I recently returned from a holiday in a country that had a vastly different culture and set of social norms than both my home and adopted countries. I spent a good chunk of this holiday on trains, and I often used this time to think about the many ways in which cultures and societies can differ. About how they can develop their own set of etiquette and rules, and how these differences can range from important social customs to small little quirks. In particular, it made me think about the many quirks of living in France. They may seem second nature to me today, but these small differences often befuddled me when I first arrived. France has a lot of quirks, but below are a few of my favourites.
Once again, it all starts with bread
As I’ve previously discussed, bread is big business in France. However, when it comes time to share a baguette with your fellow Parisians, put the bread knife away. If you want some, simply tear off a piece, even when you’re at group gatherings. It’s a refreshingly informal custom that I’ve come to love.
Always have a collection of scarves on hand
In Paris, a scarf is a must have accessory. For all Parisians, both men and women, an outfit is not complete without a scarf. This applies even in the summer when scarves are mostly decorative and don’t actually provide any warmth. Therefore, if you want to look like a local, starting adding scarves to your wardrobe.
Run for the empty seat
I may be alone in this thinking, but when I’m on a public transit system, I will often choose to stand instead of forcing myself into the one available seat in the corner that will require me to step over half a dozen people to get there. Parisians don’t share this line of thinking, and if there is an empty seat on the Metro, no matter how inaccessible it may be, they will climb over half the train to get there. It really is quite the phenomenon, and it’s one that has kept me entertained on many a Metro ride.
Lower your voice
Since arriving in France, I’ve discovered that everything operates at a lower decibel here. This is particularly apparent, not to mention most welcome, in restaurants. Even when a place is packed, you never need to raise your voice to be heard. This is because overall, the French speak much more quietly than what would be considered the norm in North America, which keeps the ambient noise down. I’ve actually noticed a marked difference in my average volume since I moved here, and even though I’ve significantly lowered my voice, I still tend to stand out when I’m in restaurants as the loud one. I’m working on it, but old habits die hard.
Apartment buildings have a whole set of quirks entirely their own
First up, in France, the ground floor of a building and the first floor of a building are not the same thing. I am aware that this is not a new concept in lots of other countries, but for myself coming from North America, it took me a ridiculously long time to figure this out.
The front doors of apartment buildings are almost always opened by entering a code into a keypad. To exit an apartment building, you almost always have to push a button to do so. This is fine when you know where the button is, but it is inevitable that when you’re leaving a new building and racing for a train, this is when that button will become impossible to find.
Apartments here are not numbered. I have yet to discover why this is, but I quickly learned that directions to people’s apartments are filled with instructions like “fourth floor, right door” or “third door past the courtyard, yellow welcome mat.” Always pay attention to these directions. They are very important.
If you are very lucky, you live in an apartment with a washing machine for doing laundry. However, not having a dryer is pretty standard. Apparently the French believe that dryers will cook your clothes, and therefore most go without them. This means that when doing laundry, you really have to plan in advance, because things like jeans can take a full day to dry depending on the time of year.
The bathroom is often a separate room from where the toilet will be found, meaning you have to be very specific when asking for directions at a party. Again, I know that this is standard for lots of other countries, but this was a new concept for me when I first arrived. Additionally, sometimes the bathroom is a separate room altogether located outside of the apartment, so don’t be alarmed if you’re directed out the door and down the hallway past the building’s elevator. No one is trying to get rid of you. It’s just one of the many quirks of living in buildings that are hundreds of years old.
This list really could go on and on, but I will save the rest for another day. In the meantime, if you have a favourite quirk of living in France or any other country, please let me know in the comments. I’m always happy to learn more!