I’ve been in France nearly three years now and have made great* strides in understanding the French people, the language and culture and the general day to day. But despite this, there are a few things I don’t think I’ll ever understand about the French despite my best intentions. So here they are…
*depends on your definition of the word
Do you understand the French and their way of life?
Sometimes the culture is baffling, especially as a newcomer just figuring things out. This is definitely a “me” problem and something I’ll get better at as I adapt and integrate. After all, the foreigner in France and the onus is on me to adapt. But it can sure be a bit of a culture shock!
Here are the top 7 things I’ll never understand about the French (and sometimes the French themselves question the same things):
1. When is it bonsoir time?
That magical hour where you switch from saying bonjour to bonsoir is just as elusive as a friendly customer service department. Does bonsoir start at 6 p.m.? When it gets dark? When it is almost dark? I’ve tried all of these and have said bonjour at 6 p.m. in the summer when the sun is still shining just to be greeted with a bonsoir. It’s no big deal but I’d like in on the little piece of knowledge on when it’s time to say bonsoir. (French people seem to not have a hard-and-fast rule on this.)
The important part here is to make sure you’re saying bonjour, though. Bonjour is the most important word for a reason!
2. Why do stores close at 7 p.m.? Even on the weekends.
Not sure about you, but I like convenience (only second to being comfortable). So my American self has learned to show up earlier to stores and plan a little better since 11 p.m. grocery store runs don’t really exist in France, especially not in smaller towns. Wawa or 7-11s aren’t really the norm.
But let’s be reasonable. I’m a reasonable person. 11 p.m. is late but come on, how about 9 p.m. That’s a reasonable time to close up shop. It allows for those who work to pop in on their way home and for those who eat dinner on the early side to hit up a store or two after dinner. My grocery store closes at 8, so I can’t complain. But don’t get me started about Sundays. Or lunchtime.
But we learn and adapt.
Yes, of course there are exceptions – let me be clear about that — and not every store in every town closes at 7 p.m. But take for example our stroll through Angers last night. It’s a decent-sized city but we were rushed out of Fnac (French Best Buy) at 6:55 p.m. and the doors were being shut at all the stores at 7 p.m. On a Saturday. I just don’t get it. But that doesn’t matter in the least because I live in France so I now play by France’s rules.
3. Why do you get more than you need at the pharmacy and why aren’t there labels?
Maybe it’s the American in me, but it seems awfully wasteful to give someone an entire box of medicine if they only need 3/4 of the pills inside. You see, in France, if the doctor puts you on antibiotics for 7 days and you’re instructed to take 2 pills per day, you don’t just get 14 pills. And you certainly don’t get them in a little child-proof container with a lid complete with your name and instructions all typed up.
You get the whole box of pills regardless of the inevitable leftovers and the handwritten instructions will be written on the side of the box. (The pic above is pretty tame and is strangely legible. I guess I threw out all my old boxes with sweet scrawl.)
French handwriting can be tricky to read if you aren’t used to it, especially numbers. Seeing a half-legible scrawl crammed into the tiny white space on your medicine box might not be the safest way to instruct a customer on how to take their medication. But what the heck do I know. Anyway, open any French person’s medicine cabinet and you’ll see half empty boxes of all kinds of things.
4. Why does the salad come after the meal?
At any given dinner whether you’re at someone’s house or at a restaurant, the salad course is often enjoyed after the main course. Before moving to France, I was accustomed to eating a salad before the main course.
In France, the salad is not an appetizer or something to put alongside your main course but a palate-cleansing plate of greens that will generally come after you’ve stuffed yourself full of whatever delicious fish or meat was on the menu. Salad timing can vary between regions though and isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
(The pic above was my friendly-looking galette from last night’s dinner at La Table Ronde complete with a salad. Happy camper here! ;-))
5. Why do you have to pay a tax for owning a TV?
Yeah, I’m serious. If your home has a television set, you pay a tax. (Update: The TV tax has been abolished as of August 2022.) See how ridiculous this is? It’s like asking if your home has walls. TVs are ubiquitous these days so when the inspector comes around to verify if you have a TV or not (they have the right to verify if you do indeed have one or not if there’s any question), you should do what Tom did back in his old apartment (I’m serious). Keep the volets drawn (see how useful volets can be?) when it’s TV tax time so the inspector can’t see in from outside — and don’t answer the door if you don’t know who it is. He got away with not paying for a year!
And it’s not chump change. How much is the tax, you ask? About 130 euros this year for metropolitan France! Oh, la vache! It’s called la redevance audiovisuelle and you pay the same fee regardless of how many TVs you own — just one tax per household per year. It apparently supports French public TV stations. What’s next, a toilet tax? Ssshh, don’t give ’em any ideas.
6. Why isn’t banking free?
The French pay for their bank accounts and debit cards and it’s not cheap. For great service, you ask? Not always. The banks have shorter hours than I’m used to, especially in small towns (open at 9, closed for 2 hours at lunch, and then close at 5pm in the evening).
Tom’s card expired in May and it took them a month to send him a new one. Twice actually because they didn’t know what the new PIN was. A debit card is a necessity for daily life in France, though. So you learn to be patient.
Anyway….A normal debit card at a brick-and-mortar bank will run you a yearly fee of about 20 to 30 euros in France to get and then a basic checking account will be minimum 5 euros/month. Ours is “fancy” I guess and it’s 11. WTF? I love my TD Bank at home. Free checking. Free card.
Opening a bank account requires a bit of patience as well.
7. Why are there no screens on windows?
My bug bites pretty much explain why I find the lack of screens problematic. Screens might not be super pretty but they do serve a purpose. It’s only logical to put screens on windows when you have a ton of bugs, but French homes do not have screens. At all.
One might deduce that the French aren’t logical… but I digress. Between bugs in the house and bugs biting your skin, screens really are the easiest solution but the French don’t seem to agree. So yup, I’m the house with duct taped screens on the windows. Kidding. Kinda. 😝
Do you understand the French? What would you add? And hey French readers, let me kick it over to you, what don’t you understand about Americans?
P.S. 2023 update: This is an archive post meant in good fun that I wrote tongue-in-cheek shortly after arriving in France and experiencing culture shock. I’ve always used this space as a way to process my candid feelings as I navigate life abroad. I think there’s value in reflecting back on what I found challenging, different, interesting, frustrating, etc. about my first few years in France and to see how far I’ve come and matured along the way. Thanks for reading!
Here’s some of my newer content you might find useful:
French stereotypes you need to STOP believing!
Pros & cons of life in France that matter most
No BS guide on how to dress in France (from someone who’s lived here a decade)
Big list of 50+ French travel phrases (with pronunciation)