I don't know how I got it in my head that I wouldn't experience much culture shock coming here. I suppose that idea stemmed from thinking that Paris is a very westernized area for Europe. It's not a giant change of scenery in the way it would have been if I went to live in a place like China or Africa. People here look similar, dress similar, do similar hobbies, and have similar things as people back home. As strange as it sounds, the similarities are what makes this adjustment even more difficult and frustrating. I feel as though if I was in one of those countries that are completely different from America it would be easy to accept that it's going to be different while somewhere like here, the slight similarities make me want everything to just feel like home. Culture shock isn't always something that hits you like a brick wall at once, it can come in waves that you have to overcome as they show themselves.
"Julia, you're crazy, what are you talking about?" I know, what I'm trying to say doesn't even really make sense to me(thus why it's totally throwing me off guard every time I have one of these culture shock moments). First, I'm going to start off by saying I have no idea what it is like to live in a city, even back in the states, so I apologize if any of this is more of a city thing that I'm not used to. Home is back in safe little suburban Orange County, California and school is in sweet, small town Redlands, California. So I'm sorry if you live in Chicago or New York or wherever else and some of my culture shock points are something you already see as a day to day norm.
Number One :: Language Barrier
Okay, well this is the one cultural difference I knew was going to have to deal with before coming. It played a part in making my decision when it came to picking an abroad location. I think it's important to give yourself that challenge during this adventure rather than taking the easy way out and going to the UK where you know everyone will understand you. Yes, it is true that a lot of French people speak English, but it's kind of rude of us to assume this while we don't know much of their language. Just a bit hypocritical, but so many of us make this assumption. I know I am guilty of it. I'm quick to get frustrated when it becomes difficult to do the littlest things like ordering a coffee or asking for the wifi password(something I had to deal with a few minutes before starting working on this blog post in a coffee shop). It's important to not let this struggle get to you and take it as a chance to learn more. Continuing to try to speak French as much as possible, even if that means repeating the phrase you're about to say to the waiter in your head ten times before it's time to say it out loud. And when they correct your accent or start speaking in English, just to remember that they are trying to be helpful, not judgmental.
Number Two :: Cultural Norms
The most well-known stereotype for the French is that they are very rude. After a couple weeks here I wouldn't say I agree with that, but I understand where it comes from. If I was only here for a short amount of time and didn't interact with as many French people or observe them as much as I have I would probably think they are very rude people, but that is because of the cultural norms of the average Parisian. The first one that I personally struggle with is that people walking on the street don't smile. If you pass a stranger you are supposed to look away from them or leave your face as blank as possible. It's a lot of work for me to make sure I don't stand out by doing so because at home it's normal to smile at people as you walk by them as a kind courtesy, and I work at the happiest place on earth where it's part of the job to just hold yourself with the friendly attitude in everything you do. The French each have their own little personal bubble and each person respects that. You don't make eye contact unless you know someone or want to know them. You look down at your phone or a book when on the metro. People aren't as open as they are back home. This personal bubble is what makes the French seem rude to tourists because tourists are the ones that tend to try to break these personal bubbles by being loud and asking questions that they have heard a million times.
Number Three :: Space
I've heard that everything is bigger in America, and it's so true. Everything is substantially smaller in Europe. Sidewalks, cars, homes, refrigerators, kitchens, stores, shopping carts, checkout conveyer belts, even coffees are smaller than back at home. Because the French are so used to living in and with these small spaces, they are also used to being close to each other. At home, the culture is to leave space between one another when you don't know them, here not so much. When sitting somewhere like at a park or a movie theater I'm used to leaving a space between myself and whoever else is there as a courtesy, but here that is seen more as a waste of space. Walking close to one another on the street or getting close to someone standing on the metro is normal because there isn't the space in the city to avoid that. Also with less space between one another people speak much more softly. Americans stick out like a sore thumb when they are in big groups walking around chatting. Our volume levels are louder because we are used to being further apart and needed to make up that distance with sound. I appreciate the amount of personal space I get at home, but it's going to be fun getting used to the small cozy spaces of Paris.
