Greetings dear readers and friends! Well, life is ticking along here in France, and the holiday season is right around the corner (shops are already decked-out with holiday decorations galore), and I’ve been thinking a lot about life here in Provence. So much has changed in my life since I moved to France some 7 years ago. As several bloggers have done recently, I’d like today to share some of the challenges I’ve faced while living in France. You’ll notice that there’s nothing terribly “serious” on my list, it’s just more of a window into one expat’s experience of living here. I hope you’ll find it interesting.
I still remember when you could smoke in bars in California, and I also remember going to many smoke-covered lounges in Las Vegas, but goodness that seems like ions ago – like a whole era that slowly faded away. But not entirely so in France… I don’t really go out to bars anymore, but public smoking is rampant here. The idea of outdoor, café-smoking, would seem to be okay, only sometimes it turns out that about 80% of the café is smoking so you’re enveloped in a cloud of second-hand smoke from here to Georgia. But like everything, it’s France! I’m not as bothered with it as when I first got here (I do think it must drive a lot of tourists crazy), and I just take it as part of the culture – warts, cigarette butts, and all.
Well, let me start this “challenge” on a positive note with the fact that we went to dinner last Saturday night and had the absolute best service – 5-star treatment and delicious food as well (at Le P’tite Cour in Sanary-sur-Mer). That being said, customer service in the South of France is hit or miss. I can count at least 3 times when we’ve walked out of a restaurant because they’ve failed to come to our table, like 30-minutes failed, and / or were just plain rude. And one of those times was in Aix-en-Provence, so nowhere seems to be “immune”. And it’s not just restaurants. Some places seem to have a “take it or leave it” attitude when it comes to their services. My favorite example is when a blog reader emailed me to locate a woman in Toulon who makes custom jewelry. The reader was on a cruise, discovered her stand in the center of the city, and wanted to buy more items… and was willing to pay shipping costs to the States. I knew exactly who she was talking about, but when I approached the jewelry-stand owner with the reader’s email address the only thing she said to me was, “I don’t do email”. What…? I’m still not sure what to make of that. And just last week, a colleague (a French colleague) went to the bakery next door to ask if they might be able to bake a cake for a birthday party she was throwing that weekend. Their gruff response, “The baker’s gone home”. Nothing else – no “leave your number and we’ll get back to you”, nada. Thankfully she went to another bakery down the street whereshe was told that it was a little late notice but offered to make her a raspberry tiramisu “cake”. Hit or miss… The (sometimes) terrible customer service in Provence leaves me shaking my head. Why would anyone ever go back? How do they stay open? Another “mystery” of life in France and a big challenge of living here.
Ok, I hate to make sweeping generalizations as much as the next person, but… French drivers are crazy! I never even attempted to drive when I lived in Italy, because well, it was Italy. Just watching the outlandish maneuvers that went on in the center of Rome was enough to make me want to crawl under a blanket and never come out. But hey, I thought, it’s France… so civilized and cultured, what could possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out, a lot! I won’t give you a case-by-case study because it’s a pretty long list, but let’s just say that the French turn into whole other beings behind the wheel. A few of my biggest pet peeves: they seem to be allergic to using a turn signal (in the south, I’d say about 2 in 10 people use their signals when making a turn), are passionate fans about tailgating, and often try to break Indy-500 records for speed. To this day, I can’t get my head around how such mild-mannered, polite folks go “cuckoo” on the road. I’m still trying to work it out, but until then, I drive like a French grandma (actually they drive pretty fast too) and try to stay as safe as possible.
-My “over-the-top” American enthusiasm
It goes without saying that the French are different from Americans; very different. For example, Americans tend to be pretty enthusiastic about most things in general. Your friend got a new job. Wow, that’s amazing; I’m so thrilled and happy for you! That same friend baked a cake for a school fundraiser. Wow, that’s so great, have a fantastic time! Or they got a new sofa, redecorated, etc, etc… Amazing, wonderful, fantastic, how exciting! A lot of small and big things in the US are celebrated with unbridled enthusiasm. (I still get the Ellen show on TV and I love when she walks out and the crowd goes absolutely nuts!) There’s a lot less of that kind of enthusiasm in France. Sure, things are celebrated, but with a lot less “bravado”. People either think you’re a bit odd, or are a bit afraid of you, if you “overdo it” here. I remember the first year that I lived here and we found out that a good friend of my husband’s was going to quit her job and go live on a farm. Pretty cool huh? So of course, that’s what I said (in my garbled French), wow, that’s cool, great, fantastic, so amazing of you! I gushed and gushed and even offered to organize a going-away party for her. It was about the 3rd time I’d seen her. She gave me some kind of French side-eye, barely uttered three or four words, and then politely thanked me. At the time I thought she was a bit odd herself, and maybe a bit of a cold fish. Later on I realized she was probably thinking, “Who is this crazy lady and why in the world would she want to throw me a party”? Subtle, the French are very subtle. Now I wait at least a year to offer to throw anyone a party, ha!
-Thinking in French
Well, speaking in French is difficult enough, and when I started my job (in a language school) I had the biggest headaches just trying to make it through the day in a French-speaking environment. But, in this way, you’re forced to progress quite quickly and then you really have to start “thinking” like a French person to be able to understand and navigate work meetings, discussions, etc. Let’s just say that my “French self” is a far cry from my American personality and I quite often find myself having a hard time reconciling the two. I feel a lot more “easy-going” and “funnier” in English and more “reserved” and “aloof” in French – I guess it just goes with the territory. Also, the French do a lot of ironic humor, so it’s only in the last 2 years that I’ve been “good enough” in the language to participate. My “two selves” feel a bit closer together, but there are some days when thinking in French, living in French, still makes my head hurt.
I don’t talk about it often, but I do get homesick. I’m just rolling along in my daily life and then something will trigger a feeling, a memory, and I’ll be overwhelmed by how much I miss life “back home”. This feeling can last a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks. All I want to do is hop on a plane and feel that feeling of comfortableness, love, and familiarity of everything that I left behind. Sure, living in France is great, but it doesn’t replace a whole 30+ years of relationships and experiences I built with my loved ones in the US. Some times are harder than others, but thankfully I still have people who have hung with me through thick and thin.
I hope you enjoyed this look into “another side” of living in France and wishing you a very bon-weekend!