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!”
Hi there! I write about la rentrée (when all of France goes back to school and back to work after summer vacation) every year (2014, 2015), but it’s my first time in years being a student for back to school season!
I have to say, I like it. I love being a student. I’m currently studying translation, localization, and interpretation at MIIS and it keeps me busy seven days a week. It is fun to be back on the other side of the classroom and remember how I felt when I was the teacher. (I don’t miss it.)
I think that being in an international environment and a familiar city (I grew up here) have muted the effects of reverse culture shock. It was surprisingly easy to quit my beloved Franglais (for the most part) and I’m almost never surprised by sales tax anymore (but I’m leaving my weather app in Celsius!)
I don’t make too many embarrassing mistakes in French anymore. (I still feel like it’s a battle to be taken seriously as a foreigner in France, but that’s a separate issue.) But here’s one that still cracks me up a little when I think about it.
Last year, I lived with some lovely French girls while Hugo was in England, and one evening, another lovely French girl came over for dinner. We all helped whip up this and that in our cramped, hallway-shaped kitchen, and our visitor prepared a delicious quiche. She even made the crust and everything, instead of using the pre-made pâte feuilletée that I roll out every time. Without thinking, I proclaimed her the “reine des quiches” with much American enthusiasm.
She looked startled. It seems like a compliment to say that someone is the queen of quiche, but the problem is that calling a person a quiche in French is an insult – I basically called her “Queen of the idiots”! And I knew that, but I had just forgotten for a second in my excitement over the delicious quiche!
Luckily, she understood I meant no harm and gently reminded me of the alternate meaning of “une quiche.” Whoops. I felt like a total quiche myself!
Accidental insults aside, I do love quiche. As long as there’s no goat cheese hiding in it. My favorite quiches to make are leek, onion, and lardon quiche, and this bacon and spinach quiche. Yum yum yum. What’s your favorite quiche recipe?
(You know, the movie with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, and they switch houses for Christmas and then fall in love and stuff? And Jude Law has two tiny daughters who each have their own cellphone. Don’t get me started on that plot point.)
Right, so we were watching The Holiday, and we got to this scene. (Skip to 1:40 to get to my point.) Iris (aka Kate Winslet) is telling Arthur about the jackass she left back in England, and Arthur simply says, “So he’s a schmuck.”
Hugo paused the movie. “Ça veut dire quoi, un schmuck?” he asked me.
“Um, a schmuck is like, a not nice guy. Kind of a jerk. Or like, a stupid person you don’t like.” He repeated it a few times. “Schmuck. Schmuck? Schmuck!”
And we carried on with the movie. (Spoiler alert – Kate Winslet got rid of her schmuck and Cameron Diaz learned to cry. Hooray.)
The next day, we were on the road and Hugo wanted to stop at McDo, but I disagreed. “Noooon, pas McDo, not McDonald’s!” I groaned. He looked at me sideways with a glint in his eye and exclaimed, “Schmuck!”
For the next few days, he wielded his new word with relish at any opportunity that prompted an insult.
“Tu as mangé le dernier biscuit! You ate the last cookie! Schmuck!”
And just now: “Hey chéri, you said it was okay for me to blog about when you learned the word ‘schmuck’ right?”
“Non, schmuck! …just kidding, tu peux.”
I always hesitate to blog about funny things Hugo says in English because I don’t want it to seem like I’m making fun of him – really, his English is excellent. He can keep up in conversations with my family and anglophone friends so well that I never worry about it. He can properly pronounce “squirrel” and “hungry” which we all know is quite an accomplishment. But sometimes he says stuff like “Your feets are cold!” and “It’s in minty condition” which I think is so, so cute. But maybe it’s less cute if you’re not dating him, which I assume no one else is.
For a truly hilarious blog about an American expat’s foreign spouse’s English quips, you must read Oh My God My Wife Is German. Trust me.
Do you ever feel like you could write your own FAQ list at the end of the holiday season? Or after any gathering with your extended family or your mom’s friends? Everyone always asks the same #$%^& questions over and over again. After awhile, you want to make like Tom Wilson (Biff Tanner in Back to the Future) and print out at FAQ card.
No, but I don’t mind, though. I’m not a total bitch. It’s normal for people you see once a year to ask what you plan to do after you finish your degree instead of your favorite Girl Scout cookie (it’s samosas, with thin mints as a close runner up, in case you were wondering). And actually, it’s good because it forces me to reflect on some of the heavier questions (“What are your plans for the future?”) and by January I’ve had so much practice that I have quippy answers at the ready. (Thankfully, I don’t have to field annoying questions like “Why aren’t you married yet?” or “What are you going to do with that major?”)
