February 5, 2014, by Guest blog

Adapting to the culture is just as important as acquiring the language

Post written by Katherine Hughes.

With only three months left in France, I honestly don’t know where the time’s gone and I’m already beginning to reminisce and get nostalgic over my experiences here. As I reflect, I suppose it is the cultural differences between England and France that have contributed to the most memorable moments of my time here.

Adapting to the culture of your host country is, without a doubt, just as important as acquiring the language. It’s all very well to speak French like a native but if you forgo such customs as the mandatory kiss-giving when you greet people, your status as  a foreigner is just as apparent as shouting loudly in Franglais or driving on the wrong side of the road. Every time you meet someone, whether they’re new acquaintances or people you see all the time, they all lean in for a quick peck on the cheek. Despite the four months I’ve already spent here, I still instinctively back away when someone swoops in for a smooch but I’m from London where the ‘Croydon Kiss’ is a very different proposition. I dare anyone accustomed to the keep-a-distance-until-you-know-for-sure-they’re-not-carrying-a-knife frame of mind to jump into this custom so easily. Yet, as far as I can tell, it’s pretty important. Granted, it might seem pointless and time consuming as so much in France does (it can take a good ten minutes for each new arrival and departure at a party to get around an entire group of people) but it’s what they do and unless you deliberately want to stand out as a foreigner, you’ll need to get used to it.

I don’t know if it’s just me but I’m used to walking in to a shop and knowing that I’ll be lucky for any form of recognition let alone customer service. Well, that’s not the case here. No matter the type of store, there will always be a member of staff to greet you with the ubiquitous ‘bonjour’ to which you have to respond.  Remember: British reserve is fine in its place but that place is Britain, not France.

Another difficulty of living here is that no one knows when anything is open. Whether a supermarket or post office, the staff seem to decide when they want to open, close and disappear for hours on end for lunch breaks. The ‘official’ opening times count for nothing.  After losing the pedal from my bike (you’d think that’d be a difficult feat, it’s really not) I had to visit the only bike shop within a 5 mile radius three times in normal opening hours before I found the door unlocked.  But then they mend it for nothing, are interested in what you are doing and give useful advice – I know which sort of shopping experience I prefer. The most important lesson I’ve learnt from these cultural challenges is that you really can’t be in a hurry in France, it just won’t work.

While some of the French customs may seem strange, even these have a certain charm and if some still elude me now I suspect the passage of time and distance will make even these fond memories of what has been a very memorable experience.

Posted in Cultural challenges