A former student of mine ended up spending a year in France… in the same city I used to live! She kindly agreed to share her experience with the French way of life as a foreign student. A witty, yet honest, insight of life in France.
For all those who wonder… and wander!
Many thanks Bekah
I learned a lot, besides the language of course, during my time in France, including a lot about adjusting to cultural difference. On the surface of it, France and Britain don’t seem to be too dissimilar (besides the obvious language issue). It’s only when you’ve experienced living in both countries that you can really appreciate the cultural differences. Arriving at my ‘residence universitaire’ in Rennes I’d made the mistake of assuming that the experience would be pretty similar to living in British ‘halls of residence’ as we call them (which I had done during my first year of university in Southampton). One of the first things I noticed is that whilst people in the UK generally try to avoid eye contact (and God forbid you smile or say ‘”bless you!” to anyone on the London tube!), everyone in France says “bonjour” as they pass. In the supermarket for example, the necessary set of pleasantries always start and finish your encounter at the checkout without fail whereas at home you could often get away with not a word being exchanged between the two of you. I immediately really liked this element of French culture; it makes everyone seem friendly and approachable. .. However, with regards to ‘residences universitaires’, those brief exchanges are as far as it goes! There were 35 people on my corridor and at the end of the year I still only knew the name of one person besides the lovely Czech guy who lived two doors down. Now, I understand this could have something to do with them not having the patience (or the time) to befriend someone who takes a considerably longer than normal amount of time to formulate a sentence, BUT I have a feeling it’s actually more to do with the life of French students. They don’t seem all that interested in making friends at university for the simple reason that they see it as their temporary “digs” rather than a home away from home. In France people tend to go to their local university, rather than move halfway across the country like we do in Britain, so they almost always go home at weekends. As a result of this, many of them don’t have the need to make friends at uni like we do. It’s not like when I arrived at Southampton where we were all in the same boat – nobody knew anybody and 24 hours later we were all BFFs after a night bonding over collective heavy drinking. So I would say to French students: as tedious as it may sometimes be, make an effort with the foreign kids, we just want to be loved!
I’m not really sure what you’re expected to do in France on a Sunday – go to church? stay inside all day and eat? One thing’s for sure – there aren’t many other options. The ENTIRE country seems to come to a halt for one day a week (incidentally the same applies to bank holidays or ‘jours fériés‘). Granted we still have licensing laws in the UK which restrict the Sunday opening hours of shops and businesses but the French seem to have completely missed to point of the term ‘open 24/7’.
There are times when it seems that France has not yet emerged from the 20th century (and no, I’m not just talking about their hideous misconception that it’s somehow still acceptable to go outside your house wearing double, or even in some severe cases – TRIPLE, denim!) It’s hard to tell whether most of the examples I have in mind are purely exclusive to Université Rennes 2 or Brittany itself. For instance I was a bit confused on my first day when I asked at the reception whether the internet was Wifi and the response was “Yes, do you have the cable?” And I definitely wasn’t used to being served by an actual human being at the library. Whilst I’m totally in favour of keeping the jobs, if everything in university libraries in the UK was done by hand you’d have queues unending (because we do know how to queue after all)! My main issue though was the amount of paperwork involved in doing absolutely anything and everything in France. They sure love their bureaucracy so much that if they just switched everything to online (once the Wifi confusion is sorted out of course) I’m convinced we could save the rainforest.
One of the funniest instances of a cultural clash I had was on a night out in Rennes just before Christmas when we’d all gone out tinsel themed and I had chosen to wear my most Christmassy gold sequin shorts. A French boy approached me and straight away asked where I was from. When I told him and asked why, he casually responded with a cheeky smile “because French girls don’t dress like that.” He laughed, I laughed, it was meant in jest and was pretty funny. But actually you’d think the birthplace of pioneering feminist Simone de Beauvoir would be a little more progressive and open minded. Walking down the street in France you get the feeling that you’re being judged far more than you would be in Britain – what you look like, what you’re wearing (and let’s face it if it’s not jeans you already stick out like a sore thumb!) – and as a British girl you can feel the French eyes surveying you up and down. One of the most notable examples of this was the response the other British girls and I got to wearing sports clothes in public. Now, we were only on our way to and from the gym wearing trainers and running leggings – how on earth would they cope if they came to Britain and witnessed the popular eyesore that is the tracksuit bottom (or worse still, the shell suit which seems, regrettably, to have made some sort of comeback)?!
On the flipside, coming back to Britain after having lived in France for a while opens your eyes to the seriousness of the obesity epidemic we’re suffering from here. I honestly DO NOT know how the general population of France is staying so slim with the consumption of all that butter, cream, wine and cheese but whatever you’re doing Frenchies, keep doing it because it’s working (maybe stub out the cigarettes as well and you may have the key to immortality?!…just a thought!) The French also seem to have managed to retain a greater sense of community than we now have back in the UK. Even in a city like Rennes it’s noticeable how much tidier it is – compared to Britain there is next to no litter and rural areas are even more spotless (in more ways than one). You can drive through Brittany for a good ten minutes without seeing a single other soul. It’s a country almost 3 times the size of Britain with a population greater by only 2 million. Driving through Brittany a lot during my last week there, I got the impression that the French take a lot more pride in where they live. One obvious example is the war memorials that are present in almost every French town/village which are immaculately well kept – there’s an undeniable respect for their community and its history that, unfortunately, is harder to find these days in tiny, crowded Britain. What’s more, I much prefer French attitudes day-to-day. People are much more chilled out in France – sitting in cafes at all hours of the day with a glass of wine contemplating existentialism…okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stereotype but you get my point. We Brits just need to calm down! Life seems so much more hectic and chaotic when you spend your time running around like a headless chicken stressing about the smallest and most unimportant of things. For example, you get men with briefcases in London running to get the tube, charging through crowds, throwing children down escalators (well, at least they may as well be) to clear a path, and huffing and puffing when they miss it by a split second. Seriously, is it really worth raising your heart rate over when THE NEXT TRAIN IS DUE IN 2 MINUTES?! Apologies for using another London-based example but the general problem is nationwide. So Brits, we too can learn a lot from our neighbours across the Channel – maybe crack open a bottle of Bordeaux, reassess what’s important in life and chill out.
-> She also has a great blog here: