Hello, my name is Ashley Nicole and I am currently an expat, living in France. Born in Canada, I was drawn to learning the French language. I was intrigued to learn and to be able to communicate in a second language. When I was in high school, I decided that one day, I would spend some time living in France, in order to better my French. Many years passed by, and eventually I started the process of making this dream come true. I picked up my life, moved in with a friend that I knew in France, and started searching for a job. I had no set timeline and had no idea what in the world would happen once I go there. Here is a bit of what it was like when I first arrived and how the French culture has made an impact on me.
Live Among the French –
French v.s. North American Culture Differences
Getting off the plane into the airport, from an English speaking country to a French speaking country, was nothing like I ever imagined. It didn’t take long until I started to feel my stomach rumbling, so I searched for a simple sandwich shop and began to weigh up my options. Why couldn’t I pronounce any of the sandwich names displayed before me. I shyly made my way up to the counter and attempted to ask for the meal that I wanted, pointing to the sandwich, hoping it would help clarify as I butchered its name during my order. The lady responded to me, speaking very quickly in French, and I had absolutely no idea what she was saying. Using my ordering logic, I figured she wanted to know if I wanted to upgrade to a meal, so I politely shook my head and responded with a, “non merci,” before paying, grabbing my lunch and timidly walking away.
Ten years! Ten years of in class French lessons, and with the simple task of ordering fast food, I had no idea what was going on. How in the world was I going make it living in this country, for this next portion of my life!?!
Fast forward eight months, and I’m still here. I can tell you though, the first little while with the new language sure wasn’t easy. I can remember clearly, my first encounters with a room full of French speakers. Everyone spoke so quickly and I could barely understand or communicate. Little did I know, in that room stood some of my soon to be closest friends. I am so grateful for the patience and kindness that was shown to me there. It didn’t seem to bother them, if they had to repeat themselves multiple times or slow down as they spoke. It truly seemed to be a judgement free zone.
The hardest part for me wasn’t being able to express myself, as I had enough of a vocabulary to be creative to explain what I wanted to say. What seemed to be the most difficult was understanding others, not only because of some of their very thick accents, but they would also use words that I hadn’t yet learned. In eight months, my French has grown so much. I can now follow most conversations, if people speak directly to me, and I feel mostly comfortable with the day to day communication. I’m not yet fluent and there is quite a bit that I still don’t understand, but I have certainly come a long way.
I highly anticipated a struggle with the language, but what I didn’t anticipate was the massive differences in culture! At the beginning, the strangest thing that I had to get used to was the “bise.” In North America, our greetings with those we know range from a wave to a hug, or most formally, a handshake. In France, they give something called a “bise,” aka a kiss. This involves touching each cheek to the other person’s and making a kissing sound. Different, right? This is how you greet your friends, your coworkers and sometimes even your boss. Entering a room filled with a bunch of friends, you are expected to give a bise to each and every person. Getting used to this was hard, but remembering that it was polite, and not wanting to offend others, really encouraged me to ease into it. To be honest, it can be a hard thing to remember to do, especially if you are the only person entering the room. Today I walked into our office and gave a simple wave and “Salut” (hey). It wasn’t until after that I realized that I forgot to go around and give everyone a bise. Fortunately, as a foreigner, I think they are a little more gracious with me.
Another cultural difference that I’ve had to adjust to is the formal politeness in conversation. Back in North America, we are very relaxed with how we address one another and carry out a conversation, but here in France, that is not the case. Not only is there a difference between how you address someone in authority (vous) and a friend (tu), but there are certain expectations on how you are meant to interact with a store employee. In my city, each time someone enters the store, the employees are expected to say hello. They will say “bonjour” or “bonsoir”, depending on what time of the day it is, and believe me, choosing the right one to say also matters. (Oh man!!) The customer is meant to respond back to the greeting, as they proceed into the store. The same is to happen with a goodbye, along with a greeting for the rest of the day such as “Have a good afternoon” or “See you soon.” Somewhere in between, we manage to squeeze in another round of hellos before a purchase and a “Thank you” which may even get a response of a, “Thank you to YOU.” It’s all about the formalities. It sometimes seems to be a little much and at times, even superficial, but oftentimes in life, politeness can go a long way.
The final thing that has been big quite different for me, is the change of pace. In North America, we tend to want and expect everything to be immediate. We typically have little time to wait for things and we jam-pack our schedules. Over here, meals with friends and family last hours upon hours. The focus seems to be a lot more on sharing life with those around you and investing in those you love. Most of the time, people don’t mind waiting in line ups in stores and when they get to the counter, if they know the person, they may end up chatting for a few minutes. (This can change, however, from city to city.) Walking down the street and in the day to day activity, people don’t seem to be in a hurry. The intention seems to be in quality verses quantity and the main driving force in the culture certainly isn’t money. It’s a lot slower pace than what I grew up with, but an incredible way to interact with life.
Believe it or not, I had quite a culture shock, when I first settled into my life here in France. I’ve only just scratched the surface of some of the many ways I’ve had to change and adjust, in order to fit in with life over here. With all of this being said, a lot of it has now become normal to me. It’s quite odd, and even a little bit scary, imagining what it will be like to go back and once again function in North American culture. I may even be a bit of reverse culture shock. I feel very fortunate to have fully experienced two very different cultures and to be able to learn and embrace some of the best things from each one of them. I hope that because of this, I can grow in the way that I see the world and improve the way that I treat those around me.
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