fact, there are plenty of grey clouds and thunderstorms in between (an analogy which, weather-wise, isn’t too far from the climate in France, at least in the north where I mainly stayed. But I digress).
With that said, I’ve decided to compile a list of things to expect should you plan to move to France. My hope is that you can use this list to prepare for your arrival in the country, and most important avoid major culture shock which, unfortunately, has negatively affected many individuals who had other expectations of France. Again, embracing and assimilating into French culture is no easy feat, but knowing the expectations beforehand can, hopefully, make the process more bearable.
Let’s get to them!
1. Prepare for change. General as it sounds, this is probably the most crucial point that you’ll need to know upon arriving in France. From the food to the inconsistent weather (which for me, coming from consistently-sunny Los Angeles, was a painful adjustment), just know that this isn’t like living in the United States. Even your wardrobe will be altered; before moving to (northern) France, I didn’t wear so many scarves and thick, winter jackets (which made me look more like a penguin) until then. That said, being adaptable is essential to making things easier for others, as well as yourself, while living in France.
2. Things are smaller. From food portions to living space, things are just a bit tinier in France. If you’re used to your 2-lb. steak and potatoes back in the U.S. (a dish which I would also say is a gross representation of the “stereotypically-American” meal), then expect that to shrink by at least a third when in France. In fact, I believe that the portion sizes in Europe are actually what is considered the “right amount” to eat: true, that croque monsieur you order at the cafe isn’t as big as the ones you get in the U.S., but trust me, with all of that cheese and cream on top, it’ll no doubt fill you up! Don’t underestimate the heartiness of French food, let alone that in the rest of Europe!
*story time* On the topic of small things in France, one aspect that really took some time to get used to were the showers: back home in the U.S., my shower doubled as a bathtub, which I assume is what most Americans have in their houses. However, my flat’s shower in France was built like a tube, a sort-of cylinder structure that reminded me of a time machine (how weird is that?). Seriously, it was cramped; you can’t imagine just how many times I’ve hit my elbows against the shower walls in my flat!
3. Things are slower. Especially if you come from a large, fast-paced city like me, you’ll find the French way of life to be much slower than what you’re used to. At times, it can even be frustrating, since it appears that nothing is getting done. From little things like waiting for your food at a restaurant to bigger, serious matters like processing paperwork to legally work in France, it can be a huge pain in the cul (ass). But it’s important to know that there’s nothing you can really do to speed up the process; even if you push, it won’t necessarily make things move faster. The French do things at their own pace, so it’s a matter of being patient (extremely patient, at times) and just waiting it out.
4. Being late is a given. I pride myself in always being punctual to everything: classes, meetings, work, etc. But I’ve quickly learned that not too many people share the same mindset as mine, especially in France. It’s not unnatural to see people run five, even fifteen minutes late to class…and they are the teachers. Want to meet up with a friend for coffee at 2 pm? Expect more like 2:15 pm. You might not be so happy that time is wasted, but then again, you *sort of* make it up when you end up chatting with your friend for over two hours…and that in the end makes the coffee date worthwhile.
5. You’ll be treated differently. Regardless of whether you speak French fluently or not, the fact that you’ll be a foreigner will make you different to the French eye- and that’ll be apparent in just how the people treat you. They might choose to speak only English with you (as it always goes), or ask you a million questions about the U.S., many of which are gross stereotypes they’ve probably heard or seen in the media (“are all Americans really fat?” “do you eat hamburgers and fries every day?”). Instantly, you become a source of interest for the French and really, you shouldn’t get too miffed about it, considering that we, as Americans, would do the same if a French person were to come live in the U.S. Curiosity is a natural thing.
However, you should also call them out for certain things, especially when it comes to those gross stereotypes previously mentioned, or if they say things that can be quite sensitive (e.g. politics, religion, race). I don’t think the French have a good grasp on being subtle with their comments, but I’m certain that adding some knowledge to their perspectives on American culture can make things less chaud (heated) next time around.
