Life in Paris and in France (#2)

 What is it like to live in Paris ?

 What do Americans like the most...    Is there a French " Art de Vivre " ?

AAWE is an Association of American Women (and some men) living in France. In the Fev.2001 issue of its Newsletter, it asked its readers "What is your favorite thing about living in France or what would you miss the most if you had to leave ?". Among the answers :

  • Not surprisingly, many answers about food and wine : "Food and Wine. Or should I say fresh, well-prepared food, served at a well decorated table and eaten with four hours of wonderful conversation and some very dry red wine" (Wendy S.), "I would miss the French way of eating the most. Not just the food and wine but their approach to eating." (Martha H.)

  • Many answers on Paris : "Besides loving the beauty of Paris and the feeling of being 'special' as an American (yes, believe it or not)" (Jill D.), "the visual quality of Paris : I still get a thrill just walking around and looking, after 35 years." (Peter R.)

  • On practical life : " I'd miss the cost of medical care and the number of vacation days I get.. " (Diana M.), " Government services : the TGV, .. the French postal service. The French health care system. " (Julie W.), "you can reason with the rules : indeed, you have to make a special case for yourself at all times. If a rule doesn't make sense in your case, a French person is usually willing to overlook it. The American will usually say 'Sorry but that is the rule'" (Julie W.)

  • About France in Europe : " is being on the front doorstep to Europe. You are just about a one hour flight to visiting almost all the beautiful European cities" (Kristen A.), " the feeling of being part of Europe and the rest of the world. I love listening to international news on French radio and TV and reading Le Monde and the IHT every day. I have a pet peeve against the media in the States at the moment. It's just too entertainment-prone and parochial." (Hilary K.)



WARNING ! There are many stereotypes about " Art de Vivre " in France but do not consider it a fairy land. Nevertheless, certain aspects of life in France are so different from life in the USA that they can be considered either as an additional proof that the country is really decadent, or as a sign of a different value system which, for some people at least (and hopefully the French themselves) is a form of " Art de Vivre ". Read a letter about quality of life in France.

  • " More time for personal life " : France is among the countries where the working time is the shortest (more vacations, less hours per week); watch the huge traffic jams at each beginning of vacation period (every six weeks !), listen to people talking about their RTT ("Reduction du temps de Travail " : excess time over 35 hours/week which is transformed into days off), etc.... ; certainly the French work for their living but live less for their work than the Americans do.... (see working with the French and French productivity, which is high, to the amazement of most Americans!). Actually, the French societey makes (implicitely) the choice to transform a part of productivity gains into more leisure rather than into more production and consumption of goods and services par capita.... In France, the key word is vacations : in schools, two weeks every 6 weeks and 2 and a half months in Summer ; in professional life, from 5 (legal minimum) to 7 or 8 weeks a year. See examples of curious (for Americans) French behavior and read my personal opinion about the 35-hour week.

  • " Less tension " : it is not considered a shame to do nothing and enjoy life ; France is still a " bistrot " civilization where people spend time talking... Less social pressure than in the USA on people who do not work ! Pleasure is neither guilt nor labor ! More about pleasure.

  • Other aspects : " being able to have a heated discussion with friends who disagree with you WITHOUT them thinking that you are mad at them." (Lorraine T.), "Crossing the street in the midle, being late, tolerance, topless beaches, great food , restaurants and cafés everywhere, beautiful shops, beautiful everything, that 'je ne sais quoi'" (Micaela P.), " France, women over 35 are still appreciated and flirted with" (Julie W.)

  • What Americans (any many French people) don't like : read about irksome France. and read how difficult it is to be a Japanese expat in France !

Some of the things that you'll miss when you're in France (they do not exist or are hard to find at a reasonable price)

    • Baseball games : nobody can figure out the rules (but you can watch baseball game in some sport cafes in Paris)
    • Good sandwiches (but they're improving) ; they can be controversial too (read " a sandwich is not a meal " in French Toast)
    • Peanut butter
    • Big fluffy American towels
    • A real martini (i.e. with hardly any martini in it)
    • Air conditioning
    • Ice cubes in everything
  • More to come
  • " Less vital drama " : the social system protects people from the major dramas of life : illness (see sick in France), cost of education (see education), unemployment (see state) and retirement : it does not mean that the French do not have any problems making ends meet but on these key issues, the social system protects them against major dramas... The French bureaucratic system has many drawbacks, but imagine life with much less worries about health, education of children, loss of job and retirement...

