While my first semester in Paris comes to a close, I’m taking the time to reflect on what has been the strangest aspects of my move here. When people ask me whether I experienced culture shock upon arriving, generally my answer is no. It’s honestly been surprisingly easy to adjust to life here and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. While nothing has outright shocked me about living here, there are a few things that are different about life in the US and in Paris, so I thought I’d give a heads up about them to anyone coming to Paris in the future. Ok here goes.

1. The Bureaucracy

Want something official done quickly? GOOD LUCK. It won’t happen quickly. Or maybe even at all. Think you’ve filled out the endless forms correctly? You probably smudged it a tiny bit and have to start all over. When I was trying to open my French bank account, I had to meet with the representatives from the bank at school then walk to the bank itself (15 minute walk) to finish filling out forms. I get to the bank and they ask for a business card, and I look at them like they’re crazy. Apparently in order to fill out these forms, I needed a business card from the reps at school saying I could proceed with the account. So I had to go all the way back to school, wait in line again, and get the stupid business card, then go back to the bank, wait in line, and then fill out about 50 pages worth of forms, all in French. BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE. After that, they gave me my bank card but said I had to wait for them to send me my PIN in the mail. Why couldn’t they just give it to me then? I don’t know. Instead of giving me my pin or even just handing me the paper with my PIN on it, I had to wait for them to mail it to me, even though my mailbox was literally down the street. This isn’t just a bank thing either. This is the way it works for every single bureaucratic aspect of French life. Pass the wine please.

2. PDA

Public displays of affection. This isn’t even a term in Paris because displays of affection are constant and there is no differentiating between public and private displays of affection. People kiss EVERYWHERE: on the metro, in the park, on the street, at cafes, everywhere, and it’s not a big deal. You’ll never get a snide “Get a room!” comment. No dirty looks. No one cares and everyone does it. As an American, this was hard to get used to, and I’ve blushed quite a few times. And if you date someone from France, you better get used to them giving you a big old smooch in the middle of the street because it will happen and they don’t understand what the big deal is or why you’re being weird about it. So just accept the affection and know that no one cares.

3. Walking on the Right Side

Maybe it’s just me, but growing up, it was somehow instilled in me that when you walk, you walk on the right side, whether it’s on the right side of the side walk, up the right side of the stairs, etc. It lessens the amount of awkward dodging-the-person-fake-out dances. In Paris, that’s not a thing. People walk on any side they feel like and don’t care if they pretty much ram into you either. The sidewalks are about two feet wide, but have fun trying to figure out who will pass on either side of the person walking toward you. You’re going down the stairs to the metro but a sea of people are walking up the right side, you’ve just got to shoulder your way down because they won’t move out of the way. As a side note, nobody smiles while they walk. They don’t make eye contact. Coming from a friendly city, this was one thing I had to train myself to do. It feels so rude to me not to look people in the eye as we pass and instead to pretend they don’t exist, but apparently it would be weirder and unsafe for me, a young woman, to smile at people on the street, so instead I put on my walking face and strut down the sidewalk on whichever side I please.

4. Dogs

Dogs in Paris are treated like children. They usually aren’t leashed, which was unnerving at first. Their owners are often either far behind or far ahead of their dogs but the dog itself is just chilling on the sidewalk, doing its own thing at its own pace. They don’t run into the street or bark or jump. They’re so well behaved, they don’t need to be looked after. Dogs are also allowed in most cafes (that being said, most are small enough to fit in handbags). But it’s fun to be sipping a latte next to a tiny teacup terrier licking the foam off its owner’s spoon. The downside, there is dog poop EVERYWHERE so watch your step.

5. School Paper

This isn’t really applicable to anyone going to Paris for vacation, but for those studying abroad, regular lined paper doesn’t really exist here. Most paper is either graph paper or this super-graph paper that has about 6 billion lines. Unless you go to an actual paper store or an art store (I recommend Rougier et Plé), you won’t be able to find normal lined paper.

6. Bathrooms

Oú sont les toilettes? Well the toilet is in that room but the sink is somewhere else. In Paris they have W.C.’s and bathrooms. Especially in homes, like my apartment, one room just has a toilet and nothing else and another room will have a sink, shower, and sometimes bath. Try not to think too hard about the amount of germs living on the inside door handle of the toilet room…

7. Smoking

Everyone smokes. Even if they don’t seem the type, they probably do. Someone once asked me why I don’t smoke like it was a crazy thing and when I replied with “Uhhh because it’s bad for you?!?” they replied with “Oh yeah, I forget about that.” It’s a part of life. There are “Tobac” shops on every street. Coming from Vermont where the air is cleaner than probably most of the country, this was and still is hard to deal with. I don’t want to be choking in the air someone has just puffed out in front of me on the street. Leaving the metro is always a test for me to see how long I can hold my breath because the entrances and exits are where everyone gets in their last drags before getting on or where they light up as soon as they’re off.

8. To-Go 

While this is becoming a more socially acceptable thing, in general, you will not see people eating or drinking on the go. I have a beautiful, ceramic travel mug that I love to use, especially on cold mornings when I have to get up early but still want my caffeine boost. But taking my mug with me on the metro, I could feel people’s judgement. It’s the same with food. You will never see people eating while they walk. Food is to be savored, which I totally appreciate, but sometimes we don’t have time for that! Sometimes I have a class in ten minutes and need to eat something now or I will be scarily hangry during class so I’m going to eat this sandwich as I walk and everyone can shut up! (Maybe I’m a little hangry right now…)

9. Heating/Air Conditioning

Pretty simple: doesn’t exist, or used very sparingly. In the summer, fans are the only source of cooling. When I first arrived, it was 95 degrees and the Air BnB I was staying in didn’t have air conditioning or a fan. We scoured the city for a basic, table fan, and everywhere was sold out. SOLD OUT. Sleeping was miserable. Only new buildings have AC but most places do not. Now that it’s winter, you’d think they’d turn the heat on, but even that is not a given. I like going to cafes to get cozy and have a hot drink, and it’s hard to be cozy when I’m wearing my hat and scarf and using my coat as a blanket and can’t feel my hands.

10. Breakfast

Petit déjeuner. In America, we are led to believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. We are pushed to have protein and fruit for breakfast. We have eggs, bread, bacon, pancakes, french toast, juice, pastries, etc. It’s like a feast! In Paris, le petit déjeuner consists of a tiny coffee (called a noisette) and a croissant or a yogurt. Maybe some orange juice. That’s it. They don’t really do breakfast. If you’re visiting, I recommend buying your own breakfast items and making breakfast yourself. You’ll save money and won’t be disappointed by the overpriced, mediocre breakfast you might find at a restaurant. Save your euros for lunch and dinner, where the French truly shine!

Featured Image by Ron Hicks


2 thoughts on “Culture Shock: The Top 10 Differences Between Paris and the US”

  1. And when returning to North America, what culture shock did I notice?
    1. The amount of grey here. Buildings. Concrete lane dividers. Post-election moods.
    2. The dull geometry here. Although the French are certainly capable of putting up ugly buildings, the center of Paris is remarkable for its graceful curves. North America seems fascinated by the rectangle, as if it had just been discovered, a fifth state of matter.
    3. How little, and how seldom, people walk. Maddy and I walked all over Paris and she continues to do so; walking here is generally a sign of poverty. Consequently…
    4. People in North America keep each other at a distance, car from car. Ditto dogs.
    5. Lack of fresh food. Supermarket food has been trained to look fresh but is anything but. The produce section is like 500 channels and nothing on: good luck finding a fruit or a vegetable that has just waved a tearful handkerchief of farewell to the soil.

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