Having lived in France since 2010, I sometimes feel a nagging tug of guilt while speaking with my French friends. Thankfully, they’ll never know how much I misjudged them in the beginning.
It’s hard to admit, but in a country that has given me so much over the last 13 years—including wonderful healthcare and a sense of community I was longing for in the United States—I was very hesitant to move to France. I had a certain vision of the French as standoffish, stuffy, and, honestly, very arrogant.
I initially moved to France for love. Having met my future husband while we were both working in Italy, he was the first French person I’d ever gotten to know well. When our work contracts were coming to an end in Rome, we had to make a decision on where to go next.
I had my career in higher education waiting for me back in the States and he was quite excited about the prospect of moving to California—my home state. Picturing afternoons surfing along the Pacific and sunset happy hours sipping frothy margaritas on the beach, his vision of the American dream had been forged over several seasons of Baywatch (called Alerte à Malibu in French).
Although this picture of the Californian dream was quite enticing, I knew it came at a certain price. From experience, we’d have to work quite a lot to fund our lifestyle.
He’d have to kiss his five weeks of vacation time a year goodbye, and all the added benefits of the French social system. Namely a work environment that prioritized family and leisure time and a high-quality healthcare system (available to everyone after residing for three months in the country, with no networks to join, pre-existing condition restrictions or age limits).
When we sat down and did the math on rent, utilities, transportation, and the healthcare costs we’d pay in California, it just didn’t add up. Although I was very nervous about learning the French language and having to start over in a new country, I decided to give la belle France a try—with California put on the backburner as our plan B.
To this day, I consider it the best decision I’ve ever made.
Thanks to the healthcare alone, my stress levels dropped at least 50%. I could see any doctor or specialist I chose, and I slowly began catching up on check-ups and exams I’d put off for years.
I paid €25 ($27) upfront for a doctor’s visit and then 70% of that would be reimbursed directly to my bank account—making the total cost around $9. Fixed by the government, that upfront fee of €25 hasn’t changed since 2010.
I also quickly found my stereotypes of the French were completely wrong. Imagining a group of stuffy, snobby, and judgmental neighbors with whom I’d be constantly embarrassed by my lack of the French culture and language, I instead found new friends who were enamored with the United States and curious to learn as much as they could about little old me.
I progressed from very simple greetings in French, to being able to talk about the weather to engaging in debates around the best restaurant in town—one of my favorite topics.
I’ll never forget my first invitation to a neighbor’s home. Marie and Nicolas set out their best dinnerware and started the evening off with an appetizer of blinis topped with goat’s cheese and herbs. On top of one of the blinis, they’d placed a tiny American flag, and, right next to it, another blini topped with a tiny French flag. Such a simple gesture that almost brought tears to my eyes. Some 13 years later, they’re among our best friends in France.
From these experiences, I’d like to share a few things that might surprise you about the French.
1. Most French Love the United States and Americans
Let’s forget about the somewhat brisk treatment some of us (me included) may have experienced in Paris. The city gets 30 million visitors a year, and some Parisians are clearly over it.
While around the rest of the country, if you live here for a while, you’ll learn the French have grown up on our TV series (Friends is a favorite, so is Grey’s Anatomy), follow our sports teams (our neighbor is a die-hard Rams football fan), and look to us to see the latest trends in business and technology.
Sometimes they may even be a little surprised by the new American neighbor. They think we have it all together in the U.S., and are often amazed we moved to their country.
2. They’d Love to Speak English With You, But Don’t Want to Embarrass Themselves
I taught English in Italy and I had no trouble eliciting answers from my Italian students. A confident and boisterous bunch, they tried out their English freely and openly—at all levels.
It’s a whole other ballgame with my French students. Believe it or not, the French can be very shy, self-conscious creatures and are sensitive to how they might be perceived.
The adage about “learn a little French before you go” is a lot about making the French feel comfortable to open up and less about them wanting to impose their language.
3. French Culture is Governed by Strict Rules of Politeness
If you say bonjour (hello) when you enter a shop, and au revoir (goodbye) when you leave, you’ve won half the battle.
The French live by these polite niceties which, when practiced daily, will get you on a sure path to making friends.
If you miss a bonjour when entering that cute boutique during your French vacation, then you may get a bit of the snooty attitude we tend to associate with the French. Perhaps a small thing for us, it’s seen as missing a touch of respect for them.
4. Behind a Gruff Exterior is a Sweet and Generous Center
An American expat friend of mine once said, “The French are like coconuts. Crack the hard exterior and you’ll find a sweet center.” I couldn’t agree more.
What we Americans may experience as indifference, is just the reserved nature of the French. They take longer to get to know, but I’ve found the bond is much stronger, and you’ll find some of the kindest, most generous, people on the planet.
5. Not All French Folks Are Chic and Glamorous Beings
The French I know love BBQ chicken wings, putting on flip flops in the summertime, and grabbing big tubs of popcorn on their way to watch the latest Mission Impossible blockbuster.
Yes, many have a refined side too, but they love to let their hair down and you’ll notice big cultural differences around the country.
One of the coolest afternoons I ever spent on vacation was watching a Flamenco band in the streets of Toulouse play passionately to a group of Frenchmen dancing in the streets. Relaxed, vibrant… and very far from stuffy.
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