As a blogger, it’s probably not much of a surprise to anyone reading this that I spend too much of my time researching things on the internet. Whether I’m preparing to explore a new city, try out a new pizzeria or even just whip up a batch of fluffy pancakes, I’m constantly researching insider tips on the ‘net. I continually attempt and fail to remind myself that just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it the holy grail of all truths…. right?… right!?
Of coursing moving to France was no exception and I amassed A LOT of pre-expat research. I hunted down material on the way the French live, work, dress, behave, eat, etc… you name it, I was all over it. Of course, surprises in life are the fresh strawberries on the top of angel food cake and some things you just can’t plan for. Below are the five things no amount research could have prepared me for missing when I started my adventure across the pond.
1 | Personal Space
People might be thinking that I should have been prepared for the differences in physical space moving to Europe, but keep in mind, that my pasty butt first arrived in the southwest of France in a small town called Poitiers. Physical space is as irrelevant an issue there as it was growing up in Springfield, Illinois. Here, I’m talking more about personal space. You know that invisible bubble radiating around you? As soon as any stranger penetrates it, the hair on your arms stands to attention. Well that type of space feels virtually non-existent to me in France. Sometimes personal space is comprised during completely understandable moments, the metro during rush hour for one. But often it’s during incomprehensible times like in an empty grocery store where the only other person in the store is trailing 1 inch behind you. Or when an entire sidewalk is empty and someone still marches shoulder to shoulder with you until you break stride to get some distance. I think it’s a safe bet to say personal space radars were implemented a little differently in the French versus Americans. I still get a slight twinge every time some rando strangers are seated at the same dinner table with me. At least when they are speaking French, I can easily tune them out. When it’s loud English speakers, I spend my meal sipping wine, attempting to ignore them and contemplating the cultural differences in personal space.
2 | Cars
Oh to be free behind the wheel again. I would chew off my right arm for a morning drive to work in a car. My trusty thermos of Chai Tea by my side and the radio blasting some mean T-Swift tunes. Those. Were. The. Days. Obviously the French own cars and my Illinois license was exchanged (for free!) into a French license. So, if we ignore the fact that my skills with a stick shift are sincerely lacking, if I really wanted to drive, I could technically buy a car. But living in Paris means I’ve accepted the fact that the inconveniences of owning a car just don’t outweigh my silly reasons for wanting one… yet. So instead, I’ve learned to love walking, efficient public transportation, my speedy two wheeler bike and even the occasional jog to get places. I admit that I’ve grown really fond of walking, something I could never do in the States because everything was so spread out, but catch me after one morning on the metro during rush hour, and I’ll be researching the latest used smart cars on my phone.
3 | Dryers
Oh, how I miss wrapping myself up in a warm fluffy bath towels after a shower. I knew when moving to France that a majority of people didn’t have a dryer. I’ve always assumed that this is due to both space and environmental issues. Since space is rarely an issue in the US and we are far from the world’s top performers in energy saving alternatives, this could explain why the majority of American’s own a dryer and not the French. In any case, my move to France meant relying on laundry mats for the first 7 years because I didn’t even have the space for a washer in my studio apartment let alone a dryer. So while it was annoying to haul my weeks worth of dirty laundry up and down seven flights of stairs, at least there were dryers at the laundry mat. Since moving to our new apartment 2 years ago, I’m proud owner of a spankin’ white washer, but alas, no dryer. Until that day, or the day where I’m not too lazy to haul a load to the laundry mat, I’ll hang my clothes on the drying rack and dream of a freshly dried, tight pair of Levi’s jeans.
4 | Walking Smokers
We all know smoking is an art form in France. I still remember my first year teaching English in a “lycée.” I would see my 14 year old students, casually leaning against the school building, chain smoking before their morning classes. Child smokers were a shock enough for me, but the icing on the cake was watching the teachers chat to them while they smoked. Nine years later and I’m still not immune to the teenage smoking, but I have gotten used to the smoke filled parties and sharing a terrace with smokers while I’m eating. What I still struggle with are what I call my “walking smokers.” It’s one thing to choose to sit on a terrace when I could go inside where smoking isn’t allowed. It’s a whole ‘nother story to be walking along a sidewalk and start gasping for air when the walking smoker next to you lets out a mouthful in your direction. It really makes me miss the smoke free transits to work and the abundance of smoke free public spaces in the US. Especially when the shooting smoke my way is followed by the flick of ashes that naturally comes flying in my direction and lands on my clothes. I don’t think France’s smoking society will be changing anytime soon. So if you ever cross me on my way to work, don’t be surprised if I look like a jack rabbit jumping out of the way of all the “walking smoker” commuters I share the sidewalk with in the mornings.
5 | Leftovers
All my France research had prepared me for smaller food portions. I knew that I wouldn’t be devouring any endless pasta plates anytime soon, so I never really considered what happened with leftover food. I gradually got used to smaller portions and coupled with a lot more walking, I lost 15 pounds my first year abroad. I became more than accustomed to the new portion sizes which meant, (gasp!) sometimes I actually didn’t finish my whole plate. This is when I came to the startling realization that taking leftover food home was not a “thing” in France. As a firm believer that pizza is better cold the next day, I found this custom really strange and off putting. Did they just throw a ton of food away every night? Of course, some restaurants offered take away boxes and every time I stumbled upon one of these gems it became my new favorite place to go. Flashback to a little over a year ago, and the leftover food Gods must have heard my prayers. France passed a law that all restaurants must offer to go boxes for all their customers now. Hallelujah! Of course, let’s not forget what country we are talking about. The French pride themselves on not following the rules, so I’m never that surprised when I ask for a to go box and I get a rude “non, c’est pas possible” from the waiter. But you’ve got to play by the French rules to get what you want. A response with “oh I know it’s possible since legally you need to find me a to go box” usually gets the job done. Remember that “non” doesn’t really mean no in French. It means, convince me why I should do it. 😉