When you move to France you are diving head first into a web of cultural affinities and entering a country that proudly bears its Frenchness on its chest, proclaiming its exceptionalism.
It can be a challenge. You will fight the bureaucracy and weep. But you will also fall unexpectedly and unconditionally in love with some of its peculiarities – then you will begin to adopt them yourself.
If you sip it, you're on the way to becoming French
1. You taste the wine
France is the country of wine, however French people rarely binge-drink.
Where I’m from – Norway – wine is something you drink in large doses. Like the French, we bring a bottle to a party. The only difference is that we bring it for ourselves.
I used to think wine was just red, white or rosé. In France, people actually taste their wine. I remember how snobbish I found that girl at a party who said she wouldn’t drink her white wine because it was trop sucrée (too sweet). Then I went home on holiday and found that the same €5 Chardonnay at my local wine-store cost roughly €17 in Oslo. That might have been the moment I started doubting whether I could never move back home.
2. You’re always poised to kiss
In France, you greet someone with la bise, a kiss on each cheek. There’s a whole art to this, and as a foreigner it can seem terrifyingly complicated at first.
How many kisses are you supposed to do? Which cheek do you start with? And all this varies from region to region. It’s a tradition that can seem exhaustingly time-consuming sometimes, like when you enter a dinner party and need to kiss everyone around the table.
However it’s personally become one of the parts I appreciate most about French culture. By kissing someone, you’re straight away opening up for a more intimate knowledge of that person, even though the kiss is completely casual and non-sexual.
Plus, because it’s so complicated, people rarely hold it against you when you mess it up. It can even be a good ice-breaker: “Oh, here in the south we do three kisses and not two like those cold Parisians! Welcome!”
Will this be enough bread for the next 24 hours?
3. Bread becomes lifeblood
As I Scandinavian, I have my own bread-traditions.
We eat rye-bread, thick slices of dark loaf packed with seeds. It tastes good, but more importantly it keeps us healthy in the north. Bread to me was the slightly plain base that you cover up with something else: eggs, ham, cheese and veggies (preferably all of them together).
I didn’t see the bread as a food in itself, nothing my dish couldn’t do without. I know now that I was clueless, and that bread is an essential accessory to the meal. Why haven’t all other countries learnt how to make bread as the French? Are we still allowed to call our so-called ‘bread’ bread? I honestly don’t know.
4. You will never call those yellow plasticy slices 'cheese' again
Cheese to me used to be that yellow slice that goes on top of your toast .
To the French, cheese is culture. It’s huddling together around a Raclette on a cold winter day (Raclette is a delightful dish where you literally poor melted cheese on potatoes). It’s the soft Camembert that has amassed a distinct smell of old socks, or the crottin de chevre that is just dying to melt on your tongue. It’s the sharp aftertaste of Roquefort, biting itself info your tastebuds. You lose yourself in the cultural moment.
Don't expect your favourite TV characters to sound the same in France
5. You learn to appreciate Friends in French
One of the most shocking culture clashes I experienced when moving to Paris was when I saw Ross and Rachel arguing in French.
Why, I asked my French boyfriend, were the characters of my favourite TV show being destroyed by these strangers’ voices?
Boyfriend then explained that French TV-channels don’t really subtitle foreign films and TV shows, they dub them instead. Sometimes, he continued, he thought the French voices were much better than the English ones. Appalled, I silently reconsidered if what I until then had thought to be a very promising relationship. It was only a couple of days ago that I caught myself watching half an episode of Friends without noticing that the subtitles were off and the voices were in French. And I had been enjoying it.
6. You become an aggressive pedestrian
Scandinavians have a reputation of being fairly nice people. We say hello, good day and thank you, and we apologise when bumping into someone on the bus.
I remember how shocked I was three years ago when an old Parisian lady punched me for biking on the pavement (the route was blocked by a truck and I was late for university). As I peddled by her, she clenched her tiny fist and pounded on my left arm with all the strength she could master.
Three years later, I myself have become the angry Parisian street-walker. Although I don’t physically attack people, I frequently insult them for blocking my way out of the Metro. I sigh and roll my eyes, pff-ing hard through my nose in classic French style, especially when the laggers are tourists . . .
Strike days become simply the days to catch up on your reading
7. You are always prepared for a strike
That leads me to the next point: got a job interview? An important meeting? Don’t count on public transport to take you there in time.
When calculating your journey time always, always, account for the fact that there might be someone somewhere out there practicing the very French act of la grève (striking). So be prepared, and be prepared the French way: bring a book. You won’t always have internet access, so you can finally get off your phone. Who would have guessed that French railway strikers would be the ones to bring fiction back into your life?
8. You become a bureaucracy whizz
Whether it’s renting an apartment, getting a bank card or joining the French health system, the paperwork will always try to kill you.
There will be misunderstandings, documents will be lost in the mail and need to be sent again. Bureaucrats won’t always be helpful. But you will survive. And the best part is, when you manage to find your way through the labyrinth that is the French system, you will feel unbeatable.
9. You will never be completely French, but that's OK
The last couple of weeks France has been debating whether to ban the Muslim headscarf (le voile) in public spaces. I, on the other hand, have been arguing that la voile, also known as the white sail that keeps a sailboat moving, should definitely be allowed everywhere. Also in classrooms.
Bottom line is: your French might never be perfect. But that's alright. French people are surprisingly lenient with foreigners who make grammar mistakes and they seem to find our accents charming.