  • " More beauty and elegance " : when in a situation of such choice, the French will most likely choose elegance over efficiency or comfort (see French woman) ; look at French shop windows, etc...

  • And also :
  • More to come
 Going back home... a shocking experience   More about the"Americanization"of France

 In her excellent web site, a young American woman who spent several years in Paris working for a French company makes the following list of what she liked and disliked. Here goes :

Things I'll miss :

    • The cheese, the Bread, the Wine, the Coffee...
    • Socialism (she means : good and cheap health care, public services, 5 weeks vacation...)
    • UGC Carte Illimitée (unlimited movies anytime, 16 Euros)
    • Café Culture (read about it)
    • Public Space
    • No Open Container Laws
    • Tip and Tax Included in the Price
    • The Pronoun "One"

Things I'll Not Miss :

    • The Ridiculous Shop Hours
    • The Dog Shit
    • The UnAirConditionned Metros
    • The Metros Don't Run All Night
    • The Collective Taste in Music
    • The Concept of Meetings (see our Section : "Working With the French")
    • Queuing Up and/or the Idea of Personal Space
    • No Coffee to Go
    • Cat-Calling and Leering as a Part-Time Job (she must be pretty, otherwise it would not be a problem...)

 Jill Bourdais, a psychotherapist practicing in Paris, writes a very perspicacious column in the Paris Voice. In the May/June 2005 issue, she describes the adjustments an expatriate returning to California after many years in Paris may have to make :

  • High expectations, after many years
  • Lack of familiarity : the country has changed
  • Indifference to the experience of the expatriate : many Americans are insular and not very interested in other countries
  • Clashing values : compared to Europe, America appears very counsumerist, conservative, individualist and oblivious to international concerns
  • Lifestyle differences : the expatriate might miss what is good in France (health care, public transportation, less commercial TV, interest in food, culture)
  • Career issues : American employers do not always value an European experience.

My conclusion, for American expats : stay here !

Read a column by Harriet Welty Rochefort : "You can't go home again- or can you?"

USEFUL TIPS........Tired of four-course meals ? Try some of the traditional French (or integrated into French cooking) dishes which mix one or several kinds of vegetables and various meats and make a very filling and enjoyable one-course meal. Among them : couscous (Arab origin, semolina, lamb, shich-kebab, chickpeas, carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, turnips, etc, with a spicy sauce), paella (Spanish, rice, mussels, shrimps, chicken or rabbit ( !), sausages, octopus, etc), cassoulet (South-West of France, beans, sausages, pork, duck or goose, etc), choucroute (Alsace, sauerkraut, sausages, ham, pork chop, potatoes, etc), Pot-au-Feu (beef and veal, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, turnips, etc...). You can also try an Assiette de Fruits de Mer (raw oysters, crab, clams, shrimps, etc).

 French family traditions    How to become almost French....?
  • First week of January : " galette des Rois ", a crusty cake filled with almond-paste, celebrating the visit of the kings to Jesus ; there is a small object (" la fève ") in it : if you have it in your portion, you are the King/Queen and you choose a Queen/King among the others by giving him/her a paper crown, which is given with the cake.

  • February 2 : " Chandeleur ", you make thin pancakes ("crèpes"), tossing them around with a gold coin in the other hand brings luck.

  • April First (April fool) : you make people believe things which are untrue or you hang a paper fish on their back ("poisson d'Avril").

  • Easter Sunday ("Pâques") : you eat chocolate eggs (or fish, or bell) filled with sweets ; Easter Bunny is known only in the East of France. The symbol of Easter is a bell (they are supposed to fly-back from Rome, loaded with chocolate!.

  • May First (" Fête du Travail ") : offer lily-of-valley, thousands of people sell it in the streets

  • End May/Early June : "Fête des Mères" (Mother's Day) : watch out : the date is not the same as in the USA !

  • November 1rst ("Toussaint") : you bring flowers (chrysanthemum) on the grave of the beloved ones

  • Christmas Eve ("le réveillon") is usually a family dinner, when New Year's Eve ("le réveillon du Nouvel An")is generally shared with friends: both are huge meals with typically oysters and/or Foie Gras, then turkey or goose or roast-beef, salad and cheese and chocolate cake and/or ice cream etc...

  • More to come...

USEFUL TIPS....... In France, the National Holiday is on July 14 and it is callet "le 14 Juillet" (nobody calls it "Bastille Day"). There is no family celebration and a flag on a house would be considered a sign of extreme chauvinism. There are parades (a big military one in Paris), a speech by the President and many balls all over the country (in Paris, in Fire Stations).


