The Top Ten Things I’ve Learned While Living in France

A few days ago, I wrote about the second anniversary of my departure for France. I described how my life had changed as a result — about what I had left behind and what I had discovered here. Since then, I’ve been ruminating on the various lessons I’ve learned during the last two years as an expat in France. Here are my top ten:

1.     When people say that French bureaucrats are paper shufflers extraordinaire, they aren’t exaggerating. In fact, they may be understating the case. I’ve never seen such a paper-centric modern society in my life: a form for this, another form that’s exactly the same (except for two questions) to accompany the first form you already filled out, mail it in or make an appointment to drop it off. By no means may you send it electronically. If you want to survive as an expatriate in France, here’s my advice:

Invest in a good ink-jet printer and several reams of paper. You’ll need two copies of everything, s’il vous plaît … plus an extra one for your files for that moment when you discover that they’ve misplaced the two copies you already gave them. (Take my word for it; this can happen.)

2.     The French are schizophrenic about one of their own scientific discoveries: pasteurization. On one hand, they don’t pasteurize their cheese. That’s a good thing, because it tastes better that way but — since the U.S. government apparently views non-pasteurized cheese as a chemical weapon — I’d have to smuggle a Camembert into the country under the noses of those Immigration and Customs Enforcement dogs if I wanted my parents to taste a real one. (Make sure you read my August 29 revelation about importing smelly French cheese, though.)

"Louis Pasteur in His Laboratory" by Albert Edelfelt
“Louis Pasteur in His Laboratory” by Albert Edelfelt

On the other hand, the French don’t just pasteurize their milk … they ultra-pasteurize it. (I won’t get all scientific on you, but there’s a difference of about 115º in the process.) That allows the French to package and store their super-clean milk in unrefrigerated bottles or cartons for months on end. Why? It apparently has something to do with limitations on refrigeration here … like not having enough room in the fridge for all your Camembert AND your milk at the same time. (See 7, below.)

3.     The Paris Métro is undeniably a marvel of public transportation, but it stinks … literally. Let’s just be brutally honest here for a minute. The Paris Métro has a certain charm with all those green and white 1960s-era trains rolling through its hundreds of art nouveau stations, but being authorized to eat and drink in the Métro does us no favors, folks …

4.     Don’t be fooled by what looks like a toll-free number in France. Why, yes, they do have numbers here with prefixes that evoke the 1-800, 1-888, 1-877, 1-866 family of truly free telephone numbers we have back in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean that it always works that way here. The rule of thumb: never trust a number with a prefix any higher than 0809. The vast majority of 08 numbers in France are in fact toll numbers, and the amount you pay can range up to 0.75 euros ($1) a minute. The good thing is that the numbers belong to color-coded families, so always look for GREEN numbers … these numéros verts are always free. The unfortunate thing is that many (perhaps most) customer service numbers aren’t green, which leads us to the next lesson …

"green number ... free call from a land line"
“green number … free call from a land line”

5.     The French are experts at profanity. They are also, as we all know, the world champions of nonchalance. (That’s why we just use their word for it.) When these two character traits come together, you discover a marvelously nuanced array of how to say, as Rhett Butler so famously put it, “I don’t give a damn.” It takes a bit of practice, but dealing on a regular basis with French bureaucracy (or customer service calls you have to pay for) can put you well on your way to successfully distinguishing the appropriate audience and circumstances for such exclamations as:

  • Je m’en fiche! (literally, something like “I put myself out of that!”)
  • Je m’en fous! (literally, something like “I do myself out of that!”)
  • Je m’en tape! (literally, something like “I tap myself out of that!” … keeping in mind that “tap” can have the same slang meaning in French as it can in English)
  • Je m’en bats les … ! (literally, something like “I beat my … !” … well, I’ll just stop there and leave to the rest to your imagination.) You probably understand already that this is the last one in the arsenal.

And, simply adding “contre” right before the verb (“Je m’en contrefous!“) just reinforces how much you don’t give a damn! … !!!

You can always find rough equivalents between French and English swear words, too, including the euphemisms we’ve created to replace them in polite company. For instance, “merde” and “mince” are the French equivalents of “sh*t” and its polite cousin “shoot.” It might be an oversimplification, but from what I’ve seen and heard, French profanity is simply a little less profane than English profanity. (That might explain why I have no qualms about publishing “merde” but you don’t see the S-word spelled out.) What I mean is, saying “merde” doesn’t seem nearly as eyebrow-raising in French circles as the S-word is in ours. Another case in point is the word usually translated into English as the F-word: putain. Literally, it means “whore,” but it’s used as both an interjection and an adjective to express … well, almost anything depending on the context. Don’t just take my word for it — check this out:

By the way, if you don’t want to sound too crass by blurting out “putain,” you can always trot out the polite-company equivalent: “punaise.” After all of that, I realize that I’m actually giving this topic short shrift. I see some real research and a full post on this in the future. Stay tuned …

6.     As melodic and enchanting as the French language is (and as colorful, too, given number 5), the French are also experts at nonverbal communication. Despite the adage that there are no stupid questions, the truth is that there are, and if you ask one in France, you’re likely to get a look that very efficiently communicates that fact without so much as a sigh from your respondent. The French can also express an entire range of sentiment from sympathetic support to mild annoyance to overt hostility just by puffing air through their lips. It’s all a question of how forcefully it’s done. Take a look at this … (the whole video is great, but there’s a good example of what I’m talking about at about 0:55 – 1:05):

7.     Air conditioning is one of the most brilliant inventions in human history. You recognize this undeniable truth when you no longer have it. Here in Paris, summer is usually fairly mild by the standards of the Deep South, but every now and then you wake up in a sweat to a forecast high of 101ºF. That’s when you start cursing France for being a third world country, and you hurry off to the nearest supermarket to hang out in the frozen food section. Let’s face it … that dormitory mini-fridge won’t ever cut it as a make-shift air conditioner.

But it only felt like 99º with the ovenesque breeze. Same forecast for today.
But it only felt like 99º with the ovenesque breeze. Same forecast for today.


So, there you have it — my humorous look at the top ten …
okay, okay
seven things I’ve learned while living in France.

(You have to cut me a break, guys. My laptop was starting to overheat,
and I didn’t have enough battery life to make it to
the ice cream case at Super U.)
I hope you enjoyed it. Come back soon!

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

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