I sent some photos of my new neighborhood to an old friend recently. He commented that I now “live in an impressionist painting”. And he’s right, the beauty of my surroundings still amazes me every day. But if those impressionist paintings could come to life, they’d tell tales of little bits and pieces of culture shock in France.
The shock is a bit more subtle than the culture shock I experienced in Taiwan, but it’s still an adjustment. And that adjustment isn’t always smooth – creating a new life in Nice takes time and patience. Daily life is often like a treasure hunt and getting things crossed off your “to do” list is a challenge.
But that’s part of the fun – overcoming those challenges to make a new home in a foreign country.
A glimpse of expat challenges and culture shock in France…
French people don’t hug when they meet but instead, they do the kiss/kiss. It’s not an actual “French kiss” but an air kiss on each cheek. French people are very uncomfortable with the American tradition of hugging.
“Bonjour” & “Merci beaucoup. Au revoir”
This is one of the first things I learned from my friend and fellow expat, Maureen. When entering a store, you greet with a “Bonjour“. The same thing applies to when you leave – you must say “Merci beaucoup. Au revoir” or you’ll risk offending. I’ve gotten used to this and I kind of like it because it forces me to practice my (still) limited French. (I’m using this French-language CD by Michael Thomas and slowly making progress…)
(Not like this…)
2.) Small talk
Being an introvert, I usually hate small talk. I’ve been forced to do it in order to expand my social circle but I really dislike it. One of the questions in the natural order of the small talk process is typically some version of “What do you do?” This question opens the door to finding common ground and more questions usually flow.
Except for one thing I recently learned – the French people HATE that question and consider it rude to even ask! I used to teach small talk in Taiwan and the forbidden questions (when speaking with Americans) were centered around politics or religion, NOT occupation.
But here in France, that question is typically answered over time, once the French person feels more comfortable opening up.
3.) Customer Service
There isn’t any, really, at least not at most restaurants (except maybe the really fancy places where I never go). Tipping is not a thing here so customer service is not a thing either. French people must find it odd when they visit the US and the waiters keep bothering them.
4.) (In)convenient stores
One thing I sometimes miss about the US (and Taiwan) is the convenience of all-night stores. In Taiwan, there’s a 7-11 on almost every corner where you can find food, drinks, and even mail packages at any time of day or night. There are no 7-11’s in Nice and most grocery stores close by 9 pm. Also, many small shops and restaurants close on Sunday and Monday.
5.) Long lunches
French people love their long lunches, which are long only by American standards but considered normal for the French. Most offices and small shops close from 12 – 2 pm and restaurants and cafes are crowded. Doing most basic errands requires that you either get up early or wait until after lunch.
6.) Awful August
I arrived in Nice last year during late July with intentions of getting an apartment, opening a bank account, and beginning the paperchase for my visa. Unfortunately, nothing gets done in August, a month when French people just disappear and many businesses close for their long August holiday.
Luckily, there is a perceptible shift when the calendar changes over to September. The air cools down, the crowds of August tourists depart, and business returns to normal.
7.) Fashion faux pas
When I lived in Taiwan, I left the house wearing whatever happened to be clean. Running around town doing errands, I rarely ran into people I knew and I usually didn’t worry about my appearance.
It’s a bit different here in France. French people are much more stylish and actually make an effort to look good. You rarely see French women grocery shopping in sweats or hanging out at a cafe wearing yoga pants. I have adapted (somewhat) and now actually think (a little) about what I wear when I leave the house. I even bought a stylish Panama hat to replace my trademark turquoise baseball cap.
8.) The Paperchase
The French just love paperwork and bureaucracy and the paperchase required to apply for a long-stay visa is insane. But it doesn’t end there! Once you’ve been granted a long-stay visa, there is still more paperwork required to apply for your carte de sejour (residency permit). There are papers, copies of documents, translated documents, and more papers in triplicate. It’s the French way.
9.) Carpe Diem!
I’ve had a few American friends visit since I moved here and dining out with them has made me realize that I’m slowly becoming French in subtle ways. While they eat like most Americans (fast), I slowly pick at my food, sip my wine, and chat while savoring my meal. Dining out is an event to be enjoyed without rushing.
Yesterday I indulged in two scoops of gelato (chocolate blanc and Oreo cookie) on a sunny September afternoon – just because. I sat by a fountain in the quaint Plaza Rosetti and slowly savored every bite of those two scoops, even moaned a little bit, while admiring the colorful buildings that line the square. I exhaled slowly and relaxed.
That’s one of the many things I love about the French; their ability to slow down and savor life’s simple things. Like ice cream on a sunny day. Guilt-free.
10.) Don’t sweat it!
French people don’t sweat. Americans sweat and, for some reason, French people just don’t. According to locals, this summer has been hotter than usual. From mid-June to late-August, I’m a sweaty mess with hair in a ponytail and little or no makeup since I’ll just sweat it off. I carry a fan in my purse for emergencies when my sweat glands explode and I need immediate relief. Meanwhile, beautiful French women strut down the street with perfect hair, flawless makeup, and not a bead of sweat on their perfectly made-up faces. How do they do it?
The same situation applies at the gym, according to my friend Jess who has taken quite a few exercise classes with French women – they just don’t sweat. I don’t know why. It just is.
Culture shock and expat struggles – a tale of two expats:
When I lived in Taiwan, I met an American expat, Shannon, who arrived in the country and expected it to be easy. She was one of those LOUD Americans who is partly to blame for that stereotype that the rest of the world often has. Shannon had connections and was able to get a job teaching English even though she had no experience. Her same connection opened doors to an affordable apartment and a scooter.
Everything was handed to her on a silver platter, and still, she couldn’t cope with the culture shock. Her illusions of a new life in Taiwan did not match the reality of daily life.
One day she just disappears. She doesn’t quit her job or even say goodbye, she just vanishes during the middle of the night.
And then there’s Lynette, my friend here in Nice who recently started to pack her bags and was preparing for a return to the US. Lynette arrived in Nice with no connections but a solid plan to learn French and get a job.
She enrolls in a language school, gets a student visa (which allows her to work), and finds a great apartment (on her third try).
But learning a new language takes time, especially French. Jobs in Nice aren’t that easy to come by, especially in August when nothing gets done. So, she makes plans to sell most of her stuff and head back to the US (reluctantly) but still doesn’t give up the fight.
Finally, September rolls around and she gets a job interview!
The morning of the interview she gets up early to walk the dog – and she accidentally locks herself out of her second-floor apartment! In a panic, she runs the two blocks to my house with her tiny dog in tow. She has no phone and there is no way to reach her landlord. And her job interview is in 2 hours!
The only option we have is to call the fire department to get a ladder up to her patio.
An hour later, a handsome French fireman extends his long ladder to her open patio door and rescues her. She takes a quick shower and rushes off to her job interview in a panic, arriving just a few minutes late.
And she gets the job! (True story – I couldn’t make the stuff up! Well, except for the “handsome” part.)
It seems The Universe (or God or whoever) was testing her to see how badly she really wanted her new life in Nice. But unlike Shannon in Taiwan, Lynette fought through roadblocks and is dealing with the culture shock in France, fears of the future, and the many challenges of daily life.
The culture shock in France – it’s real. But now that I’ve adapted to the long lunch hours, the endless paperchase, and the other cultural quirks, life in Nice is amazing! Sometimes it feels like I’m an actor playing a part in a French film or a subject existing within one of those impressionist paintings.
Life in Nice – always beautiful and endlessly interesting.