I spent the holidays in California where I grew up (I’m still jet-lagged!) and visited with as many cousins, family friends, and friendly neighbors as possible, and it was awesome! I was happy to see everyone, no one in my family is less than a delight. (…and they might be reading this.) If you asked me one of the following questions, I don’t begrudge you one bit. These are totally questions I would ask too. In fact, I thought that since almost half of the visitors to my blog come from the U.S. I’d write a little post on the questions I was asked the most during my trip home. (Also, it’s just kind of fun for me, which is the only reason I blog about anything in the first place.)
What do you miss most about the US when you’re over there?
Tacos. All my favorite stuff from Trader Joe’s. The Pacific ocean. DSW, 70% off sales, free shipping and generous return policies. Whole Foods sandwiches. No one making fun of my accent or nationality. Being able to go any branch of my bank I want, even on Mondays.
Are you fluent in French?
Yes siree. But I’m always learning new things!
Is your boyfriend French?
He sure is. His name is Hugo. He’s pretty awesome. (But not because he’s French. Just because he’s himself.)
Do you and Hugo speak French or English?
Usually French. He speaks great English but it’s not thanks to me! On the other hand, he has helped me enormously with my French. He is super patient with my endless questions.
What are you doing after your contract is up? Will you come back to California?
Good question! Maybe! Are you hiring?
Where do you live in France again?
I live in Lyon, the second or third largest city (with Marseille) depending on who you ask. I lived in Paris when I first came to France , but I moved to Lyon a few years ago.
So… where is Lyon, exactly?
It’s in the Rhône-Alpes region a few hours south-east of Paris (2 hours by TGV, 4-5 by car). It’s a couple hours from Geneva, and a 2-3 hour train ride from the Mediterranean.
How has France changed since the November 13th attacks in Paris?
In Lyon, we see the military patrolling the streets of the city, and there is additional security in large buildings and the metro. There has already been at least one bomb scare, which resulted in a lot of public transport being shut down. (It was not an attempted attack as far as I know.) There were tributes to the victims in the main city squares where people left flowers and candles and notes. People from other countries left words in many languages stating their support for France. The Fête des Lumières, a major festival in Lyon, was cancelled, and replaced with candles and lights around the city on December 8th in homage to the victims.
Life goes on, but it was alarming to have an attack so violent so close to home, and there are daily reminders of the tragedy.
What do you like most about living in France?
Everything at the boulangerie! Lots of vacation! Going to the market! The train! Affordable healthcare! Actually, I really like meeting people from all over the world. I love going to a party and hearing a mix of three or four different languages floating around the room. I guess you can do that in the U.S. too, but I suppose I meet more foreigners here because I am one.
I’ve made my share of silly mistakes in French. I’ve progressed a lot in the last few years, but (much to my chagrin), I’m still not perfect. Sometimes just accidentally adding a single consonant to a word leaves les français giggling at my expense. (The word for down jacket is “doudoune” not “doune-doune,” in case you were wondering.)
Usually, my slip-ups just leave me subject to ridicule, but sometimes they get me in trouble. Here are two ways to accidentally offend your French copain or copine.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’ve crossed the border from France into Switzerland because everyone is still speaking French, but then you realize that everything is cleaner and more expensive.
When Americans describe Switzerland, it’s usually with words like “breathtaking,” “pristine,” and “chocolate.” When the French talk about Switzerland, it usually goes something like “Putain c’est cher la Suisse.” (“#$%& Switzerland is expensive.”)
Hello future language assistant. If you’re getting ready to come to France for the next school year, I’ve got some tips for you. I was an assistant in a lycée in Lyon in 2013-2014, and although I initially had my doubts about the program, I ended up having a great experience. Even though I had already been living and teaching in France for a year before I went, I reached out to past assistants to get tips from them and they were delightfully helpful. I hope you’ll find some useful ideas or resources in this post!
Do practice your French
In my opinion, the better your French is before you move, the easier it is to improve while you’re there. Before moving to France, I used Conversation Exchange to do a French/English language exchange. I also used Meetup to find a French language group in my area.
When you watch French movies, challenge yourself to take the subtitles off if you can, and watch French videos on YouTube. Try Golden Moustache Videos – they are hilarious and you can put on subtitles. (I know I just said to take the subtitles off, but you may want to have the option with Golden Moustache – their jokes go by fast, and subtitles can help you learn some of the slang they’re using.) The best one is the longest one, Le Fantôme de Merde. There’s also Norman fait des videos and Cyprien. You can also watch Quotidien in French, and for something a little more serious, C dans l’air.
Thenumber one thing I wish I had known about sooner?Comme une Française TV. Géraldine makes great videos demonstrating expressions and cultural quirks that you just don’t learn in the classroom. I’m fluent in French and I still learn new things from her videos all time. Even if you’re a dude, it doesn’t matter – most of the topics are gender neutral.
You probably don’t need as much stuff as you think you do, and you are going to have to carry it all. You know you’re going to be going home with more stuff than you came with anyway!
There should be a Facebook group for your city or region – find it and join it. Even if you really want to spend your year making French friends, not other anglophone friends, it is nice to have that online network when you have a question about lesson planning or opening your bank account. You don’t necessarily have to hang out with other assistants, but it’s a good idea to stay connected in the anglophone community. Sometimes being a foreigner is rough, and we have each other’s backs.
Do get in touch with your school
There’s some information you’re going to want sooner rather than later – will your school provide lodging? What will your schedule be? Will you be teaching your own classes, or having small conversation groups? You have no control over when someone gives you this information, and chances are no one will be in touch until the end of August or September because of les vacances, but at least if you send them an email (in French!) you’re opening the door for that communication to begin.
Do bring some props from home
You’re going to be talking about where you come from and your culture as much as you will be teaching English (more, in some cases). It’s great to have visual aids to present. Depending on your responsibilities and teaching style, you might want to have real English-language materials, like magazines, etc. to bring to class. Tip: think about presenting your city or region rather than (or in addition to) your country as a whole, especially if you’re American.
Don’t be too nice
If you’re responsible for a class, even if there are only eight students, be prepared to lay down the law from the start. Decide what is and is not acceptable in your class, and what the consequences will be if a student is uncooperative, and be consistent. If you don’t follow through, they will never take you seriously. Ask a teacher what the school rules are and what your options are to discipline, since you probably won’t be grading them.
Don’t mess up your consulate appointment
Going to the French consulate should be a million times easier than any French bureaucratic process in France. If you schedule your appointment ASAP, get all your paperwork lined up (there should be a list of requirements on your consulate’s website), and show up on time, there’s no reason it should go wrong.
Do feel free to tell the consulate if you have a reason to stay in France after the end of your contract
Your visa status is “travailleur temporaire.” You can have a visa with this status for up to a year. An assistant contract is usually seven months, and the visa is often valid 8-10 months – it depends on your consulate.
When I was getting my visa at the San Francisco consulate, the woman asked me if I would be staying in France after the end of my contract. Since I live in France and am annually plagued with visa obstacles, I wanted my visa to be valid as long as possible. That didn’t seem like the right thing to say at the consulate, though. I explained that my friend was getting married in September (true), so I needed to be able to stay in France until then. This kind sweet lady sent my passport back with a visa valid for 12 months. Woohoo!
Note: the 12 months start the day you arrive in France, not when your contract begins. That’s why you have to have purchased your plane ticket before your consulate appointment.
Of course, this all depends on which consulate you are at and who you speak with, but it can’t hurt to ask as long as you present a good reason!
Do get a new copy of your birth certificate with an apostille and don’t wait until the last minute!
You’ll need this to get a social security number and healthcare. They should accept a copy (color is better) at your appointment, but better to have the original on hand in case you need it. When I went to the Assurance Maladie, they didn’t require a translation for a birth certificate in English, but many people recommend that you have one done by a translator certified by the French consulate. (Note: L’assurance maladie is sometimes finicky with American birth certificates since they vary by state. Be persistent. You can read about my ordeal here.)
Do start looking for housing before you arrive
Finding somewhere to live can be a challenge. If your school offers lodging, I recommend that you take it. It will most likely be the cheapest option, and you can always move out if you find somewhere you’d prefer to live. Otherwise, network with other assistants and expats and search on leboncoin.fr (like French craigslist – it’s your best bet for finding a place.) It’s not necessarily likely that you’ll actually have somewhere to live when you arrive, but at least you’ll know the lay of the land. However…
Don’t get scammed on Leboncoin
Just like Craigslist, use caution on Leboncoin! There are tons of legit offers on the site, but if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Of course, never send money or personal information ahead of time. You might be tempted to wire a deposit if you’re in a panic about ending up homeless, but don’t do it! You will not end up living on the street. Okay?
