A French Guy in California: Hugo talks about culture shock in the U.S.

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.

This place

A post shared by Hugo (@hugo.hrbs) on

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.]

Preparing for the TAPIF language assistant program in France: What to do, and what not to do

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.

The number 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.

French words
Note: do not call your waiter “garçon” in French.

Don’t overpack

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!

(As I wrote in another post on teaching English in France, the dress code tends to be on the casual side, so don’t worry too much about bringing dressy clothes for work.)

Do connect with other assistants in your region

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.

Euros

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.)

Good luck!

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?