Peculiarities of La Vie Française

The French mode de vie epitomises that of one of their beloved delicacies: les escargots. (Their preferred walking speed also has a lot in common with those slimy molluscs, but that’s a topic for another time.) Aside from the snail-like pace of life, there are all sorts of other peculiarities that crop up in life across the Channel and I couldn’t resist sharing the crème de la crème of them with you at some point. At long last, that time has come . . .

Out and About

Does anyone else remember the adorable animated hedgehogs from the government’s road safety campaign at the turn of the millennium? It pains me to say it, but if those poor hedgehogs were French they wouldn’t know what had hit them (pun intended). All manner of wheel-bearing contraptions take to the pavement: roller blades, scooters (ridden by under-tens and businessmen alike) and even motorbikes, to name but a few. (“Keep death off the roads – drive on the pavement,” as my dad would say.) Reversing up one-way streets is commonplace – after all, the vehicle is still facing in the direction of the flow of traffic. It also saves driving all the way round the block if you’ve just sped past an available parking spot. Speaking of parking, if there isn’t a space, the French appear to have no qualms in treating the pavement – or, for that matter, one lane of the road – as an overflow car park. (The manoeuvre itself is then undertaken in a very Inspector Clouseau-esque fashion: nonchalantly and often with several bashes to the cars either side.) Public transport, on the other hand, works like a dream. Except when the SNCF changes timetables and cancels trains with little-to-no advance notice.

Bureaucracy: Sink or Swim

French bureaucracy may be the butt of many jokes, but that’s for good reason. If you ever find yourself living in France, chances are it’ll drive you up the wall, round the bend and off the cliff for good measure. The French are notoriously technophobic, and the reams of paper used for their nonsensical administrative proceedings are testament to this. PAYE is yet to make its début in the Land of Red Tape, meaning come May you’ll have to fill out – yes, you guessed it – oodles of paperwork stating what you earnt the previous year. (Still waiting on those forms, so it would seem that even the mighty Administration can’t keep up with all the paperwork it generates.) In the UK, you can stroll into any branch of your bank to enquire about the state of your account. Here – as I was haughtily informed when I made the mistake of going into a different branch – you must go to the exact branch that you opened your account at to make any enquiries. Bureaucracy is, of course, a great source of stress – so expect to see banks (and other such establishments) close for a lengthy lunch break, shut up shop completely on weekends and give themselves Mondays off for good measure.

Santé!

What did the big chimney say to the little chimney? You’re too young to smoke! I’m pretty sure this joke would be lost on the French, who continue to light up and get their nicotine fix irrespective of age. (It never ceased to amuse me that the university’s main campus is housed in a former cigarette factory.) For a nation of hypochondriacs – a sneeze seems to be enough to trigger a trip to the doctor for that all-important justificatif d’absence – their tendency to cough without covering their mouths is somewhat perplexing (and incredibly revolting). There’s never a dull moment in the hygiene-related aisles of the supermarket – take chlorophyll-flavoured toothpaste, for example. (The packaging was certainly right when it pitched it as having “un goût unique”. Never again.) Then there’s the exorbitant price of deodorants, shower gels and shampoos – which may or may not have had a significant bearing on the classic stereotype that the French smell. And as for picking up a box of ibuprofen for the equivalent of 30p in a supermarket – think again. Such a purchase necessitates a trip to the local pharmacy, where the prices are likely only to add insult to injury.

As Easy as ABC?

I could probably write an entire post on how baffling the French education system can be, but I’ll try to keep it short and sweet. For starters, the paper. In the UK, we have lined paper (for most subjects), square paper (for maths) and graph paper (for science). Here, broadly speaking, there’s only one option on the menu: graph paper. (Ugh.) Next, grading. This is where the French education system – to the uninitiated – really takes the cake. Theoretically, the marking scale is from nought to twenty; in practice, anything above a sixteen doesn’t really exist. Since every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Pierre, Paul et Jacques) can get into la fac with relative ease, harsh marking is, apparently, the way public universities weed out the students who simply aren’t making the cut. Finally, if you thought you had it bad with 9am lectures, spare a thought for the poor students (and teachers) subjected to the horrors of the 8am-8pm timetabling nightmare at Lyon 3.

