8 Things That Will Shock Students Visiting France
I absolutely loved diving into the French culture for nine months. But how is it that with every country, there are some things that even after living there for several months you cannot help but think of as slightly odd. At some point, a friend showed me this hilarious YouTube broadcast titled What The F*** France? In a lovely way, it jokes about odd French habits and the culture from the perspective of a British foreigner who moved to France – and I thought it was a brilliant and fun way to deal with cultural differences!
Speaking from my German perspective, I felt I could relate to many things that were said in this show. So (in a loving way) let me tell you about MY list of things about the French culture that slightly shocked me.
Before we get to the actual list though, one quick wish: Please try to understand this article was writing as a fun little poke at the French way of life, and is not to be taken too seriously. Instead, let’s laugh together about the little odds which make our cultures so diverse!
Petit-déjeuner et diner!
Breakfast – “the most important meal of the day”. Or, at least, that’s how we Germans take it. But, in France, it’s basically not a thing. While Germans such as myself will meet up in cafes with friends to catch up over a nice full breakfast, this apparently does not exist in France. Despite there being a ton of Starbucks and other non-French coffee stores, cafés will not serve you any food before 12am. If you are lucky, you may be able to buy a croissant or a little brioche, but other than that, what the French call ‘breakfast’ seems to be limited to a black coffee and the paper they’re reading.
Dinner, on the other hand, is a real celebration. First of all, in France, you have dinner very late and then you gather with a whole bunch of people who all bring baguettes, cheese, wine and other dishes (and yes, wine basically counts as a dish here) and then you just eat, chat and drink for hours!
I really enjoyed this habit, because it is a great way to enjoy some relaxed and fun moments with your people.
You can’t go anywhere without seeing people smoke in France. In university, there are sometimes even extra breaks within and during the lectures because both the professor and the students want or need to have a cigarette. You get the impression that it is just natural and maybe even a genetic thing to have to hold a cigarette in your hand at all times.
The truth is it is simply not a big deal to be a smoker in France. You would think there should a big discussion about the health impacts or that people are just not aware of those impacts. But since even in the early years of high school most French teenagers are smokers and everyone seems perfectly fine with it. You will soon learn that the French just don’t care. Smoking in France is chic, if not polite. It seems to be like the need of drinking enough water in a day to not get dehydrated.
There’s Dog Poop EVERYWHERE!
Walking through French cities is dangerous! You have to stay focused, at all times, because if not… you are guaranteed to step on a not-too-good-smelling surprise. In French cities you literally can’t walk on the sidewalk without permanently checking the ground, to avoid ruining your shoes and eventually day. It is a cliché, but a true one and one that just kept me thinking to myself: “MERDE!”
PDA is totes acceptable.
Before I came to France, I sort of knew that the French are big with “l’amour” and showing their affection to one another – especially when they’re in a romantic relationship. But let’s be real, this is the understatement of the century! When my friends and I would go out, we were (quite involuntary) testimonials to this liberal intimacy French couples were not shy about showing off in public. I mean, come on guys! Sometimes you nearly couldn’t identify if there were one or two people laying on the grass.
Faire La bise.
One thing which is related to the former point of showing affection is the French way of saying “Hello!”, or salut, bonjour and bonsoir.
These days, it is pretty common to hug friends and shake the hands of strangers when you great them, right? Not in France! As if meeting strangers isn’t awkward enough, la bise will bring it to a whole other level. It is a gesture in which two people kiss each on the cheek and, in doing so, you have to make a quick kissing sound. You may think now, “Okay, that sounds weird,” but, simply, it isn’t simple at all. It is very complicated actually, due to the fact that there is no certainty how many kisses you need to give and with which cheek to start with. See the problem? This could cause a lot of social awkwardness and involuntary exchange of lip to lip contact!
Even the French have problems with it, so they’ve created the website www.combiendebises.com, where people from different regions of France voted for the number of kisses and the starting side for their regional kisses. One additional difficulty is that when you go out with a group of people you cannot just say hello to the whole group. MAIS NON, QUELLE IDÉE, you have to go to every single person and do la bise with them and then you have to do the same when you leave. Oh, and every time a new person arrives, this person again has to go around and do la bise!
Even without all these complications, exchanging kisses on the cheek and basically rubbing your face on another person’s face is a pretty intimate move itself and definitely not something for everyone – especially folks who appreciate their social boundaries. By the end of my time in France I kind of got used to this whole habit, but at the same time… not really.
Unisex bathrooms are the norm.
The first time I noticed this I was really caught by surprise. In most public spaces, as well as in universities in France, you will find shared bathrooms for both sexes. In Germany, my home country, this is not a thing and I am not sure in how many countries across the world it is. But honestly, despite of first occurrence which came with doubts and irritation, this works out! In the end, it saves space and breaks down boundaries and the thinking of categories. If I think about it, I don’t know why I was even surprised – I mean this just completely reflects the French spirit liberté, egalité, fraternité right?
Bureaucracy and administration is tough.
As easy and liberal as the French are with many things is as complicated, old fashion, impractical and stuck up their administrative system is. No matter if you want to open a bank account, get a phone plan or simply get your student ID, tons of paperwork, millions of signatures and a lot of nerves and hours are needed to get there. Vive la bureaucratie! I thought German bureaucracy already was famous for being inefficient and over the top – double that amount and you’re in France! In the end, at least, I had the feeling that the staff at the university or the bank knew everything about me.
Everyone dresses up and looks flawless. Always!
It is no secret that the French are known for their sense of fashion. La mode Française has a tendency to be chic and elegant. Looks and appearance are definitely very important in French society, and not just amongst women. It is no coincidence that probably nowhere else in the world I have seen more men wear scarves and handbags than in France.
There is no such thing as wearing sweats in public or for university. French people look on point at all times; even on a Sunday when you just head out to get some food because unfortunately your fridge is empty and you’re starving.
Yes, while you or I would probably just miserably head down to the shops with no makeup, sweats on and rocking a messy bun (because no one you know will see you anyways and if so, who cares), French people would probably manage to STILL look flawless! Walking through university at times seems like a fashion show. I’m in sneakers while everyone around me is in heels. A side effect of this, however, is that nowhere else have I seen as many people exchange weird looks, judging each other’s appearance. This even starts when you go shopping, so strangers will definitely let you know in some way what they think of your purchase.
If you don’t want to say goodbye to your own style and your favourite pair of sneakers, DON’T! You may have to get familiar with the occasional looks given by others, but turn up your ‘I don’t care’ vibes and go! Not everyone can match the standards of la haute couture.
Like I said, my time in France was one of the best times in my life so far, and I wouldn’t want to miss any second of it. Like every individual, every culture has its flaws… but isn’t that what makes it so outstanding and unique? When you find yourself at the point (and this point will come for sure) in which you are over it because you’ve had a hard day handling all these unknown challenges, it is good to lean back for a moment and laugh about how ridiculous all this is.
Going abroad will confront you with many things that might annoy, shock or even scare you from time to time. But, in the end, you will learn to handle and maybe even cherish the little oddities of the culture and people surrounding you. Wouldn’t it be kind of boring if anything would be absolutely ordinary and “perfect”?
Let me know in the comments about your experiences with culture shock and odds you encountered living abroad in which country so ever!