I think that Hugo’s biggest moment of American culture shock was when he opened a bottle of ibuprofen.
He came running in and exclaimed, “Sweetie! The weirdest thing just happened!” He held out the plastic bottle. “Look what was in it!” Wide-eyed, he pulled out a wad of cotton. “C’est pas comme en France!”
You’d think he would be awestruck over the fact that the supermarket is open at 9 p.m. on Sunday, or the abundance of glittering neon Easter marshmallows in April, or the sheer existence of Costco, but no, it’s the cotton balls in the pill bottle that made his jaw hit the floor.
(Well, that time we went to urgent care and they told us it would be $300 to see a doctor was a pretty big shock too.)
When we moved here, he had already visited California several times and was used to being around North Americans. If you ask him about culture shock, he shrugs. He just goes with the flow. Ask him what he misses about France – just his family and friends. Not the bread? Not the cheese? Not the train? Eh – not really. His favorite bar, maybe. But that’s really because he misses evenings out with his friends, not because he can’t find any good beer here.
He does have a favorite American beer. And a California driver’s license. And a longboard, to skate along the path that runs next to the ocean. He goes to the gym and eats dinner before 8 and starts texts with “Hey man!” Un véritable américain, quoi.
I asked him if he would mind sharing some of his impressions of American life with you all. He said he would be happy to (he’s kind and obliging like that).
(Please note that these observations are based on personal experience only and do not necessarily represent all of California or the United States.)
What are some of the cultural differences you’ve observed?
French people have a lot of preconceived notions about the United States and Americans, and some of them might be true in other parts of the country, but not here. For example, people think that Americans don’t eat well, but here I think people eat better and healthier than in France.
Also, we always hear about American students going to class in pajamas, but I’ve never seen that here. I like that Americans have a more casual style though, you don’t have to wear a suit to work. In the startup where I used to work in Lyon, we could come to work in jeans and a t-shirt, and I think that mindset comes from the U.S.
Americans eat dinner à l’heure des poules – really early! I’m not sure if I like that or not…
There’s a big different in cost of living and quality of life, especially here. In France, if you earn 60K a year, you can have a really high quality of life, but here in California, that salary doesn’t go as far. Earning 60K in California is like earning 30K in France, except you also have to live with roommates.
What surprised you about California?
It rains all the time! I thought it would be nice weather… but I’m also happy for California because it needs the rain.
I was shocked to see so many cars on the road in California! There are a lot of electric cars – Teslas everywhere. I think there is probably the same number of cars in proportion to the population, but there are a lot more people here. Seeing so many cars makes you want to take care of the planet.
When I got my driver’s license, it was really fast and inexpensive, not at all like in France – I think it’s great that it’s so efficient!
There aren’t a lot of streets and paths where you can go for a stroll or ride your bike, it’s all really big roads. You have to drive somewhere so that you can go for a walk!
What is difficult about living in the U.S.?
It’s hard to get used to the systems of measurement. Gallons, feet, miles – c’est un peu perturbant.
What do you miss about France?
My friends and family. That’s all, really – I’ve been lucky enough to live in some really nice places so I can’t complain. Both places have good qualities. I miss going to my parents’ house in the countryside on the weekend. Here it’s not really the city or the countryside. I also miss Lyon, strolling on the quais, my favorite bar…
Where would you like to travel or explore in the U.S.?
Everywhere! There are so many different cultures in the same country, and there are a lot of places I want to see. New York, Boston, Yosemite, Seattle, Bryce Canyon… there are also many things close by that I still want to explore.
Do you find that people are different in California?
I think that people are friendlier here. People say that French people are like coconuts (hard on the outside, soft on the inside) and Americans are like peaches (really nice but difficult to get close to), but the people I know are really nice and easy to be friends with.
One time I was walking with my longboard and an older lady asked me if I was going to skate down the hill, just to be nice and make small talk (maybe she was also a little concerned!) In France it’s not like that – no one comes up to talk to you in the street, and if they do you’ll probably feel uncomfortable because it’s so uncommon.
I think that people here are less judgmental than in France, you can do what you want and no one cares. Sometimes it’s hard when people laugh and I don’t get the joke, and not understanding makes me feel kind of like an outsider, because it’s not my own culture.
You already spoke English fluently when you moved, but have you learned anything new?
Americans always use the expression “it’s not rocket science.” I think that’s kind of funny. Guys I know say “hey man, how’s it going man” all the time. It reminds me of Leo in That 70’s Show.
When you’re at the grocery store, the cashiers say “How are you” but actually they just mean “Hello” which is weird when you’re not used to it.
And foreigners in France always complain that la bise is complicated (when to bise, when not to bise) but here it’s the same – you don’t know when you’re supposed to shake hands or when to hug!
I used to avoid saying “beach” because it sounded like “bitch” but I’m getting better at making the difference now.
What do you want to show people from back home when they come visit?
I want to show them where I live, take them to my favorite places, show them that we eat well. I want to break down their preconceptions about the United States and show them that there are great things here, that life isn’t so different. There are good things and bad things like in France, like there are anywhere.
What’s your favorite thing about living here?
It’s an adventure and I know that I’ll be able to get by even when things go wrong. C’est super enrichissant – it’s really rewarding.
Thanks chéri! You’re the best.
If you have any questions for Hugo about what it’s like to live in the U.S. as a French expat, send them our way.
[Note: In this context, “California” means a specific slice of northern/central California on the coast; neither of us has traveled the entire state. These are all personal observations and may not be true for everyone everywhere.]