Chez Moi

Renting a flat in France is somewhat different from renting one in the UK; things you may take for granted back home, simply don’t come as standard over here. There’s a reason launderettes can still be found on many a street corner in France: it’s because many flats don’t have washing machines. (And you may as well forget having a tumble dryer.) When I lived in Colmar, I had to carry my washing across the railway line to the nearest launderette. (I once dropped a sock and discovered it on the pavement a few days later.) Such problems are fortunately a thing of the past, as I do actually have a washing machine in my flat this time round. In the UK, we are rather fond of carpets. Sadly, Continental Europeans don’t appear to share this fondness. Here, it’s tiles, linoleum and wooden floorboards – and a rug if you’re lucky. (Flip-flops are thus a necessity if you don’t want cold feet walking around your own abode.) On a final note, whoever owns the block of flats you live in will – in all likelihood – control the heating. Cruel, but true. For weeks, we thought the heating just didn’t work . . . and then it transpired that we were simply expected to freeze until the owner deigned to switch on the heating for everyone.

Miscellaneous

Last but by no means least, a few gems which didn’t quite fit into any of the previous categories. Domino’s, for some inexplicable reason, is much cheaper than it is in the UK. A medium ham and cheese for €5.99? Oui, oui, oui! (I’m quite proud of the fact I’ve only caved three times, given I live round the corner from one.) The quirks of the French numbering system are well-documented, but it must be said that “I live at four-twenties-sixteen Rue XYZ” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. AZERTY keyboards leave a lot to be desired; the humble full stop (arguably one of the most-used keys) necessitates a tap of the shift key. (Why?!) Forming a nice orderly queue is something us Brits are good at (and proud of), but something which – a lot of the time – completely bypasses the French. (Especially, in my experience, les vieilles grenouilles.)

Chers lecteurs, this is intended as a very lighthearted post on the things which puzzle me on the other side of La Manche, and is not intended to cause offence. While you’re here, if there’s anything bamboozling that I’ve missed, do let me know in the comments!

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15 thoughts on “Peculiarities of La Vie Française

  1. Haha this cracked me up! YES to always having to go to your branch of the bank – it sounds too ridiculous to be true at first. AND I lived a year in Lyon before my bank told me I could simply switch branches from the one in Paris. Far be it from me to defend French bureaucracy, but I will say that once you get set up online in the French fiscal system (after your first year of paying taxes on paper), it is shockingly easy to pay online. (Of course, my taxe d’habitation was 900 euros, which took a lot of the fun out of it.) The first time I used a French keyboard, it took me ages to figure out the @ symbol. And ugh, the marking system drove me insane – I hated having to keep the moyenne low, failing students that had done better than students who had passed the previous year, just because they were part of a brighter class. The thing I liked about teaching LANSAD was that I could give out as many 18s as were earned, moyenne be damned. I think all seven of my apartments in France had a washer, happily, but no dryer, of course – when I moved back to California, throwing things in the dryer felt weird to me! I am still training Hugo on what can and cannot go in the dryer, but he’s learning 🙂

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    1. It really does – I imagine my face looked an absolute picture when I was told I couldn’t just enquire about some trivial bank-related thing at any branch! Once I knew that, I made the monthly trip to BNP Paribas across town to tell them to raise the plafond each month…. and six months later they told me I could do it myself via the app. (Agh!) I guess it’s in their best interests to make paying taxes as easy as possible, else no one would pay! The @ symbol was the bane of my existence at one point – two years ago when I was an ELA in Colmar, I had to log into my emails to access a file as I’d somehow forgotten to transfer the video to my USB, and a student had to help me out as I couldn’t figure out the keyboard. (I’ve improved a little since then, but it still takes some getting used to.) Keeping the moyenne low was so frustrating at times – I was less bothered by it when marking anonymous papers, but for in-class grades it was such a frustrating policy at times. Like you, if it was well deserved, I gave out the higher grades – penalising students who’ve put a lot of effort in and delivered something of a high standard just didn’t sit well with me. I never used the dryer that much in the UK (in halls we always had washer-dryers that weren’t very effective, rather than a separate washing machine and dryer) so I can imagine that beyond bedding, I’d be pretty hopeless with one!

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      1. I have actually never seen a washer-dryer! I was already line-drying a lot of my clothes when I moved to France so losing the dryer wasn’t a huge shock there, but I had no idea what to do with the bedding! Of course BNP made you run across town for half a year before telling you you didn’t need to leave home to accomplish your mission – how nice of them! One time I went five weeks without a bank card because every time I went to BNP they told me a different story about how to get a new one.

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      2. Maybe the French are so used to line-drying their clothes that they simply don’t bother with washer-dryers. I’ve always line-dried my clothes (saves risking shrinking them), but bedding takes forever to dry. (Not ideal when you have just one set, so have to wash it first thing in the morning and hope it’s dry enough to use by the time you want to go to bed!) Oh that’s hopeless of them – five weeks without a card would be such a nuisance, especially as everywhere seems to be moving towards card payments over cash.

