Most of the time on Oui In France, you get my perspective on what it’s like for a foreigner in France, but today I’m sharing a different point of view. For my final guest post this winter, I have a piece written by a French woman who now lives in the USA. Catherine Rochereul-Portier was born and raised in France and then moved to Germany. Over 20 years later, in 2013, she gave up her consulting business and moved with her family to the United States. After settling in, she started a cross-border blog named HowToGuide.org where she shares her knowledge about cultural differences between France or Germany and the US.
Here, Catherine is sharing what the early months in the USA were like.
A French perspective: How I survived my first couple of months in the USA
A long time ago, when I was very young and wrinkle-free, I learned about the hierarchy of needs in school. In 1943, a psychology professor named Abraham Maslow published a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation.” According to this theory, the needs form a hierarchy, going from the basic ones like food and sleep to the more elaborate ones like self-fulfillment. Once the basic needs have been met, a person will try to satisfy the next level of needs: the safety needs (housing, health, security) then the social needs (family and friends), the esteem needs and finally the self-fulfillment.
Moving from Europe to the States was not my first expatriation.
When I was 20, I moved from France to Germany where I spent over 20 years. But changing continents put me back to the very first steps of Maslow’s pyramid.
Three years ago, I answered a call from a large international organization headquartered in the States. I was home, it was dinnertime, and my husband was still at his office. First shock, I didn’t know that he applied for a job there. Second shock, he got the job. It was on me to decide if we moved or not. In other words, to make him happy and to eventually rebuild my business in America, we took the chance. Since 2013, I’ve called Washington, D.C. my home.
How I survived food challenges in the United States
I knew that food and customs were different, and please note that I put food first! I also knew firsthand that French people complain all the time about food. I was not free of prejudice either.
I thought I would more or less find the same food as in Europe. Meat, fruits and vegetables, dairy, etc. And yes, America has meat, fruits and veggies! But meat is cut without bones, apricots are just as large as nectarines, and the standard size for a carton of milk is a gallon. Apparently, it’s only a matter of time before nectarines are bred to the size of a grapefruit!
Do you remember this post from Diane “Why you won’t get fat in France?” I’m far to have a Barbie shape, being more of a Melissa McCarthy type… I love food, stopped exercising a long time ago, and I’m addicted to comfort food with chocolate. However, because of my weakness for sweet food and its visible consequences, I’m pretty tough on my children’s sugar consumption.
Folks, are you aware that you put sugar in food where it has no purpose? Even in bread or sausages? On the other hand, you chase fat everywhere: milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, chips, cookies. It seems to me that you’ve only replaced fat with sugar, which makes sense as fat is also a flavor enhancer.
Another food culture shock has to do with food coloring. My children, as all young children, love bold and chintzy colors. When we arrived in DC, grocery shopping with them was a terrible experience. They’d ask for green and red candy, electric blue Gatorade, and a colorful birthday cake whose colors defy common sense.
Perhaps my judgment of food dyes is contradictory: If artificial colors make food look natural, I don’t even think about it. Meat has to be red and peas green. However I react with zero tolerance to bright colors in yogurts, cookies, or soda. After 40 years in Europe, I have a clear perception of healthy food. Call me a hypocrite, but I will not change my mind that fluorescent colors have no place in food.
After food challenges, I also survived the miracle of housing in the US.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my life in the US. All Americans I’ve met are friendly, positive and energetic. Business is ruled by opportunities open to everyone and not reserved to an elite with the right background or connections. It made it easier for me as a solo entrepreneur to start over.
However, I’m still wondering how this great and powerful country can on one hand send people to the moon, but on the other hand build houses with wood frames and thin drywall only.
Before moving in the States, I thought that Hollywood movies, showing angry heroes punching a hole into the wall, were pure screenwriters’ exaggeration. Nope, they are not. When I arrived, my husband had already bought a house and was finishing the remodeling. I will never forget the day when I saw one of the workers cutting into the wall with nothing else than a 10-inch-long hand saw. One hour later, the bathroom cabinet was installed, his sides disappearing into the wall. At this moment, I better understood the devastation images of America after a hurricane or tornado!
Buying fever medication was probably my biggest challenge when I moved here.
