Living as an Expat in France: Culture Shock

Living as an Expat in France: Culture Shock

Can you believe it’s already been six months since I moved to France?

The time has seriously flown by. Granted, I did go back home for two weeks to go camping with my family. And, we went to Tanzania. And did a road-trip through the Republic of Georgia. And we somehow found time to do a week of camping each in the French Alps and in Auvergne (pictures forthcoming!).

So, I guess you can see why I’ve been a little busy.

It feels like so much has changed over the past six months. Moving to a foreign country is a huge adventure, but it also comes with challenges. A LOT of challenges, guys.

I think one of the reasons why I’ve put off writing this post for so long is because I’ve been a bit nervous to tell you all that things aren’t perfect over here.

To be fair, things aren’t perfect *anywhere*, but I know that if I knew someone who moved to France, I wouldn’t really want to hear their complaints about it.

Well, tough shit guys, because that’s going to be a large part of this post.

Yes, of course there’s amazing baguettes and wine and the French countryside and did I already mention baguettes?

So, there you have it. Baguettes, wine, and the French countryside are the good things so let’s move on to the nasty stuff, right?

Maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. Of course being with Geoffroy is amazing, his family and friends are all wonderful, and it is so beautiful here that I feel like I’m in a dream.

But the life of an immigrant in a new country isn’t so easy. I’ve gotten off very easy with most of the paperwork and bureaucracy side of things because I’m self-employed and American.

I didn’t have to wait in line for years for a lottery visa like many people do if they want to move. And I know I’m living in France and not somewhere that seems, on the outside, horribly different from what I’m used to. And I know I’ve visited more than 50 countries so you would think I’d be immune to culture shock by now… but somehow, even with all of these things on my side, it still kind of feels like shit living over here.

Now, this is not necessarily a problem with living *in France* so much as it is an issue of living in a place where I don’t speak the language, I don’t know how to do anything, and I don’t have all the same rights and freedoms as I did in my country of origin.

With this in mind, I’m going to split this post up into three parts: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good will be a quick run-down of all the things I adore about living here. The Bad is a review of the specific things that are driving me nuts about France. The Ugly will be about the challenges I’m facing living in a place where my autonomy is akin to that of a toddler.

I’m going to pepper this post with photos of France that I’ve taken since I’ve been here, so you can take my complaints with a grain of salt.

Ready? Go!

The Good

Do you really even need me to explain all of the ways it is awesome to live in France?

I mean, I already covered baguettes, wine, and the French countryside so I’m not sure what else to say. But really, the baguettes and wine are out of this world.

Oh, in case you were wondering, it turns out that dating a Frenchman is quite fun.

I don’t know if this is specifically a French-guy thing, or if his parents just did a *really* good job, but this guy is on top of shit.

He cooks, he cleans, he takes care of the bills, he drove me everywhere before I bought my car, my cats love him more than they love me, and he’s romantic in this oh-so-charming way where he doesn’t know he’s doing it. Does that make sense? It’s like the romance is just a part of daily life, not dressed up with hearts and flowers and only on Valentine’s day.

Another thing: in France, everyone appreciates beauty. People are always pointing out cute things seen from the car window, or raving about some exquisite food they tasted, or admiring how pretty a particular color is on an item of clothing.

It’s always these little things, but the French seem to treasure *everything*. You can see this in the language a bit, especially when they refer to something as “little” (petit/petite). When something is particularly cute, or sweet, or special, they’ll add the word petit/e in front of the name for it just to emphasize how precious it is.

Even their names for things like boyfriend (petit-ami, or “little friend”), mother-in-law (belle-mere, or “beautiful mother”), and step-brother (beau-frere, or “handsome brother) show a sense of appreciation.

I don’t know if the French appreciate beauty because there is so much of it over here, or if France is so beautiful because the French appreciate it so much. Chicken and egg problem I think.

Other random things I love about being here:

  • In most of the small villages in our region, the public lights are extinguished after ten p.m., so we always have a nice view of the stars at night.
  • I always know what time it is because the church bells are constantly ringing (this only recently moved off of my “annoyances” list).
  • It’s much easier to travel within Europe and Africa from here.
  • The healthcare system is awesome.
  • People don’t care as much about money.
  • Salad at the end of the meal is a fantastic improvement.
  • It is legal and acceptable to drink wine at a picnic.
  • Practically nothing has to be refrigerated.
  • Kissing everyone hello and goodbye – this is really starting to grow on me.
  • The food is less processed and people care more about being healthy.
  • Living abroad is an adventure!