 What do the French like best about their own country and their lifestyle? What do you need to master to be like them ?

  • Habits and tastes includes :

    • Prefering esthetics : beautiful shoes to comfortable shoes, a brilliant loser to a boring winner (read about Vercingetorix!), etc...
    • Taking pleasure in a discussion where you strongly disagree with the other one, particularly your best friends : remember that here there is a different idea of friendship
    • Understanding that you can survive without air-conditioning (which would be necessary only five days a year...)
    • Enjoying life without feeling guilty, if you do not work or if you do not "do something"
  • Life and society :

    • Marching in the streets and vociferating at the State whenever anything goes wrong... Always say : NO, and never : Why not ?
    • Opening a "Livret de Caisse d'Epargne", a state-managed tax-free saving account : 45 million French people have one.
  • Surprised ?

  • Food and leisure means :

    • Enjoying long meals with children and/or friends and talking endlessly about food, cheese and wine...
    • Educating chidren about food (see what French schools do)
    • Commemorating everything happy with Champagne (professional success, family event, etc...) and Foie Gras

 More practical tips...

  • How to drive on a roundabout ? Cars already in it have priority on incoming cars. But many French drivers do not agree with this rule....

  • Do not expect to do your shopping between 12 :30 and 3 pm, especially outside Paris : shops are closed and shop-keepers are enjoying their lunch.

  • Do not expect to get your money back if you change your mind about something you bought : unless specified, the most you can get is a credit on another purchase

  • Five intercultural keys to communicate and live in France (according to St.Germain en Laye International Lycée, 2004) are :

    • You obtain more by building a relationship
    • Get used to French time management and "Système-D"
    • Remember the French are implicit and high context
    • Do not expect too much from team working
    • Leadership styles are always very directive
  • More to come...

DID YOU KNOW THAT .... ? Zip codes in France are 5-digit numbers : the first two are the "départements" (counties) in alphabetical order from Ain (01) to Yonne (89), Paris being 75 and its region from 91 to 95 ; within Paris, the 20 "arrondissements" (precincts) go clockwise (or more precisely "snail-shell-wise") from the very center of Paris (75001) to the North-East part of the city (75020). 

USEFUL TIP..... Road signs are different in France : they do not give the number of the road and the direction, they give the name of the next town and the main town in this direction. For example, if driving to Lyon, look for Lyon and not for A6 (the expressway between Paris and Lyon). In cities, it is the same principle with streets and neighborhoods. Color code is : everything red is forbidden, everything blue is suggested.

    • Shopping every day : before EACH meal, you buy your bread, generally a "baguette"....
    • Enjoying a before-dinner drink : less frequently but depending on the region or the social status, it can be port wine or whisky, or a traditional " anisé " drink (like Ricard) ; you drink champagne (" brut ", i.e. dry, of course) whenever you want to celebrate something special ; (American) Martini is unknown.
    • Organizing your whole life around vacations and considering the month of May as a month of vacation with a few days where, unfortunately, you have to work...
    • Playing p├ętanque: a ball game you play with iron balls on almost any kind of field...
  • Everyday life includes :

    • reading a newspaper or a magazine : more about the press and see the most frequently covered events in the French press
    • surviving a French meeting : read more
    • watching TV or listening to radio : see the most popular TV channels or the most popular radio stations (observe that several are state-owned). remember : if you don't watch French TV and read French newspaper, your opinion about French issues is not different from Main Street's. Read my column about it.
    • Buying a ticket of loto, the French national lottery : see gambling in France
    • opening a tax-free saving account
  • Getting French nationality ? See the rules.
  • More to come...

DID YOU KNOW THAT ?......In France, you do not send Christmas cards (or, as Americans say to be politically correct, Happy Holiday cards). You send cards wishing a Happy New Year, and it is acceptable to send them even relatively late during the month of January. The first week of January is devoted to "cérémonies des voeux" (New Year Parties) : in all French organizations (companies, administrations, etc...) the tradition is that the boss gives a speech and, while wishing a Happy New Year to his/her staff, the boss tells them everything he should have told them in the last 365 days. Then they all drink and eat. The President of France gives a speech on TV and the press comments it lengthly.

To related pages : more about life (#3) and retirement (#4) in France, Paris Diary, the French health care system, a French Quiz, etc..

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For more on intercultural differences, order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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