I’m the mother of three. My children were respectively 2, 4 and 13 when we moved to Washington. When I went to CVS for the first time to buy some fever medication, I felt truly overwhelmed by the options: I counted 50 different children’s fever medicines! 50!!! Do you really need so many?
Oh, please, don’t start with how awful it is to talk to a French pharmacist about your diarrhea or itchy private parts just to get some medicine you would buy over the counter in the States! Do you really know if what you buy is the right stuff for what ails you?
When I stood in front of the CVS shelves for the first time, my goal was to buy the best product for my needs. Instead, I found myself struggling with the many decisions I had to make, and having to choose between really similar products. It was all about choosing between two or three active substances, prepared or packed in different ways: Advil or Motrin? Pink or green box? Liquid, solid, or chewable? 10, 100, or 1,000 tablets?
I feel lucky to have a good health insurance plan, provided by my husband’s employer. And after some time spent adjusting to the new system, I’m happy with our doctors. I wish I could say the same about my pharmacist: pharmacists are the exception to the standard American friendliness. They never smile, and they are never nice. I don’t get it. They study for years to obtain a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, and for what? To get a job counting pills at CVS?
Criminality, guns and lockdowns in America
In Maslow’s theory of need, safety comes just after food. Property and health are 2 points covered by the safety needs, but morality and security of the body are also included.
My first encounter with a police officer was the scariest one I ever had. A few days after moving, I dropped my husband off at the metro station and accidentally took the bus lane instead of the drop-off lane. A massive 6+-foot tall officer, hand on the gun, walked immediately to my car. Memories of Hollywood movies flooded my mind and I kept my hands on the wheel. When he asked for the car papers and driver’s license, I pointed with my nose to the gloves compartment, telling him that I was unarmed. My strong French accent not only saved my life but also saved me from a fine. His only comment was that I’d watched too many movies…
What does my everyday life look like in a country with more guns than people?
First, I’ve got plenty of gun topics in the local news. For example, The Washington Post tracks the DC-area homicides. So far, there were 297 in 2016, all of them reported in the newspapers.
Then, there’s national news. I remember my shock when I heard about a toddler who shot his mom with a handgun he found in her purse. This happened two years ago in a supermarket in Idaho.
Outside of the papers, sometimes the gun conversation happens when you least expect it. I remember driving home once from West Virginia. When we stopped in Boonsboro, MD, all of a sudden, I stood in front of a funny store display with advertising plates celebrating the Second Amendment.
Most of the time, gun violence happens far away from my house, but not always. Last year, my three children’s schools were on lockdown for three hours following a mass shooting. This was the worst day in my life.
Let’s be clear. The phenomenon of mass shootings was unimaginable in France before the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the 2015 Paris attacks. These two events were recorded as Islamic terrorism, just as 9/11 and the San Bernardino shootings, as well as the March 2016 attacks in Brussels. So it has nothing to do with crime, domestic violence, gangs, etc. as I’ve noticed in the United States.
What about love, self-esteem and and self-achievement?
In my couple first months in the United States, I mastered my basic and safety needs, but I’ve still a bumpy road in front of me when it comes to the next needs. Step 3 of Maslow’s pyramid is related to love, affection, and social relations. Step 4 is the need for esteem and recognition. The last step stands for self-accomplishment.
With 2 small children, it was easy to connect with other parents at school. Also living in Washington made it easy to meet newcomers from all over the world. Then, I was too busy at the beginning with working for some German clients to notice how lonely I was. I realized much later how much I missed my friends. Of course, the new ones helped me to transition to my American life, but I’m still working on deepening new friendships.
I ran a successful consulting business in Germany that I gave up to make my husband’s dream come true. As I always wanted to live in the States, I’ve accepted at the same time to put my career on hold. But it’s hard sometimes to have lost the rewards I had from my former business: to run large projects and manage teams, to win a pitch and charge my time.
To be clear: I haven’t regretted my decision for one second. I live in a great country with a lot of opportunity where I’ve met amazing new people.
My path to self-fulfillment may be bumpy, but I’m grateful for the chance to live and reinvent myself here.
Thank you Diane for loaning me your blog for a guest post!
Un grand merci to Catherine for taking the time to write for Oui In France. Hope you enjoyed her post! Read more on Catherine’s site HowToGuide.org here.
What were your first couple of months like in a new place?