Alright, that was a short section. But you’re really just here for the complaining right?

The Bad

Okay guys, settle in and prepare for some AMERICAN WHINING!

If I had to nail down one thing that I miss the most about the U.S. (excluding all of the people I miss, of course) it would be convenience.

I never realized how entirely freaking convenient everything was back home! You have all-night grocery stores, mail delivered on weekends, 24-hour restaurants, shops open on public holidays, food delivery, etc.

Part of my current problem is just where we live. We live in a little village (population: 310) in the Jura region of France. Never heard of it? That’s because no one has.

We’re about halfway between Lyon and Geneva, if that helps. It’s absolutely gorgeous here, but living so rurally we just don’t have access to the same conveniences of city living.

Now, I’ve never lived in a French city, but I’ve visited a time or two, and I know that convenience isn’t always the order of the day there, either.

Restaurants are usually only open from 12pm-2pm, and 7pm-10pm. I was pretty used to eating dinner at 6pm before I moved here, so that’s been quite an adjustment.

More than once I’ve been to an event which included dinner where we didn’t actually sit down to dinner until after 11pm.

Pharmacies (the only place you can buy bandaids, cough syrup, pain reliever, etc.) are closed every day from 12pm-2pm and usually shut down by 6pm in the evening.

We’re only about 20 minutes away from a proper “city” so we drive there a lot when we need to run errands. It’s always a game of “oh shit, what time is it?” because if it’s between 12pm and 2pm, every shop, pharmacy, office, bank, and store in the city is closed. If it’s NOT between 12pm and 2pm, every restaurant in the city is closed.

It’s always a race to get out of the house and get everything down before the dreaded 12-bell chorus, because otherwise you’re stuck waiting around in town for two hours before the shops re-open.

Of course, it would be lovely to just use that time to sit down to a nice lunch, right? Wrong, obviously.

Half the time when we show up somewhere, at the proper time of day, the place is closed anyway.

Sometimes there’s a note on the door explaining that they will return (when?), sometimes there’s just nothing.

Sometimes the place has obviously gone out of business years before but never bothered to take down all the signs and advertisements directing you there. Restaurants often go out of business after only a few years, so you can never trust any signs you see that point you to somewhere to eat. Same goes for gas stations.

If we do find somewhere that is open, 85% of the restaurants in this area only serve the same five things. Granted, these five things are all regional dishes, and are delicious (when prepared fresh, and in the right way).

But, guys, sometimes I just want a freaking taco. Or some Thai food. Or literally anything other than the same five options I see on every restaurant menu.

The restaurants here are also crazy expensive compared to the prices I was used to in Portland. Accompanied by that famous French customer service (or lack there-of), it’s no wonder we never go out to eat anymore.

Going out to restaurants was something I used to LOVE to do, so it feels like giving up a lot.  I also just weirdly miss food trucks, drive-thrus, coffee to-go, and take-out.

Grocery stores are closed on Sundays, restaurants are closed on Mondays, nothing is open on any of the 300 public holidays, and EVERYTHING is closed for the entire month of August when, inexplicably, the entire country takes their vacation at the exact same time.

I don’t know where any of these people are going on vacation, because even the restaurants and hotels in the touristy towns often close up shop for the entire month.

When it’s not a holiday or the entire month of August, you can still run into big problems getting things done because, inevitably, there will be a strike.

Were you planning on taking the train somewhere today? Too bad, train workers are on strike again.

Did you book a flight somewhere, and you remembered that Air France is always on strike, so you booked with another airline? Too bad, because when you get to the airport you still can’t go anywhere because the air traffic controllers are on strike.

Sometimes, La Poste goes on strike and no one gets their mail for a while. This is all just really common stuff, and no one seems to be bothered by it. There is even a little section in the newspapers which lists official strikes and demonstrations that are going on that day, so people know how to make their plans.

In the States, the customer is king. When you walk into a shop or restaurant, you are treated in a nice way (because they want you to spend money there).

Often times in France, I’m treated like I’m a huge pain in the ass for interrupting their day by trying to buy something in their shop.

I’m not saying I need a restaurant server to fawn all over me (actually, when I visit the U.S. nowadays I feel really uncomfortable with how much attention they give you in restaurants).

It would just be nice to not be treated like a nuisance when I’m there to help keep their stupid restaurant in business.