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      3. Yes! Not to mention that I couldn’t get out any cash without my card either! I definitely know the pain of having only one set of bedding and having to strategically plan the washing! Much easier in the summer 🙂

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  2. This was such a great overview! There’s always so much to note about the differences and you mentioned a few I often forget: parking on the sidewalk, overpriced deodorant and soaps, and always cold floors! But in the end, it’s the little differences that make no sense that give France it’s charm 🙂

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    1. There are always a few that slip our minds! I love how France tries (on occasion) to hide the overpriced hygiene products by bulk selling them with a €0.50 discount… Like us foreigners who are used to cheaper prices are going to fall for that one! As you say though, it’s these baffling little quirks that make France France 🙂

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  3. Touché ! Everything is so so true…As far as the floors are concernened, I believe many french people dislike carpets because they think them unclean, I was surprised about the heating anecdote because this happened to me, but not in France… in England. My landlord and landlady went on holidays at Christmas time leaving us in the cold for two very long weeks ! Did you intentionnaly forget to mention the many many many dog poops on the french pavements? That is the thing I hate the most about France. I was born and bread in this country but I’ll never ever get used to it.

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    1. That’s interesting to know that French people think carpets are unclean – I suppose they are if they’re not hoovered frequently, but even tiles can get dirty if they’re not cleaned. That must have been awful – two weeks in the cold! Those piles of dog poop don’t seem to plague Lyon in quite the same way as they do Paris so I left them out, though there are for sure a number of other things I could have mentioned but didn’t (for the sake of avoiding a very long post).

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  4. Hi Rosie,
    Very funny this article because everythings you said about the french bureaucracy I had the same problem when I moved to England. So I think it is the same in every country but you don’t see it when it is your own country because you are use to it.

    This is strange that you only have graph paper because I remember to have all the type of paper when I was at the uni.
    For a french person use to do as you said 8am to 6-7pm every day of the week it is strange that the student in UK only start their lectures around 9 am. And yes the french uni marks are more severe than in England so when you have more than 16/20 you are really happy.
    à bientôt

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    1. It must be a case of unfamiliarity with the system then! I think as a foreigner there are just more hoops to jump through (or it feels like it, perhaps because you’re starting over and often doing it in a different language). It’s ever so strange how the supermarkets and stationary stores stock so much graph paper – almost all of the students’ in-class assessments that I marked were completed on this. I suppose the longer university day over here might be linked to the students having more contact hours – in the UK, humanities have c. 6-10 hours per week, whereas here they seem to have around 20 hours a week. It took me a while to get my head around the harsh marking, but I got there in the end! Nice to hear your thoughts on these topics 🙂

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  5. Yes to everything you wrote! The fact that almost everyone smokes is a nightmare, as I’m forced to hold my breath every time I pass a smoker on the street (to the point that I might as well wear a scuba-diving helmet to avoid that disgusting smell).

    Graph paper baffles me, too, since I’m used to using lined paper for just about every subject in the States (graph paper is occasionally used for math/sciences); I can’t imagine how difficult it is to write essays, let alone read essays, on graph paper!

    I am surprised, however, by the tile-carpet point; perhaps it’s because I grew up with hardwood floors and tiles that I prefer them over carpet. Los Angeles is a warmer city, I suppose, so it helps to have wooden/tiled floors to keep cool in hot water, as well as the fact that it’s easier to clean and maintain, e.g. vacuuming and mopping.

    Was just getting around to writing about the pet peeves of living in France, too, so what a coincidence you did so, too! No matter how long we decide to live in France, I’m certain we’ll never fully get used to its idiosyncrasies. C’est la vie!

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    1. I really dislike the smell of smoke, and completely agree with you there! I had students who positively reeked of it, which was (more than) a little gross. I wonder if anyone actually knows where the obsession with graph paper over here comes from? Some students wrote in coloured pen, so it was easy to read, but others had such small handwriting that all the lines on the graph paper made it a challenge to read. I can see the logic of them in a warmer climate, but in the winter the floors feel so cold! Easy maintenance is an advantage for landlords I guess, as it means they’ll never be left with horrendous wine-coloured stains on the floors! I agree – some things will always remain a mystery, no matter how long you live there! Look forward to reading your take on this topic 🙂

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  6. Like your latest post. Didn’t know about the cigarette factory!! Never heard of take the cake 🎂 thought it was biscuit 🍪!! Xx

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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