Do have a credit card with no international fees, and do find out where you can withdraw cash with no fees
You’ve got to set up a bank account in France to get paid (but you need an address first!) but in the meantime, you still need money. Having a credit card with no international fees is a no-brainer, and you also want to check with your bank to find out where you can withdraw cash without getting charged (you gotta have cash!)
For example, in the States, I have an account at Bank of America. I can withdraw cash at BNP Paribas ATMs without getting charged per transaction (but I do pay a small percentage fee). I also have their Travel Rewards credit card, which I love a) because there are no international fees and b) because it has the little European chip in it, which makes it easier to use over here. (You literally have to show people how to swipe a credit card in their machine here, unless you’re somewhere with a large influx of non-European visitors. It is a completely foreign concept.)
Note: Even if you have a credit card with the chip, there are still some places it won’t work because it’s a foreign card, like the SNCF train station automated machines.
Don’t forget to tell your bank and credit cards where you’ll be so that your account doesn’t get blocked!
Because that is no fun for anyone.
Do have enough funds to last you a month or two when you arrive
You’re not going to get paid until the end of November. You might get an advance of a couple hundred euros at the end of October. You will still have to pay for stuff.
Don’t expect everyone to speak English
The English teachers at your school will speak English (right?) but the administration and the other teachers probably won’t. Some people will want to practice their English with you, so if your goal is to speak French, figure out a polite way to communicate that (just continuing to respond in French often does the trick.)
If you struggle with speaking French at first, that’s okay! Look up a list of necessary vocabulary before going into new situations. For example, if I go to the doctor, I make sure I have all the words I need to explain what my symptoms are, and if I go to the préfecture, I make sure I have a long list of profanities handy. (…Kidding.)
I’ve written more about teaching English in France (including lesson plans, types of visas, and getting a TEFL certificate) here.
Have you been a language assistant in France? What advice would you give?
(Update: I wrote this two years ago, and a lot of things have changed around here! I’ve discovered new things, a lot more international food has popped up in Lyon, I started buying almond milk, you get the idea.
I think that a lot of the things on the list still hold true. None of them are part of French culture (France has its own awesome things) and most of them are still unfamiliar to the older generation/people who live in less urban areas.
Keep in mind that Lyon is the second biggest city in France (or third after Marseille depending on how you slice it). It’s been voted one of the best cities for start-ups and there’s a substantial population of young hipsters and bobos (and foreigners, like me!) There is so much innovation and creativity present in this city! Happily, that has begun to translate into food too. In the years that I’ve lived here a lot of new restaurants and cafes have popped up, and I’ve discovered new places I didn’t know about before.
If you live in a less-urban area of France, I’d love to know your take on these things too! Can you get smoothies and barbecue where you live? Does anyone eat corn on the cob?
So with that, here’s the original post; you’ll find my updates italicized below each section.)
* * * * *
France has adopted a lot of so-called American foods over recent years. Cute cupcake boutiques are popping up right and left, the burger craze is bigger here than at home, and even kale has made its way over. You can buy “muffeens” in some boulangeries, and although I can’t bring myself to fork over two euros (about $2.75) for one bagel, but they’ve rolled on over here too.
You get the idea. It’s not like France has issued a ban on foreign food concepts and you can only eat French food in France (although sometimes it feels like it.) And if you know where to go and you’re willing to pay the price, you can find most things, especially in Paris. However, there are some awesome things that aren’t easy to find over here, and that makes me sad when I’m hungry and craving a burrito. So in the name of food cravings and homesickness, here are seven foods that need to go mainstream in France, like, ASAP.
Smoothies are available in France, for sure – you can even buy Naked juice at Monoprix now. But the larger population of France is likely to say, “Smoo-tie? C’est quoi ça?” Maybe it’s because the word contains the unpronounceable “th” sound, I don’t know.
But this girl grew up drinking Jamba Juice (back when it was $3 for a big smoothie!) and in the summer, smoothies are non-negotiable! No worries though – I just make them at home. (Hugo: “Strawberries and banana together? Are you sure that will be good?”)
(Update: Some trendy healthy places in Lyon do offer smoothies – you can find them at Dust Café, Garden State, and Le Tasse Livre. But the word “smoothie” remains a tongue-twister for most Francophones, and in smaller cities, you’ll probably be making your smoothie at home. Nothing wrong with that!)
Tacos have gone a little bit mainstream in Paris with the success of Candalaria and the like. However, not all of us live in Paris, and the dearth of Mexican food in France is appalling (yes, appalling!) Quesadillas are unheard of, tortillas are explained as “galettes” or “crêpes,” and salsa is “cette sauce rouge qui pique” (and I’ve definitely seen it consumed with potato chips. How do you like that?)