Just take my money, give me one of your mediocre five dishes, and we’ll be done with this thing.

A few more things:

  • No one here uses air conditioning and it fucking sucks.
  • There are no window screens so mosquitoes are everywhere.
  • People here believe being cold or being exposed to too much fresh air can make you sick. This includes use of air conditioning.
  • Dishwashers and dryers aren’t really a thing. I don’t really miss the dishwasher, but sometimes I wish we had a dryer so I could re-shrink my clothes, you know?
  • I miss good beer. I need more IPA in my life.
  • Speaking of beer, I really miss being able to buy pre-refrigerated beer in shops. Here you have to plan ahead and take it home to be chilled.
  • People here look at you like you’re a psychopath if you smile as you walk past them on the street.
  • Ice is not a thing. Like, not in restaurants at all, and also you cannot buy bags of ice at the store. So parties have no ice. NO ICE!

Of course, surely the French think that the way Americans handle all of these things is equally weird.

Why would we want to eat dinner before 8pm? Why wouldn’t we support our fellow citizens in exercising their right to strike in order to earn better working conditions? Why shouldn’t everyone take a daily two-hour lunch break and go on vacation for the month of August? Why would we make people work graveyard shifts just because we might want to pick up antacids at 3:30am?

I’m not saying that the way the French do things is wrong. I’m just saying it’s been really hard for me to adjust.

The Ugly

Okay, ready for the really nasty stuff?

This certainly may not be the case for everyone who moves to a foreign country, but for me, the adjustment has been a bit of a nightmare.

When I lived in the U.S., I was autonomous. I owned my own house, knew how to look after it, supported myself financially, and felt comfortable dealing with just about any situation that came up in day-to-day life.

When people made pop-culture references, I knew what they were talking about. When I wanted to buy baking soda, I knew to scan the grocery store aisle for a little orange box. If I had an issue at my bank, I could call and speak to someone about it in a language I understood.

I could drive and understand all of the road signs. I didn’t get confused and frustrated trying to buy something simple like bleach at the grocery store. I could go to a doctor’s visit by myself and not have to fight back tears of frustration because I simply couldn’t communicate my problem.

I didn’t feel useless, isolated, or like a burden on other people. I didn’t need someone else to help me all the time.

I could make new friends. I could talk to people. I could join a club, I could take yoga classes, I could meet a friend for coffee. I don’t have any of that here, and it feels like shit.

I’ve been working really hard for the past six months to learn the language, and while I can read novels in French now, I just can’t seem to get over my fear of talking.

I’m so nervous about making mistakes, being judged, and being excluded. I know I’ll never be able to make a life for myself here if I don’t speak the language, but that pressure just makes it even harder for me to speak.

At parties I’m often standing around for hours, trying to follow the conversation and laugh at the right times.

When your only social interaction involves being left out of the conversation and often times completely ignored, it really takes a toll on your sense of worth.

Occasionally I’m lucky enough to meet people who want to practice their English with me, or who are willing to put up with my halting French for a few minutes at a time, but for the most part I’m just left out of the fun.

Sometimes when people are being nice, they will talk really slowly in French so I can understand what they are saying.

This usually lasts for a minute or two, and then they will turn and address someone else in rapid French and I’m left with no idea what’s going on.

While I know that no one is intentionally trying to make me feel left out, and that it isn’t anyone else’s problem that I’m not fluent, it still hurts to be treated liked a little kid who dared to interrupt the adults.

It’s honestly so, so hard on my self-confidence. A lot of days I can’t even face going outside and dealing with it. When I go into town to do the shopping or run errands, I’m so worried that someone is going to say something to me and I just won’t understand. I hate to draw attention on myself as a foreigner.

There are so many little rules and faux-pas I don’t know about, and sometimes it feels like I’m constantly embarrassing myself.

There were times when I felt homesick a bit while traveling, but I was always around other people who were in the same situation. I could talk to them (in English!) about missing things from back home, and they would understand. Even in a city where I knew no one, I could roll up to a hostel and find a half dozen English-speakers in a matter of minutes.

The culture shock that I’m feeling now is more about feeling isolated from an entire culture, rather than just missing Taco Bell (but seriously, guys, Taco Bell!).

Okay, that’s about as heavy as this post can get, so I think it’s time to wrap things up.

Have any of you ever lived abroad? Or thought about it?

If so, I’d love if you would tell me about in the comments. Where did/would you go? What did/would you miss the most about your home?



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