6. Language barriers are real. Again, even if you’re fluent in French, there will still be times when things get, well, lost in translation. There might be certain words or expressions that you didn’t quite pick up the first time, which can affect your relationship with others. Or perhaps how you phrased something was taken the wrong way (trust me, that has happened to me before). Besides being completely thrown into a country with a different language than what you’re accustomed to speaking every day, miscommunication can be a very serious problem at times. The best thing to do is just to keep trying, pushing to improve your French and communicating as clearly as possible with people…even if you need to repeat yourself or ask others to repeat mille fois!
7. Making friends won’t be easy. If you want to improve your French, what better way to do so than to make some French friends to practice with? Not so fast. True, you might meet some nice folks at a bar one night or join a language exchange group to get acquainted with some great people- but to see them more than once or twice thereafter, that might be tough. It’s not as if the French don’t want to be your friend, but know that many of them already have a solid group of friends with whom they have established plans, lifestyles, even inside jokes! And you’re over there, an awkward foreigner who might not get all of the jokes and feel, unfortunately, left out.
Making friends in France isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; just know that it’ll take time for them to warm up to you (the French aren’t initially as outgoing and friendly as their American counterparts), as well as a good amount of effort from both sides to make it work. The French might not be the instant friends that you’d expected to make, but once you two are friends, you become set for life.
8. You’ll appreciate things more. My guess is that when you move to France, you’ll be living on your own. That said, the many conveniences you took for granted back in the U.S. will not really exist when in France. Depending where you live, transportation can be a real struggle (especially if you’re in a rural area) or that trains might not leave on time (usually the case). Certain stores will be closed on certain days (boulangeries tend to be closed Sundays, even Mondays), and places like banks, post offices, and cell phone stores don’t operate from 12h00 to 14h00, because everyone needs their two-hour lunch break (detect the sarcasm?). Things tend to shut down early at night (by 22h00), and 24/7 stores are pretty much nonexistent- no more 3 am runs to McDonald’s like back in college!
With all of these limitations, you’ll quickly realize how much you appreciated your life back at home; however, adjusting to your new life in France can have its perks once you figure out the system!
9. Your viewpoints will be challenged. This isn’t to say that the French will antagonize you on your views of the world, at least not directly. The French love to talk, and debating is one way of going about it. Don’t take it personally when they tell you their views on politics and society that you might not necessarily agree with; this is just their way of passing the time, as well as offering food for thought on an intellectual level.
At the same time, you might find their viewpoints drastically different from yours. There are definitely certain topics that you shouldn’t talk about with the French, as they’re seen as taboo in society: race, religion, how much you earn, etc. In some respect, the French are more conservative in their beliefs, at least compared to where I grew up in (i.e. liberal Los Angeles), and can be quite stubborn. In other words, they aren’t very partial to change and you’ll just have to accept that about them. French culture is more different than American culture in many aspects, so it’s important not to wish or try to make it your own. At the end of the day, it’s about respecting the culture you’re in, and that’ll make things run smoothly for you and others.
10. Peanut butter doesn’t exist in France. Well, partly true…you can get peanut butter (or “beurre de cacahuète,” as it’s called) in specialty stores, but otherwise you won’t see them on shelves at your local supermarket. And if you’re a huge fan of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups like I am, you’ll have to dig deep to find them- otherwise, you’ll have to ask for a delivery package to be sent to you back in the U.S.!
…all right, that’s about it for now! I’m aware that some of these points addressed might be a downer for those excited to move to France, but these are just my thoughts having lived abroad for a considerable amount of time. With many not-so-good aspects about France, there are just as many good ones out there, and so it’s up to you to find those moments to remind you what made you come in the first place. And that’s why many of us, including me, would choose to return to France, time and time again.
Have any tips to leave for aspiring French expats? Let me know!