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Friday, April 2, 2010

6 Things I Learned Living in France

In 1985, as a young 23-year-old American girl newly married to a French guy, I moved from New York City to France. I couldn't speak or understand a word of French, but I had studied the language in school so I had some basic understanding of grammar--enough to write a few correct sentences on a postcard, for example.

I lived in France until 1991 when my husband and I and our two children--both born in France--moved to and immigrated to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. During those six years, I learned to speak fluent French, fluent enough to pass for French; I learned my way around; I got a job; and my two children were born there. My years and experiences in France are largely enough fodder for a book. But I've scaled it down for the purposes of this blog to the following.

6 Things I Learned Living in France:

1. Assertiveness

Some people who know me today might say I'm assertive to a fault. A long time ago, however, I was pretty shy and quiet like a church mouse. I wasn't very good at saying what I wanted or needed. Living in France changed that. The main reason for this change is that the French theory of retail business is "the customer is always wrong."

This reality was a struggle for me in my first few months there, but I eventually learned that if I did not become more assertive I would not survive.

The following is an incident of me buying a turkey at the bird (chicken, fowl etc.) seller (at the open-air market). It was October and I was planning a 6-course dinner for 16 people. All the dialogues I'm recreating here in English, originally took place in French.

Me: Hello, I'd like to special order a turkey that weighs 16 pounds that I can pick up next week.

Turkey Lady: 16 pounds?

Me: Yes, please. 16 pounds.

Turkey Lady: You don't need a turkey that weighs 16 pounds. How many people are eating?

Me: I want a 16 pound turkey. Can I please order a 16 pound turkey.

Turkey Lady: How many people are at the table?

Me: It doesn't matter how many people are at the table. I want a 16 pound turkey. Can I order a 16 pound turkey?

Turkey Lady: You know we don't usually get turkeys that size except at Easter and Christmas.

Me: Can I order a 16-pound turkey?

Turkey Lady: Are you sure you want such a big turkey? That's a VERY BIG TURKEY.

[Translation for the reader's benefit: You are an idiot. You don't know how to cook or how to plan a dinner. You don't know anything about fowl, and you look very stupid to boot. No one in Europe cooks a 16-pound turkey in October. And your sweatpants are ugly.]

Me: Can I please order a 16 pound turkey and pick it up next week.

Turkey Lady: Yes.

Me: Thank you very much.

2. French Women are the Epitome of Fashion

I don't want my readers to go away with the notion that everything in France was a negative. Absolutely not. There are many many wonderful things about France. Here's one: French women know fashion. They are lovely to look at at every age.

Twice a week in the little village where I lived in a suburb of Paris, there was an open-air market. Once I learned how to speak French, and could count my money/change quickly, I went religiously. I went the same way I went to Walmart today, 25 years later: I'd had a shower, my long (now grey) hair was in a ponytail, no make-up, no nail polish, no perfume, wearing sweats and sneakers.

This is how my neighbor (and friend) and every other woman my age went to the market: Her hair was short, styled and sprayed; she had on a touch of make-up and perfume; she had on jeans that were ironed with a sharp crease in the front; she had on stockings and red pumps with heels; she had a pretty little purse, a white cotton blouse with a collar and a small brightly colored red and white scarf at her neck. Anybody see a difference?

3. The Food is Better over there. Everywhere. Anywhere.

This is something hard to believe until you've experienced it. Fresh produce is, well, different than here. Compared to what we're used to, it's more brightly colored, more flavorful, much dirtier, usually smaller and locally produced whenever possible. There are many more cuts of meat available, and all of it is tastier and fresher.

The cheapest restaurant in some little town has better food in it then the vast majority of "good" restaurants in any big city here. The ingredients are fresher. Cooking is taken very seriously over there and not to be trifled with.

I'm lucky because my then-mother-in-law was and is a great cook, and she taught me lots. I also made a friend the first year I lived there who was and is a pastry chef, and fairly quickly I arranged trading English lessons for cooking lessons. I learned how to cook over there and feel very fortunate to have had that experience.

