So 12 years ago today, I stepped off a plane and into my new life here in France. And 12 years later, I’m still here! The past decade plus two years have been eventful enough, marked by both highs and lows – relationships, career milestones, adopting Sésame, terrorist attacks, a pandemic and gaining the French nationality, to name a few. I’ve also talked a bit here about some cultural differences that can be unsettling. But let’s not get into any serious topics right now. Today, for a lighthearted tribute to this 12th Franciversary, I thought it would be fun to tell you about a few things I’m STILL not used to about France, even after all these years. They’re all pretty minor things, but whenever I encounter them I still shake my head in confusion.
A spoon for any and every dessert
In France, when people have dessert, no matter what the dessert is, they always eat it with a spoon. Much like when Mr. Pitt on Seinfeld carved up his Milky Way bar with a fork and knife, it never fails to look and feel wrong to me. I mean sure, a spoon is the way to go if you’re eating ice cream or chia pudding, but why would you attempt to eat cake with one? Why try to seize hold of a dense, spongy substance with a shallow shovel-like implement that could easily lead to something landing on the floor when humanity has already mastered the concept of the dessert fork?
Non-absorbant kitchen towels
I also don’t understand why kitchen towels in France seem designed to be more decorative than anything else. They do come in lots of nice colors and prints, but they tend to be made of a stiff, furniture upholstery type material that’s good for little else than pushing the rinse water around on a plate rather than absorbing it. Why, France, why?
Graph paper notebooks
I’m one of those people who still enjoys writing by hand, especially when making to-do lists. For some reason, notebooks in France are always lined both horizontally and vertically, which makes writing in one very distracting for people who grew up with only horizontal lines. Often, the lines are darker and more intricate than the example shown above, looking more useful to an engineer than anyone else. Many times, I’ve gone to office-supply stores hoping to somehow find the kind of paper I was used to, but ended up buying completely unlined sketchbooks to write in instead. Recently, however, I was fortunate enough to find some horizontally lined notebooks at Paris locations of the Dutch variety-store chain Hema. Before that, I used to stock up on a notebook or two every time I went back to the US for a family visit.
This is one thing I won’t have to worry about again for a while, at least for as long as this pandemic lasts. If you’re not aware, in France whenever you meet up with friends or are introduced to new people (in a friends context), you traditionally have had to touch your face to their face – one time on each side in Paris, but three or four times elsewhere – while making a kissing sound. This is la bise. Normally, your lips don’t actually touch their skin and theirs don’t touch yours, although the ambiguity of the situation means that creepy guys sometimes use it as a chance to actually kiss you.
I never minded participating in la bise with my actual friends, but it always felt like a violation of my personal space when I had to do it at a party with people I didn’t know and wasn’t necessarily ever going to see again. Especially when large numbers of people were involved. If you’re a man, you get kind of a break because you’re expected only to shake hands with other men (but still have to do la bise with women).
Paris-based English comedian Paul Taylor captures my feelings about la bise pretty accurately in this video. He’s not even exaggerating – it really does happen the way he describes. See also his coronavirus bise update.
Of course, these days, people are being cautioned specifically not to touch each other during greetings. There are even billboards on the street reminding you of this. Instead, people bump elbows, a practice I can definitely get behind. Personally, I’ve seen so few other humans since this whole business began, a year ago, that I don’t think I’ve even done any elbow-bumps. I did recently do some “shoe bises” though, which was amusing and should be adopted far and wide, in my opinion.
Completely illegible signatures
In the US, people tend to sign their actual names, with the result that if you squint long enough at a signature, you can generally figure out what the first couple of letters are. But in France (and this is probably the custom in many other parts of the world too), I’ve never seen a signature that resembles an actual name or contains identifiable letters of the alphabet. The person often makes a few energetic up-and-down lines, finishing them off with a horizontal flourish somewhere, with the resulting marks looking like the print-out of a bad liar’s polygraph test. Or it may resemble a huge elliptical oval, as in the above example.
This one doesn’t affect me much, except that it means my way of signing my name makes me stand out. I became aware of this difference too late to change my own signature accordingly (I’d already signed important documents at my French bank etc.), and now always strangely feel a bit sheepish when signing my name in my own traditional way, with the first and last names mostly legible, as it takes longer to write and maybe looks (to French people, in my imagination at least) less authentic…?
Writing “Lu et approuvé”
In a similar vein, when signing important documents in France, your completely illegible (or legible, in my case) signature is not enough. You also have to handwrite “lu et approuvé” (“read and approved”) above it. That might not seem like such a big deal, but when you’re doing something like opening a bank account or signing the documents to rent an apartment, you’ll have to write this like 10 or 20 times because the paperwork in France is endless. And it also just strikes me as odd. If your signature on the document doesn’t mean you’ve read and approved it, what on earth does it signify?
Okay, by now, especially if you’re French yourself, you might be thinking, “If you don’t like it here, lady, you can always leave. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out!” But there are of course also many, many things that I prefer about France and Europe compared to my home country. Otherwise I wouldn’t still be here! Beyond the obvious ones like a decent healthcare system, affordable higher education and ample paid vacation for all employees regardless of seniority, there are the day-to-day blessings such as the world’s best bread, beautiful architecture just about everywhere you look and the availability of white almond butter and crème de marrons.
If you’ve ever spent time in France or another country that’s foreign to you, what things seemed incomprehensible to you, or better than the way things are back home? Tell us in the comments!