The thing that gets me every time? In France, this is a taco:
Before I knew this, I got really excited when Hugo told me we were going to have lunch at a place in Grenoble that made the best tacos. But instead of tacos, it was more like a cross between a kebab and Indian food.
It was delicious, but it wasn’t tacos.
(Update: Since I wrote this two years ago, several Mexican restaurants have popped up in Lyon! Woohoo! You have Two Amigos (my favorite) for California style tacos and burritos and hands down the best margaritas in town, Don Taco for traditional Mexican food, and the trendy Mexican taqueria Piquín. You can also get a decent burrito at Tu Esquina, which offers kind of a hodge-podge fusion of Spanish and Latin American food.
You can read about Mexican food in Paris here, here, and here.)
Reese’s peanut butter cups are virtually unknown in France. I suppose it’s not that surprising, as peanut butter itself is not popular. I don’t pine for Reese’s because I have Côte d’Or chocolate and Kinder Bueno to fatten me up, but still, it’s a shame something so delicious hasn’t made it across the pond, especially when other less drool-worthy American candy has. (You tell me. Do you want a Crunch, or a Reese’s?) You can only buy Reese’s in American food specialty stores, and if a box of Apple Jacks is going for 12 euros (that’s about $16 dollars and yes, I am dead serious) you can imagine the price you’d pay for your peanut butter cup fix!
(Update: Still true! I bring over Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups from the States. Yummmm.)
I don’t think I really knew the wonders of barbecue sauce until I moved to Chicago, but now I’m hooked forever. I love love love it. Sweet Baby Ray’s was always in the fridge. It’s not so much a thing here (although you can get Texas BBQ flavored Pringles!) but I’ve seen it on some trendy burgers (what’s up Camion qui Fume and Burger N Co!), so maybe it’s coming soon!
(Update: In Lyon you can get a BBQ pulled pork sandwich at the trendy restaurant Shack and the serious steakhouse Franklin’s, and in Paris I’ve been dying to try The Beast, a bona fide barbecue joint in the 10th. I also like the pulled pork sandwich at Frenchie to Go. Here, the New York Times elaborates on American barbecue in Paris.)
How can you have summer without corn on the cob? How can I make my dad’s famous corn cake fritters without fresh corn? How can you grill that Mexican-style corn I keep seeing on Pinterest without corn? You can’t, but fresh corn isn’t a thing here. I’ve never seen it for sale anywhere (and if you have, TELL ME WHERE!) Apparently, you can get it frozen at Picard, but frozen’s not the same.
The irony? There are fields and fields of cornstalks, but corn is considered animal food, not people food. (And if you’re wondering if I’ve ever snatched some corn directly from the field, I’m not going to say I haven’t tried. ) Corn is sold in cans, however. Make of that what you will.
(Update: You can buy corn on the cob at grocery stores – you’ll find two shucked ears in a styrofoam dish covered with plastic wrap. So that’s something. But eating corn on the cob is definitely not part of French culture.)
Mimosas are not a thing in France. The French don’t understand why you would ruin champagne with orange juice. (Our answer? Because then you can drink it in the morning!) Important detail: While in the US we often use “champagne” to mean all sparkling wine, in France, it only means the sparkling wines from the official region of Champagne, which is pretty fancy. I wouldn’t mix it with orange juice either! So if you’re trying sell a French person on mimosas, explain that it’s okay to use a cheaper vin petillant to make this delicious morning cocktail. (And YES, mimosas count as food.)
(Update: I stand firm on this one. Mimosas are still not a thing. Brunch is, though, and some places offer brunch cocktails like a bloody mary. But French brunch and American brunch are still rather different animals, including when it comes to drinking in the morning.)
For the record, I love living in France and they have oodles of yummy things here that we don’t have in the U.S. On any given day you can find me at the boulangerie stuffing my face (so elegant. I really fit in here). But there are a million things like breakfast sandwiches, chopped salads, Whole Food sandwiches (or any sandwich not on a baguette), and even almond butter that I miss sometimes. The good news is, I can make a lot of these things myself, and as a bonus, people are impressed with my quesadilla-making skills (aka melting cheese on a tortilla). Win.
But still. Ask me what I miss the most about the U.S. besides my family and friends, and I’ll probably tell you Mexican food. (Unless I spent the day battle French bureaucracy or SFR customer service. Then I’ll say that I miss efficiency.)
(Update: These days, I will tell you I miss Trader Joe’s and free shipping for online shopping.)