I have less than two months here (when people say time flies by, they REALLY mean it) and have only made two blog posts (oops–but that just means I’m having too much fun to write, right?!).
But that means that I have been here for almost two months now and thus I can give all of you a little inside information on what’s it like to be French (disclaimer: I am still trying to blend in as a French person so I’m not sure how accurate/helpful this will be but hopefully you don’t fall asleep while reading this list).
Here are some of the unspoken French rules or norms that I have noticed:
- Bread. This whole blog might sound like a tribute to bread (check out the photo of me making a baguette!), and honestly I can’t promise that it’s not, but there are unspoken rules about bread here. Your piece of bread for the meal goes on the table–not on your plate. It’s great for a person like me who hates when their foods touch. After each meal, you use a piece of bread to wipe your plate so it’s all ready to put in the dishwasher (people have a lot less food waste here).
- “Bonjour,” the French word for hello, is not said every time you see someone you know, contrary to what I thought when I came here. If it’s the evening, you say “bonsoir” instead (which makes sense, in hindsight—it’s saying “good day” vs “good evening”). If you’ve already seen bonjour to someone during the day as well, you often don’t say it again. More often, you use other forms of hello, such as “salut!”
- As if learning French wasn’t hard enough, the French also use “verlan,” which is kind of like pig latin. Basically, they invert words or parts of words. The other day, my host sister said “tu es ouf.” Ouf is the verlan version of fou, which means crazy in French. However, ouf sounds a lot like the word oeuf, which means egg in French. So, I thought my host sister was calling me an egg when really she was teasingly called me crazy. The french language is ouf! Another example: “femme” (which means woman in English) becomes “meuf” which can then undergo another verlan translation to become “feumeu.” What???
- Do not make eye contact with people in the street. Don’t smile at strangers either—this is even worse. Both can be seen as romantic advances and as someone who generally tries to appear friendly, I have seriously had to retrain myself here!!
- La bise. I thought! I knew pretty much everything about the bise. How wrong I was. I’m starting to think I’ll never fully understand it. For anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about and is wondering why I’ve now said this weird looking French word multiple times in this blog post, la bise is when French people greet each other by kissing each other on the cheek. There’s weird tricks to it. Like, contrary to what I previously thought, not everyone does the bise: most men do not do the bise with other men. But two girls or a guy and a girl will do it. People of very different age groups or social status do not do the bise (ex: I would not do the bise with a much older man. I would also not do it with a professor, or someone else in a position of authority over me). Alsoo, depending on what region in France you’re in, sometimes you do a different number of kisses on each cheek! And you might start with the right cheek instead of the left! Madness.
- On one of the first days of my program, one of my professors compared the French and Americans to gardens (“les jardins” in French). “Americans,” she said, “have gardens right in front of their houses that everyone can see. They’re usually not enclosed by anything and in this way pretty much anyone can access them.” This is contrary to the French, who often have stone walls or fences you can’t see through enclosing their “jardins.” Thus, it’s not as easy to get into or see a French garden, but once you do you realize how beautiful it is inside. This analogy was used to compare the French and American ways of friendship–Americans are often friendlier and more willing to get to know someone, while the French are more closed off to outsiders–but once you do get to know them, they’ll be a friend for life. I’ve found this to be true here. While my host family was very welcoming from the get-go, I definitely feel like I had to spend time with them and break the surface a little to get close with them. This reality can be difficult sometimes, like when you feel like all the students in your university class are giving off “I don’t wanna talk to you” vibes, but I think you just have to realize that it’s a cultural difference that takes some getting used to. I don’t think either approach to friendship or relationships is inherently better–the bottom line is that little American me who loves smiling all the time and making small talk with the people sitting next to her in class had to undergo a little adjustment. And that’s what figuring out all of these norms are: it’s identifying, and then adjusting.
One other thing I’ve learned: I absolutely LOVE it here.