I’ve been living in France for nine years now (cray cray), and most people I meet for the first time find it hard to believe. This could very well be due to some strong American habits still lingering within me and managing to pop out at the most inconvenient moments. I’ll save these rather special stories for a different article. What I really wanted to write about are the 3 French habits that I’ve picked up during this wild ride.
I could go on, and on, and on, about how my eating habits have changed since calling France home. I actually enjoy cheese that makes my fridge smell like an animal died inside, I eat pepperoni lovers cheesy crust pizza with a fork and I consume an ungodly amount of yoghurt a week. But what’s randomly changed about my meal habits is my need for water.
Let’s experiment here. Order one kids happy meal and one adult meal from McDonalds. Eat the entire adult meal and force yourself to drink only 1/3 of the happy meal drink. Now tell me how ridiculously thirsty you are? I think I spent my first two years in France feeling like I was dying from thirst at every dinner out. Not only are we given the tiniest little shot glasses for our water, but the jug of water they bring to the table for 5 people, is often the size of one large McDonalds drink. The servers in France aren’t exactly known to be crazy attentive or uber efficient, so I ended up spending most of the meals waving the water jug back and forth in the air trying to signal my struggle to anyone who would glance at me.
After moving from the land of XXL drinks and free refills to the home of dwarf glasses, I changed strategies without even realizing it. Since I was drinking less water at meals than before, I was totally dehydrated during the day. I started drinking more water in between meals, so naturally I didn’t crave as much “l’eau” during meals. This meant I could stop trying to telepathically get the server to bring another carafe of water and actually enjoy the meal. When I go back to the US now, not only do I order a small drink because I don’t need any more than that, I’m actually amazed by the immense sizes. On my most recent trip home, I had a nine hour road trip and figured I would want a large soft drink in the car. The glass was so large, it literally didn’t fit in the drink holder inside my rental car. The car was an SUV.
For any expats out there struggling with thirst in French restaurants, I’ve found a strategy that has a 100% success rate to help you. No matter how tight the French are about water, they never short change you on wine. So order two glasses of wine when the waiter first comes to the table and you’ll never have a hydration crisis again 😉
2| Stranger Danger
I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that my attitude towards strangers has completely changed. I was of course always taught “to never speak to strangers alone” and if anyone offered me candy in a white van I was supposed to run like hell with my tiny thunder thighs. But, I was never overly suscpicious of strangers when I crossed them in the street, at the grocery store etc… We all tended to smile, say “hello, how you doing,” and continue on our way. Especially when said stranger was a waiter or someone at a customer service center. “You always get more with honey than vinegar,” so they say.
Well some of these phrases are most certainly cultural because I would be surprised if France had a phrase where the nicer you are, the more you get. While the French are as friendly as any American with their close entourage, their stranger danger radar is off the charts when it comes to people they don’t know. There society that is more direct in the way that they speak, so when they don’t know you, smiling is off the table and exchanging pleasantries is unheard of. And if they are in a situation, like a waiter, where they are forced to speak to you…. well, don’t expect to get a “ca va”, “how you doing” type of greeting. It’s just way too informal for their more formal culture with strangers.
I quickly learned that smiling to strangers on the street made me look like the creepster offering candy to the kids and if I wanted to get my way, I needed to be more direct, pushy and borderline aggressive sometimes. I never assume anymore that anyone will be nice to me. After so many years in France, the reverse culture shock when I go home is always intense. Don’t get me wrong, I love interacting with smiley, friendly people again. But I constantly catch myself side-eyeing what I think are really friendly people and wondering, “what happy drug did you snort before coming to work?” I’ve gotten so used to neutral, borderline unhappy strangers, that the opposite kind of freaks me out and honestly makes me uncomfortable. I don’t even know how to deal with the cashiers who make general small talk when i’m unloading a grocery cart. What should I share with them? It all just feels so personal now.
I had a confidence as a child that was probably slightly terrifying for my parents. I nicknamed myself Kate the Great and would regularly run around the neighborhood on my bike shouting to the world how absolutely awesome I was. Naturally my favorite colors were anything bright and flashy. I was a huge fan of neon pink and turquoise blue and pretty much any color that helped me stand out from the crowd. While my confidence dwindled during puberty, my love of bright colors held strong and I moved to France with a suitcase full of glittery clothes and shiny jewlery.
When I got here, I quickly realized that the chosen color of the French was black. But not just any black. I was really naive to all the different shades of black someone could actually own and I had also never seen so many people capable of dressing head to toe in black for weeks straight. I had always considered black to be a kind of sad color, something you wore to a funeral. And I was finding across the pond that black meant “chic,” and “understaded.” Since I was a student when I first came, buying a whole new wardrobe to fit in was out of the question even if I had wanted to. I rocked my bright colors for years, stood out even more than I do in the states and never thought much more about it.
But during my recent spring cleaning, I layed out all my clothes and I was absolutely horrified by the amount of black, white and grey pieces I own. What happened to my love of the bright and flashy! I’ve just naturally started buying a more discreet wardrobe without ever purposeouly trying to. In France, I’m just drawn now to something more understated and discreet. But the second I step foot in the freedom land, I do a complete 180. I’m gravitate towards vibrant pieces of clothing and want to purchase every neon piece of fabric I can find.
I guess some new habits stick with me wherever I go and other ones just haven’t managed to infiltrate my US sparkle yet 🙂