We haven’t even been living in France for two months yet. It feels like longer. Not necessarily because the time has flown due to me having too much fun…but there’s time for that!
So I thought I’d share my first impressions as a British expat living in France. I wonder how much these will change when we’ve been here for a year?
1. French women may not get fat…
…but I may well. French women probably do not eat ALL the bread and ALL the cheese and ALL the cakes while inhaling ALL the wine. But it is all SO good!
I have noticed that French women seem much more petite. In Germany I always felt short, here I feel positively just-above-average.
But back to the food. Forgive me, Germany, but I did feel as though I were living in a culinary wasteland. And it’s my own fault, as I don’t eat meat and I don’t like potatoes so the Germanic diet and I were never going to get along well.
As you’d imagine, the markets here are fabulous. There is a Lebanese stall that is my absolute fave – especially as the vendor keeps feeding me while I order AND he remembers that I don’t eat meat. He doesn’t know it, but he’s my new BFF.
The supermarkets too are a smorgasbord of deliciousness. And that’s not even mentioning the boulangeries, the patisseries and – oh my lord – the cheese.
Before we moved here, our real estate agent (who was from Brussels) told us that the difference between the Germans and the French is that the Germans drive fancy cars, and the French prefer to drive old bangers and spend their money on food, wine and daily pleasures. OK, this is a MAJOR stereotype, but I think there is perhaps some truth in it. She didn’t say about the Belgians though, I should have asked…
Which camp am I in? Well you would only have to take a peek inside my car to know…
2. Forget what you hear about French people being rude
Or maybe take it with a pinch of salt. I haven’t experienced any more rudeness here than I have in Germany or the UK. Sure, every culture has it’s quirks, but on the whole I have found people to be friendly.
Now this is perhaps something to do with the fact that we are living outside of Paris. And I do speak some French. And, thinking about it, most of my interactions are when I’m buying something…
But even over the phone (so hard to speak on the phone in a language that isn’t your own…makes you realise how much we rely on gestures and expressions to make ourselves understood – and it always confirms to me how terrible my French is) sorry for the digression, yep, even on the phone when I am stumbling over my words and asking them to repeat every other sentence – all fine. No one has slammed down the phone, which happened to me more than once in Germany. Although to be fair, my German was so bad they probably thought it was a prank call…
And at our little local market, people made us feel so welcome. I felt like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, with all the stallholders calling out ‘Bonjour!’ As I skipped along with my basket on my arm in my lovely yellow dress. Actually, that last bit was in my head (collective sigh of relief) but I really did feel welcomed.
3. French Beaurocracy
Urgh. Organised I am not. Paperwork is not my friend (is it anyone’s?).
Things seems to be done in a very slow, circuitous way here…and in a way that I’m sure makes perfect sense if you are French. And if you’re not? Not so much.
I will at some point need to switch my driving license to a French one. I have been told this takes SIX MONTHS. How can that even be possible?!
And banking is a bit different too. Coming from Germany, where cash is king, its gratifying to be able to use my cards in more places. But the big difference? I have a chequebook. AND I USE IT. I don’t think I’d written a cheque for about ten years before moving here. Although, I do quite like cheques…writing them, not receiving them. They appeal to my disorganised self – yes, I forgot I had to pay for the school activities and I only have 5 centimes in my purse but – voila! – I can pay by cheque!
4. Renting a house
Leading on from the slowness of getting things done, one of the things all the expats I have met so have in common is that they have had issues of one kind or another with their rentals. Namely, it takes forever to get things fixed, and everything seems to go wrong.
We are lucky in that our landlords are lovely, but still when we moved in the oven door was hanging off, the tumble drier didn’t work, we had no hot water for five days…and so on, and so on. Luckily we also moved in during a heatwave so I didn’t need the oven or the drier. We ate gazpacho every night for about two weeks.
So it’s different again from our experience in Germany and I think just a different attitude to getting stuff done…
Speaking of getting things done…
Ok, so I knew that French people tended to take their holiday in August. I hadn’t quite prepared myself for a ghost town. We arrived 1st August and practically everything was closed. The local restaurants and shops all had little signs in the windows saying that they would be closed for two, three, four weeks. I needed to get a dentist appointment – no chance. The vaccinations for the dog had to wait. And as for getting any of the aforementioned jobs done on the house…dream on.
However, the upside of this is that Paris is a dream to explore in August because it’s quiet. The roads are not congested. There are less queues, less people, less…busy. You just may find that the Pâtisserie you have walked thirty minutes to get to is closed, despite the internet assuring you it’s open.
I’m not quite sure how businesses can operate like this, but they do. And actually, isn’t it a good thing that people’s holidays are sacrosanct?
6. Je ne sais quoi…
I suppose this is a caveat to what I said earlier about rudeness. Perhaps what we maybe perceive as rudeness is that air of ‘Je ne sais quoi.’ Usually this kind of means that the person has something about them that you can’t quite put your finger on. But perhaps it could also be translated as ‘Literally not giving an actual shit’. Examples so far…well, landlords taking a loooong time to get anything fixed in your house. The August shut down.
And dogs. Dog owners literally let their dogs do actual shits and then just leave them. Everywhere. I mean, if this happens in the middle of a forest, fair enough, but on the pavement, outside someone’s house? Yu-uk.
I did however wish I had reverted to the French way of dealing with dog poo when I took the Bronte, our dog, with me to drop off the kids at school last week. She decided to poo on the grass near the school, just as everyone was arriving. And when I went to pick it up, she pulled on the lead and, to my absolute horror, I put my fingers in the poo. Oh my god I have never done this in the three years we have had Bronte. I started to gag. I had to dispose of the bag. I had to avoid letting my kids know what had happened because they would tell EVERYONE on their way into school – and remember, I’m still at the stage of trying to make people like me and want to be my friend. I found a bin, dumped the bag, curled my fingers into my fist and kept my hand well away from my body, kissed the kids, handed the dog’s lead to one of the Mum’s outside school (my prayers of finding a fellow dog owner were granted) and then had to buzz into the school and ask the secretary if I could use the loo where I then proceeded to wash my hands, over and over again, paranoid that somewhere a particle of poo might be lingering. I was like Lady Macbeth, but without the guilt. I did pick it up, after all.
And I was going to end this rather disgusting little tale with some positive spin about karma, but just this morning my daughter stood in poo on the way to school and I had to scrape it off with a stick!! Pick up your dog poo, people!
Moving on to another example (no more poo, I promise) of what I am calling ‘Je ne sais quoi’. Last week I parked my car on the street. As I was stood by the car a very smart older lady in a white car parked in front of me. She reversed her car, and banged into mine. Not just a little kiss on the bumper, but a big old smacker. She then got out of her car, completely nonplussed. I politely called her over; I had checked the car and there was a big mark of white paint from her car on mine. Right where she had hit it. She looked at it and said, ‘That was nothing to do with me’ and then off she walked, with her air of ‘Je he sais quoi’, her well coiffed hair and a very Gallic shrug. I was lost for words (not unusual for me when I am speaking French) but I have decided to employ this same tactic with my husband next time he asks me about all the scratches on the hubcaps…
7. Paris is beautiful
Every time I see the Eiffel Tower, my pulse quickens a little. Walking the streets of Paris is like walking through an outdoor museum – the past is everywhere, and yet the city feels so vibrant.
I am one of those people who takes great pleasure in wandering through cities, looking around, passing time in cafes and generally just hanging around. Obviously now I have children, this doesn’t happen quite as much as I’d like, but even they have loved our ramblings and explorations of the city.
As Victor Hugo put it, ‘To err is human, to loaf is Parisian.’
I think I may have found my spiritual home.