My First Month in France

This is part of a series of articles about the final days of preparing for moving to France and what happens when you get here.

By the end of my first month in France I had experienced a good deal of the classic signs of culture shock, including strange food cravings, wild mood swings, and the ability to sleep more hours a night than I thought humanly possible.

But I was also making progress in this new world. I was no longer getting lost a few blocks from my own apartment. My ability to open doors was improving. I could more or less manage the bakery and went every morning for my croissant and daily bread.

My furnished studio had an impressive coffee maker and an electric kettle, but neither a stove nor microwave. There was instead a tiny oven with the outward appearance of a microwave (if we were making them for dwarves), and it didn’t seem to get very hot. What its purpose was I had no clue. I mostly used it to melt butter.

Having arrived at the planetary center of culinary excellence, my diet for a long time consisted almost entirely of baguettes and ramen. There were beautiful fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, but I observed that you had to take your produce to a guy behind a special counter to have it weighed. That was obviously far too terrifying to contemplate, but the internet informed me it took at least three months to develop scurvy and it was probably that long before I ever ate a nutrient. It took me a good month before I even had the courage to buy a crêpe from a street vendor.

Once again showing my naiveté, I decided to rent a car for a few days in order to get some things I thought I needed out in the suburbs at the hypermarché (these are basically like Walmart with the addition of a huge dead fish section). The topic of cars and driving in France could fill an entire book (Stephen reviewed an entire book just on the driver’s license issue), but suffice to say every hour in that car took about a year off my life — and I’m a car nut even by American standards. I returned it as soon as I could and was charged an extra 60 euros for an invisible scratch on the rear wheel, even though I had already bought their expensive insurance which cost as much as the rental itself. Had I understood French I might have better appreciated the beautiful French contours of this ripoff, but in the event I was just relieved the car hadn’t been totaled. I think driving in France is basically like being in a demolition derby, and navigating a French parking garage is to grapple with lunacy itself.

That odd experience led me to brave the buses. Yes I held up the line trying to figure out the QR code scanning deal (no I didn’t understand the possibly helpful advice from the bus driver) and of course I felt and looked like a moron. Even simple things are nerve-racking the first time, but with enough repetition they do get easier. Pushing myself over the initial hurdle usually took more energy than I thought I really had, and I admit there were times I wished I could just spend one day back in the easy world.

France too has Amazon and thank goodness, but the delivery process was a challenge for me. After being trapped at home all day long waiting for the package to arrive, not daring to leave even for a quick run to the bakery, I was informed late in the evening that “Sorry! Your package couldn’t be delivered because you weren’t home.” A rain-smeared paper slip would be found in the mailbox, with an indecipherable scribble telling me where I might go to pick it up. I learned to avoid having anything delivered to my apartment if at all possible, but thankfully in France you can frequently ship to a point relais (pickup place). These locations are quite random, they include the post office of course (usually also to be avoided), but also Carrefour, the wine shop, the book store, the vape store, the tailor or key maker, the weird printer cartridge place, and of course to the ubiquitous and versatile tabacs. There it waits until you have time to retrieve it on your own schedule — that is if you don’t forget your passport, and if the shop owner hasn’t decided to go fishing for the day.

Amidst all this running about what struck me as the biggest difference from the suburbs of America from whence I had appeared, were the vast quantity of people in…well I was about to say “in my life,” but that is not exactly correct. They were in my presence; or anyway, I was in theirs. They were out and about.

The sidewalks and pedestrian streets were every day crowded with what seemed like half the town. In America the main reason to go outdoors is to immediately get into our cars, and when we get out of the car, it is usually to go immediately inside somewhere else. This kind of lifestyle would scarcely be possible in France; even with a car one would end up doing a great deal of walking by American standards. There is most certainly no parking lot in front of your favorite French café.

Consequently being outside with hundreds of others is just part of everyday life, and not only in the big cities. It is no exaggeration to say that on any Saturday afternoon in the small French town where I live, I could leave my apartment and see more flesh-and-blood human beings in ten minutes than I saw in the last ten years combined in America.

I soon learned that it was practical and even (sometimes) enjoyable to walk distances far greater than I would ever have guessed. All that exercise and fresh air had a salutary influence on my health, and my waistline. Most notably, being in the presence of so many others in real life — not just people on Zoom, or in the car next to me on the freeway — provided a glimpse into community living that I had not seen in the US.

At the end of my first month I had learned how to get by, but my glimpse into French society remained just that. A crowd alone does not a community make, and to be present in the midst of one is not necessarily to be a participant. If anything I discovered a new type of isolation only possible to experience in the company of others, something which I think many expats can attest to.

Obviously my next objective was to get out and meet people, somehow.

Photo of Notre-Dame d’Amiens by Mathias Reding on Unsplash

Categories: : Living in France, The French Language, Working in France