Cultural Differences, Expat Life, Living in France

Surprising Things in France

​Long before I lived in France and even before I met my husband 17 years ago, I loved reading about France and the things people noticed that differed from their home country. In this case, I came from the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout the years of visiting and now living in France, some things surprised me. Curious? Let’s take a peek!

Oui Ouay

During my very first trip to France, oh so long ago, in 1989, it was surprising that people often didn’t say “Oui” with the “Wee” pronunciation. They instead would pronounce it as, “Way” which I quickly realized must be the English equivalent of “Yeah”. 

Supermarket Items

The produce sections in supermarkets always feature the origin of the vegetables and fruits. You will always know if your choice is from Cote d’Ivoire, Spain, France, Costa Rica, etc. There is also always an international aisle with Asian, Mexican, and Italian products. Having lived in San Francisco, I’m used to having many choices of Asian things to eat. I’m personally happy that I can go to the Grand Frais supermarket to find delicious matcha green tea mochi and sesame cookies! 

Another thing you can find in the supermarket is an appliance and electronics section. (The photo above is a screenshot from my email.) We even bought our 2-cup espresso machine at the local Carrefour supermarket for 50€ and it came with 3 boxes of different espresso flavors (sidenote: there is a special local recycling center where we bring the used capsules). Supermarkets carry anything from electric tea kettles to hair dryers to cell phones to hotel deals. Here’s an example of the Carrefour ad that was emailed to me:

Multicultural Country

Also during that first trip, I realized that France is very multicultural. It’s not like a stereotypical scene with everyone proudly only doing “French things”. Like any other country that has colonized other countries, those who have been colonized later migrate to the country that colonized them. In this case, there are many people from a myriad of African countries living across France. (Of course, France is France and you will definitely find all those beloved things you would expect, like delicious baguettes, pastries, regional specialties, incredible history and architecture, etc.) The 2024 Olympics is embracing the multiculturalism of France by featuring a more international viewpoint with food and music from the population that influences and enriches it in new ways. One of my favorite Facebook posts that really brings home this point is the incredible photography by Peter Turnley.  

Doctor & Dentist Visits

Doctor/Patient relationships also took me by surprise. In my previous blog, 8 Months of Living in France, I mentioned that I hadn’t yet visited a doctor for myself. Since then, I went for a mammogram (sorry, ouch – it hurts here, too) and visited the gynecologist. I also went to the dentist. Nothing serious in either case but just to check in and be sure that I had my bases covered. 

In general, visits to the hospital seem to be about a month’s wait. We have an independent general practitioner in our village and we can usually book 1 or 2 days in advance but not in the summer! He has a nice long vacances and one cannot get an appointment until early August. So far, I haven’t met with him for myself but during visits for other family members, he’s been very straightforward and simply professional. In and out.

During the mammogram appointment, the nurse and the doctor were both very chatty, probably partially because I come from America and it’s so unusual in our area. California holds a certain mystique as well, and many people are so curious to know what I did in San Francisco and why I would move from such an exciting city to such an average place in their eyes. 

The nurses have all been French but the majority of the doctors at the hospital have been Romanian. They not only speak French but English as well. I’m not sure if they were hired because of the doctor shortage or if they have been here before that crisis, but they have all been excellent. I’ve enjoyed speaking both languages with them.

My gynecologist was wonderful and it was a very normal appointment as far as procedures but I have to admit that we spent most of the time chatting or – pardon my French – “shooting the shit”. Her parents were originally from the country of Georgia but she grew up in Russia. She speaks fluent English and we really enjoyed talking with each other. She was very personable and we even were able to share our experiences with French culture. Here’s another little tidbit of information: she has 8 weeks of vacation a year. Imagine doctors in the USA getting 8 weeks of vacation a year. She said that it’s so much, that she doesn’t know what to do with it, so she spends some of the time increasing her professional knowledge by attending various conferences. 

My dental appointment was surprising for several reasons. In the USA, I would use my dental insurance to visit twice a year to have my teeth cleaned and get the obligatory yearly X-rays. We have friends here in France who work in the dental industry, so we had a good recommendation for a local dentist. First of all, my dentist in California always had high praises for my dental hygiene and said that he didn’t have much to do, but he or the hygienist would still spend a lot of time measuring my gums and cleaning any coffee or tea stains, with the grand finale of polishing them. 

This dentist is also Romanian and speaks both French and English. While his assistant was starting the radiology machine in the other room, the dentist said he would check my teeth. He was shocked by how clean they were and said he expected much more work. In that case, he told me I didn’t need any X-rays! He gave a few light scrapes of my teeth and that was that. We spent the rest of the time chatting. When I asked him if he ever cleans teeth and he replied that if I have a special event, I can come in and he can “polish them up”. He said I could visit again in a year or a year and a half. I’m not upset that dentistry is not the same hypervigilent approach as in the USA, since I take especially good care of my teeth, but I was certainly surprised.

I also said in my previous post that it’s very difficult to find dental floss in France but I’m correcting it to say that it’s readily available at the supermarket but that flossing is generally not recommended in France. Our daughter’s orthodontist said it’s not good to floss because it’s “too aggressive” and that it’s preferable to use a special little brush. (In the USA, we’re taught the proper way of flossing which shouldn’t be aggressive.) Olivier disagreed with her and she just replied that it’s cultural. To each their own, right? 

To summarize the personable doctor/patient relationships, I now wonder if it is because the majority of the doctors I met with have not been French. Our general practitioner is French and “business only” but the others are Eastern European and very warm and talkative. Food for thought! Either way, I appreciate their approaches for different reasons. 

Swimsuits

I have a few different things to say about this subject! 

First of all, you may or may not know that if you go to a public pool in France, you will be required to wear a swimsuit that can’t pass as anything other than a swimsuit. In other words, it had better be small and tight – that goes for men and women. The reasoning is that you could have been wearing it around town and it could be dirty. Having lived in Australia and then the USA for many years, my husband is accustomed to wearing board shorts. He had to buy tight black swim shorts at the local public pool. I naively thought I could waltz into that pool with my apple green sporty swimsuit from Athleta (pictured below). I mean really, some fairly form-fitting shorts with a halter top – a set that I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing around town. So cute, and I’ve worn that style for years. Would that pass? Nope. 

So here’s what happened: A couple of years ago, we went to the public pool at Olivier’s home village, which is fantastic. I was standing by myself when a staff member approached me and informed me that I wasn’t permitted to enter the pool with my swimsuit! I called Olivier over because I panicked and we explained that I’m from California and it’s the style there – it’s true, but excuses, excuses. No, it has to look like a traditional bikini or one-piece swimsuit. So, I didn’t go into the pool that day and later purchased a bikini I didn’t love. I’ll find something better.

And, where will I find that better swimsuit? It took me by surprise. A lingerie shop. You can also find swimsuits at some chain stores and sports stores, like Decathlon or Intersport, but honestly, it’s also very common to purchase a swimsuit at a lingerie shop, such as Etam, Rouge Gorge, Darjeeling, etc. 

My Accent

I was always told that I don’t have a strong American accent but living here, I can say that people know I don’t speak with a native French accent. Generally, people will smile and be curious but the cutest situation was when I went to pick up Olivier’s X-rays for his fractured knee. As I was turning to leave, the young secretary smiled and sheepishly said, “J’adore votre accent!” – I love your accent. I never wanted to have an accent but in this case, I’m starting to adore my accent, too.