Hi Friends! I was recently lucky enough to get a visit from a childhood friend Emily in Paris. She’s known me since the days when life priorities were how to get my glittery white eye shadow to last a whole day of school and whether the two bang strands I pulled out of my slicked back ponytail hung correctly in my face. Yes, I was a “stylish,” and at times, self-absorbed teenager.
Like many Americans, travelling internationally isn’t exactly her cup of tea. She’s explored more places in the US than I could count, but this was her first trip to France and I was excited to introduce her to the land of smelly cheese and “non.” Parents always talk about what a gift it is to see the world through their children’s innocent eyes. Well, since I’m approaching my 10th anniversary in France next month, it was kind of a gift, albeit a hilarious one, to see France through Emily’s innocent eyes. She, of course, couldn’t stop commenting on the beautiful pastries, the amazing architecture, the stylish people etc… But she also started commenting on all those things that she wasn’t expecting… and that’s when stuff got good.
Buckle up as I unveil the 5 culture shocks that a literal day old newbie noticed in “La France” that had me laughing, rolling my eyes and at times defending those Frenchies I adore so much.
I’ve got a corresponding video on my channel that you can check out below! There are 5 more culture schocks on the video that you can’t check out in the article, so hit that play button!
I “picked up” Emily from the airport around 9 am. By picked up that means I took the RER to Charles de Gaulle, helped her roll her suitcase to the taxi line, snapped at the two taxi drivers who didn’t want to take us because we were going to pay by card (this is ILLEGAL people, those Parisian drivers have to let you pay by card!!), and then got us settled in a taxi, direction “rive droite.” We chatted while Emily stared out the window taking in the sights as our driver battled traffic on the A104. In Emily’s defense, there’s not a lot to look at when you’re coming out of the airport, so what managed to catch her attention were the motorcycles and scooters weaving in and out of traffic. They would pass cars and trucks on all sides using the shoulder and drive down the center of the highway while traffic was slowing down. “Wow that looks pretty dangerous!” Emily squealed. “Is it legal to drive like that in France?”
While it’s not actually legal to pass cars on your moped in France, it’s a pretty accepted practice in the entire country. You’ll see motorcycle taxis that promise to get you to the center of Paris in ½ the time than a car can, for double the price of course. When cars are at a standstill, they often veer slightly to one side to let the motorcycles, scooters and even bikes pass on the other side. So even if it’s not legal, it’s part of daily driving life since the French are known for being sneaky little rule breakers. They never hesitate to interpret the rules the way they like and will then defend such interpretation to the death in a heated debate.
A note to anyone renting a car for the first time in France: it’s accepted to weave “safely” in and out of traffic in a scooter. It’s definitely not acceptable to do that with a car. If you try driving down the shoulder of the A104 while everyone else waits in traffic, you’ll see how our favorite little rule breakers take that interpretation of the rules. They won’t hesitate to cut you off, honk their horn, throw up a finger and call you a filthy “batard.”
Like most travelers, a shower was high on the list of Emily’s priorities when we made it back to my place. I gave her the quick tour of our condo, it’s 450 square feet so that took all of about 45 seconds, and I grabbed a fresh towel for her and pointed her to the bathroom. “Where’s your shower curtain?” she asked as she looked around the bathroom. I had thrown it in the wash and completely forgot that not having a shower curtain would be really weird for my non-Frenchie guest.
The French just don’t see the necessity of a shower curtain all the time. The shower head is always detachable, so most people grab the shower head and bring the spray close to their body to get wet. Then, they shut the water off to “rub a dub, dub” with some soap and grab the shower head to turn the water back on and rinse off. In the French’s defense, if you use the detachable shower head correctly, you don’t “need” a shower curtain because water stays pretty contained to your body and the tub. On the other hand, I would be lying if I said that showering without a curtain was as enjoyable as the steamy american shower I know and love. You’re all kinds of exposed in the bathroom and you can’t stop from shivering when your sudsing yourself up in between the streams of water.
It’s absolutely a French technique that takes some time to learn. The puzzled look on Emily’s face had me throwing some fresh towels on the floor and telling her not to worry too much about the waterfall I was sure she was about to dump on our floor.
After the shower, Emily wanted some Asprin or Tylenol before we headed out. #jetlagproblems. I pulled out a huge basket of medication we keep in our bathroom and told her to pick whatever her little heart desired. She looked at me all worried and asked “Are you and Robin doing ok? I’ve never seen so many prescription meds in my life.”
Well let me reassure you all, Robin and I are just fine. We just happen to live in a country where a list of medication longer than my bi-monthly grocery list is prescribed by the doctor at every medical appointment. It doesn’t help that Robin and I tend to save whatever we don’t use for those “just in case” moments that never actually come. Take a look at the number of pharmacies in France compared to the US. You cannot walk down a street in Paris without seeing that lovely green cross lighting up the street. It’s begging you to swing by with your most recent prescription and top up your stock. And wanna know something even cooler? Healthcare is massively subsidized by the government. My monthly synthroid for Hashimoto’s disease is free in France. It used to cost me 30 dollars in the US with insurance. France for the win here guys!
We finally made it out of the house and started our leisurely jaunt around the neighborhood. I live near the red light district of Paris so while I pointed out the famous Moulin Rouge building where the first can-can dance was performed, I also delighted in highlighting the world’s largest sex shop that dominated the skyline. The joys of living in Paris. Another joy, side stepping 3 piles of fresh dog poo within 5 minutes which prompted Emily to ask if picking up after your dog wasn’t a French thing?
To be fair, I don’t think any Frenchie would tell you that they love walking down the sidewalk like it’s a minefield of crap that you are trying to avoid. It’s gross and the French don’t shy away from snapping at owners who aren’t picking up after their precious pooches either. The thing is, there are 17 dogs for every 100 people in France. It’s one of the most populated dog vs human ratios in the world. The French love their furry friends. Add to the fact that the cities are just smaller in area and humans can just be selfish pricks sometimes, and the combo means a literal shitload more poo waiting to jump out at you on the streets.
We also passed the neighborhood high school on our afternoon stroll and there was a group of students outside leaning against the building and chatting to one another. “Are those high school students?” Emily asked surprised. For a second I thought she was surprised by the cool that seemed to ooze off them. They looked like they could be on the cover of Vogue magazine which just mystifies me every time Ipass by because I certainly didn’t give off that look with my white eyeshadow back in my high school days.
“Are they actually smoking next to school?” she asked me shocked. Oh right. She wasn’t referring to their above average style, but rather the cigarettes draped across their slender fingers as they puffed away next to a teacher. I could understand her surprise. It’s not like we don’t have teenagers sneaking ciggys in the US. Of course we do, they just don’t do it at school. These kids were casually leaning against their school with their cigs in the wide open. At 16, smoking is legal in France so they aren’t breaking any law. In the US, it’s such a huge no-no to smoke next to a school. Even if you’re 75 and waiting to pick up your grandkids, it’s illegal. In France, this just isn’t the case. They frown against smoking in restaurants, but you can light up across from the future generation without a problem.
Cultural shocks are just one of the many perks of living the expat life! It gives you a whole new perspective on the “right way to do things” when you see the way other people live. It makes you realize how “not right” you’ve been doing some things for so long. 😆
I loved getting to experience France through Emily’s eyes, so don’t hesitate to leave any comments about your biggest cultural shocks! It can be France or anywhere else! You can also check out my expat life on Instagram or YouTube! Until next time!