I’ve been in France for almost two months now, so I’m starting to get used to “le rhythme Français,” but there are some definite differences that have taken getting used to. So here are, in no particular order, 10 of the major cultural differences between France and the U.S.
You will see dogs everywhere. On the metro, in shops, on the streets, dogs are welcome in more public places in France! Unfortunately, you will also see their poop everywhere. People don’t really seem to care about picking up after thier pets. Eyes to the sidewalk and watch where you step!
You may be surprised about the number of “American” brands you see here. I know I was shocked to see a Ford and Chevy dealership, as well as to find Goldfish crackers and Neutrogena face wash in the grocery store. However, just because something is the same brand doesn’t mean it’s the same, especially when it comes to food. Europe is much stricter about preservatives in their food, so it tastes different. The Lays Barbecue potato chips in France have much more diverse flavor than those in the U.S.! Also, be prepared to pay much more. My roommate and I found Skippy peanut butter in the grocery store, but it was 8 euro for a tiny jar!
I could write a whole blog post about this, so I’ll try to summarize!
The French have a saying about meals: At breakfast, we eat like kings. At lunch, like lords. At dinner, like servants. Whether or not that’s true definitely depends on the situation!
In general, meals consist of several courses. With my family friends in Lyon, dinner would start with a bowl of soup, then we’d have the main dish, and then cheese or yogurt with fruit. My host family in Paris generally just has the main dish and dessert, but there are other families with more courses. It all depends!
We generally only think of baguettes as “French bread,” but if you walk into a “boulangerie” (bakery), you’ll see that there are so many more kinds than that!
Bread is so much a part of a French meal that it’s viewed more as a tool than as a part of the meal. Rather than just eating a piece of bread by itself, you use a piece of bread to help push something onto your fork, or to clean your plate in between meals. We generally use the same dish for multiple courses, otherwise the cleanup would be astronomical! Also, it’s generally set on the tablecloth next to your plate, not on it!
Cars are smaller and roads are smaller. Most cars are standard transmission rather than automatic. You can park either way when parallel parking. As far as I can tell, Peugeot is the most common car brand. French drivers are crazy in general and are not afraid to use their horns! Also, jaywalking is not really a big deal here!
That cute guy in your French class? He probably smokes, and the only reason your teacher gave you an extra-long break in the middle of class was so she could have a smoke break. Smoking is really common here, and there are cigarette butts everywhere. It’s disgusting! Thankfully, smoking is banned in most public places, like the Metro or restaurants, but the terraces and patios of restaurants are fair game.
4. Teacher-student relations
When I was going to classes with my friend in Lyon, I saw how people really don’t make personal connections with professors. Also, everything is much more formal. There’s a certain etiquette to writing an email to a professor. You have to start with “Chère Madame/Monsieur le Professeur” and end with “Veuillez recevoir, Madame/Monsieur, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées”, and professors generally use last names. This hasn’t been my personal experience at the Catho. I think since we’re in the program for international students, things are a little different, but this is what it’s like in a normal French university.
*Side note: never use “Madame” with a first name (ex: Madame Catherine). This implies that the person is the owner of a brothel. So unless that’s what you’re going for, it’s always Madame + last name!
3. Other university life things
Classes are much longer. At the Catho we have 3-hour classes with a break in the middle. Sitting in class for that long takes some getting used to, but it’s definitely do-able!
Going to college isn’t quite the lifestyle that it is in the US. There aren’t generally residence halls or school sports teams. Any music and sports activities are club, not part of the curriculum.
2. In the home
Windows don’t usually have screens in Europe. I was prepared for this, but surprised by the notion of “airing out” a room. For 10-20 minutes a day, you’re expected to open the window to get some air circulating. This was a very foreign concept to me because if I opened my window in Iowa in the middle of January I’d end up with a snowdrift in my room!
Also, this depends on the home, but oftentimes what we think of as a “bathroom” is actually separated into 2 rooms: the W.C. [vay-say] (toilet) and la salle de bain [sahl de ban] (shower/tub and sink). My house has a combined W.C./salle de bain, as did my friend’s apartment in Lyon, but it’s very common to have the rooms separated here. It can take some getting used to, but it’s kind of nice to be able to take a shower without worrying about whether someone will need to use the bathroom!
Pretty much everything is more expensive here. Of course, it depends on what you’re buying and where you’re looking for. Jeans, shoes, and clothes in general are expensive. Coffee is as well, especially Starbucks! Your best bet for an inexpensive lunch is to eat in a bakery. Many of them have lunch combos for a sandwich, dessert, and drink for anywhere from 6-10 euro! You might think of cafés as being inexpensive, but a meal at a café can be almost 20 euro a plate! Besides bakeries, you can also go to Rue de la Huchette. Located near Notre Dame and the ISA Paris office, this narrow street is filled with various restaurants and eateries, some sit-down, some fast food, some ethnic, and some French.
Another option you have for saving money on food is grocery shopping and packing your own lunch. Ask your host family if you can use some space in the fridge for groceries. My roommate and I buy deli meat and cheese, plus yogurt and other sides. Then we each buy a baguette, slice it and freeze it. All you have to do is pop the frozen bread in the microwave for 25-30 seconds and it becomes soft and warm and wonderful. We’ve saved a lot of money by packing our own lunches. You can also try the CROUS, a cafeteria for students with full meals for 3.15 euro. While Paris is definitely an expensive city, you can save a lot of money if you get creative!
Paris is completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced back home, and there are lots of other things I could’ve talked about here. Basically the most important thing is to go into your study abroad experience with an open mind! Don’t expect everything to be the same as it is back home. You came to a different country for a reason! So try new things, go out and explore! The world is your oyster. Why not make the most of it?
Have questions about study abroad in Paris? Feel free to ask them below!