Number Four :: Shopping
With the small spaces in Paris, there is less space to keeps things so the culture around shopping is very different. The French shop for groceries that only last a few days because they can only fit very little in the fridge, rather than buying two weeks worth of food to stock up a giant fridge. I haven't seen any shopping carts like you would see at Ralphs or Target because nobody here would ever buy enough at once to fill that up. Speaking of Target, there is no equivalent to it here. There is a shop called Monoprix that is a wannabe Target, but I am convinced there is nothing like it and Target will forever be the most amazing store in the world. Thank you American capitalism. The culture around shopping is to leave with just one bag of necessities, not ten bags of the things you decided you needed as you walked around Target looking for a notebook and goldfish crackers. They don't shop as much because they don't have a car in the parking lot to fill and drive everything back home. You can only buy as much as you can carry. With shopping at these stores, I find myself wanting to see brands and names that I find familiar. The idea of the grocery store is similar, but I obviously am not going to find American brand foods, but the French equivalents that are just going to be different enough to throw me off. Shopping for necessities is still something that intimidates me more than it should. I am a creature of habit when it comes to shopping and that's a culture shock that I am going to have to get past to survive for three more months.
Number Five :: Tips, Tax, and Prices
The one thing about shopping and restaurants that I am really a fan of and America should get on is that in Europe tax and/or tip is always included in the price before you buy things. That means there is no extra math to do in your head when thinking about how much you're really about to spend. What a concept. Come on America, get on that. Not having to worry about how much the total will be after tax or having to add a tip at a restaurant is so nice, but after being so used to that it's hard to get out of the mindset of adding more to every price you look at in a store or on a menu. So this is a positive struggle that I am by no means ever going to complain about.
Number Six :: Transportation
Thank goodness we don't have to try to drive here in Paris because Parisians don't know how to drive. Drivers here are even more aggressive than LA drivers and if you know LA, that's truly saying something. The streets here are small and confusing to navigate. Street signs aren't clearly put right in front of your face like they are back home. You have to know where to look for the little signs put up on the walls. Streets don't cross in straight lines but spiral off like little sunbeams. The common ways to travel around the city are by metro or by foot and on rare occasions, by bike(bike riders are also terrible like the drivers here so that's another form of transportation that I probably won't test out). Everyone takes the metro because it is the most efficient way to get across the city and it's rather simple to use. I got that all figured out within the first few days which was a relief. I also feel like I've walked more since I got here than I have in my entire life. I suppose that's how the french stay so thin even after eating all the amazing food you can get here. It is nice to have the metro and be able to walk just about anywhere, but I do miss my car and the freedom that gives me to just go where I want when I want.
Number Seven :: The Pace of Life
I was trying to explain this to a friend the other day and she said I kept contradicting myself so bare with me, this can be confusing. Parisians are always in a rush when they are going to their destination. You have to walk fast, no lollygagging and getting in people's way when they have somewhere to be. The metro stops only for a few seconds so you have to be ready to hop on or hop off to avoid missing your stop. This is something that I believe is mostly just a cultural thing about living in a city. What I think is different about Paris is that even though they live at this fast pace when they do slow down, they really slow down. They take two-hour lunches. They sit in a park with friends and talk for long amounts of time. They sit at a little table in front of a cafe to have a drink and people watch. It's rather amazing. I'd never think to just stop for that long and do nothing. I am used to a culture where it's normal to always feel busy whether you really were or not. I accomplish things and then move on to the next thing to keep me busy. The pace of life in Paris is going to be interesting to get adjusted to. Since I'm going to be here so long it's important to live as the Parisians do and that means trying out this weirdly charming contradictive lifestyle.
Number Eight :: Smoking
This is the truest stereotype of French people. They all smoke all the time. It is a norm in the culture here(another way I'm sure they all stay so thin). Smoking is still seen as attractive in France. There aren't advertisement about saying no to tobacco like there are at home. I haven't seen a single billboard or commercial like that while back in America I feel like it is pounded into us that tobacco kills. Getting used to the constant scent of smoke everywhere is really hard because to me it's absolutely sickening and terribly unattractive.
This is just a little list of the big things that have been standing out to me in my short amount of time here. Life is different. I have Dorothy moments every so often and wish I could just close my eyes and click my heels to get back home. Persevering and accepting these cultural differences is so important to the abroad experience. It's really the reason why we are here and choose to go live in a new place like this, to learn how people in other parts of the world live. Some of these ways of life are nice and I really think I will enjoy, but at the same time, I know there are so many things about the culture at home that I prefer and am excited to get back to eventually. Dealing with culture shock is strange, but there is no way to avoid it. We study abroad to learn and learning isn't an easy thing to do, but as time goes by it does get easier.
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Julia Carrington Ehler
<p>Bonjour! My name is Julia Carrington and I am so beyond excited to be sharing this little part of my life story with you. This is going to be my first time out of the country and on my own and I can't wait to see what happens. I hope you join me on this adventure and enjoy reading my little online travel journal.</p>