4. Women's Bodies are Valued and Appreciated More and Differently in France

I found this interesting and unexpected. When you have a baby over there, ob/gyn's do not want you to gain more than 20-25 pounds. And I mean it. This proved to be a headache for me because a) I've had a weight problem my whole life and b) I put on 40 pounds with my first child. They don't want you to put on a lot of weight because they want you to be able to return to your "before" shape easily and as soon as possible after birth. Exercise and treatment with a physical therapist is routine and covered by health insurance following a pregnancy to regain use and control of abdominal muscles.

I once visited a "breast specialist" MD in France for a persistent lump. (I didn't know there was such a thing. Can you imagine?) This doctor had a large beautiful office in a lovely district in downtown Paris. His office had several rooms each with different types of equipment for different diagnostic tests. But he didn't offer his patients any gowns. I'm not kidding.

"Get undressed." I was told.

I asked the nurse, "you think I'm going to walk around this office from room to room topless?"

"Well, of course!" she said.

I grabbed my clothing and held it in front of my chest and asked the doctor if he was on crack. (By now I was pretty assertive.) He laughed and said yes, he knew he would have to get some robes for his "Anglo" patients.

There are *much* lower rates of both hysterectomy and mastectomy in France than in N. America, in part because culturally they do not want to damage the woman's body unless there is no other choice. Makes you think, eh?

5. Medical Care is Excellent Over There

I'm not going to cite a bunch of articles that no one is likely to read, so just take my word for it. When I had a baby, they kept me and baby a *week* in the hospital. General Practioners typically have 50% of their practice as housecalls. Yup, housecalls still exist in some places--and what a blessing they were if you had a sick child. Anybody can call and schedule an appointment with a specialist and the waiting periods are not absurd.

When my family learned that I was having a baby there, they acted like it was a third-world country. It's not. I could talk for hours on the healthcare debate, but I just want to be clear. It's great there. It's a better healthcare system over there than in Canada or in the US--and it's a Nationalized System although it has some private aspects.

6. Living Abroad is a Life Experience I Recommend for Everyone

While some of my time in France was hard, it was overall a positive life-changing experience for me. There is something about living in another country where people speak a different language than the one you're used to, and value different things than you do, that makes you see the whole world differently. I honestly believe that living through hard times--like being unable to answer the phone because you can't understand ONE SINGLE WORD that anyone says--makes you stronger, tougher, more flexible and more resilient.

People often ask me if I can still speak French. Yeah, sure I can. It's rusty, and I've lost lots of vocabulary, but if you put me in room with just French speakers, I would understand 95% of the conversation. I could make a hotel reservation for you on the phone, and I could still go to the market and count my change--quickly. ;o)



  • Great article! I'm just working on a blog post that every American living in Britain should read! Do you miss France?

    By Blogger LaDawn, At April 3, 2010 at 12:13 AM  

  • Interesting blog post. The story about the turkey is very typical of the French attitude. I guess because you were near Paris the women dressed well. It is very different in small towns in rural Bretagne, some look like they just fell out of a dressing up box. Best wishes Blu, living in a small village in Bretagne.

    By Blogger Blu, At April 3, 2010 at 12:45 AM  

  • OMG! You just brought back a lot of memories from my first time in Germany. My husband was in the Army stationed in Germany and we were supported by the French speaking Belgium Army. I had to go for a pap smear at the Belgium medical facility. I had to walk butt naked from the dressing room to the exam room and the exam table was in the middle of this huge room! The only way I did it was to pretend that I always paraded butt naked and did not make eye contact with the doctor! After that, I rode the army van for two hours to go to the American Medical clinics.


    By Blogger mtbyrum, At April 3, 2010 at 3:46 AM  

  • That was a fun read!! Thanks for sharing! We only find out what we are made of when everything we a comfortable with is taken away! You were a success!

    By Blogger Art and Sew Forth, At April 3, 2010 at 11:15 AM  

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