Americans have been moving to France for centuries and around 30,000 of them currently call it home.
While there was a small blip in the Franco-American romance during the invasion of Iraq in the 2000s (lest we forget the ‘freedom fries’ incident) after the television series Emily in Paris began airing, an IFOP poll found that almost three quarters of Americans (73 percent) viewed France in a positive light.
Nevertheless, culture shock happens and some aspects of French life are very different indeed to the US.
Walkability and transport
The great shock of France to Americans coming here is often its walkability – even in the countryside.
Hailing from what I would best describe as suburban sprawl – the type of American neighbourhood that was farmland at some point in the last two decades, walkability is not something I grew up experiencing.
French cities like Paris are highly walkable and brimming with public transport – and I was surprised to find that even in small villages in rural France, you can usually stroll to the local boulangerie.
It is true that living in rural France typically necessitates a vehicle, but I have found that a lot of France’s countryside is split up into villages and communes, each having some sort of town centre that is accessible on foot.
On top of that, France’s high-speed national train system is hardly comparable to the Amtrak. It takes around two and a half hours to go from Baltimore to New York City. In contrast, a high-speed SNCF train can get you from Paris to Bordeaux (about double the distance) in the same amount of time or less.
You can take a train to the coast, the mountains, nearby cities and many of the different countries around France. Not to mention, France has TER (regional trains) that connect smaller towns and villages across the country.
For all the benefits of being able to easily stroll to a local bistro for dinner, France’s old infrastructure leaves something to be desired when it comes to accessibility.
My mother helped me move to France in 2019, and we booked an Airbnb in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. After a long journey, we lugged three suitcases and a cat carrier to the front of the Haussmanian building we would be staying in. The Airbnb posting conveniently forgot to mention that we would be on the sixth-floor (seventh, if you are counting American-style) of a walk-up.
We made it work, but scores of Americans, particularly older folks, have complained about finding themselves in similar situations with no recourse. Elevators are not commonplace in French apartment buildings, and many restaurants (particularly in cities) have their restrooms down a narrow, windy staircase.
Air conditioning and insect screens in windows are also not to be expected in French buildings. In fact, less than a quarter of French households have AC, though you could argue that there are more environmental benefits to avoiding air conditioning.
On expat surveys, French bureaucracy consistently knocks a few points off the country’s overall score when it comes to the ease of setting up and building a new life in France.
The initial hurdles of setting up essential admin things, such as opening bank account and getting an internet box, certainly feel like they take longer and involve more steps and paperwork than they would in the United States.
I found myself dreaming of American efficiency in the first few months after moving to France, but when discussing this with American friends at home I was quickly reminded of unending lines at the DMV.
READ MORE: How hard is it to settle in France?
One aspect of French administration that continues to shock me, however, is the lettre de résiliation. Cancelling my gym subscription was a surprisingly lengthy process, which culminated in sending a physical letter attesting that I no longer wanted to pay €25 a month.
That being said – in the past four years, I have noticed French administrative websites improve drastically and the option to send a lettre recommandée or lettre de résiliation via La Poste’s website is a game-changer.
Opening hours and Sunday closures
Looking to run errands on your lunch break? Hoping to get your weekly shopping done on Sunday evening? You might find yourself standing in front of a fermé sign.
Many other Americans in France who have been here longer than I have tell me that in the past few years, Sundays have become almost unrecognisable as more shops and stores remain open for at least part of the day. There’s also a big town-country divide with small towns and rural areas much more likely to observe traditional Sunday or lunchtime closing.
Nevertheless, many Americans (myself included) are pretty surprised to see the ‘closed between 12pm and 2pm’ signs on shops or offices.
Animals and babies
A few weeks after moving, I was walking down the sidewalk, listening to music, and something furry brushed my hand. I looked down and to my surprise there was an unleashed dog trotting past me with no owner in sight. A few minutes later I heard a whistle and the dog went running around the corner behind me. No one else seemed remotely concerned that the animal was walking along a busy street, not attached to its owner.
My friends like to make fun of me for this culture shock, but I am constantly surprised by the number of pet owners who allow their dogs to go leash-less in public spaces and next to traffic-filled roads.
An unproven theory of mine is that this lax approach could explain the dog-poop-minefield that is Paris.
And as with pet-rearing, I’ve also noticed differences in child-rearing.
In France, it is not uncommon to see parents sitting out smoking and drinking a terrace, relatively late in the evening, with young children in tow. In restaurants, kids’ menus are usually a portion size request made directly to the waiter, rather than a separate category with chicken nuggets and hotdogs.
In general, you are more likely to see French children fitting into the world of adults rather than the other way around, which tends to be the American attitude.
The other side to raising children in France – the one that happens in the public school system – was another shock for me when I first arrived in France to teach English.
The French school system is a lot more blunt than the American one – teachers are comfortable reading out test scores and sending low-performing students to the other side of the room to revise. When the Bac scores are released, they are public with the child’s name attached. (In contrast, my high-school opted out of announcing the valedictorian publicly).
The approach to discipline is also less forgiving, and there tends to be a fair amount of yelling involved.
Ultimately, French school tends to focus teaching to a universal standard rather than splitting kids up into groups based on their individual aptitude or learning styles. Participation prizes are a no-go.
When passing by French bars and restaurants with outdoor areas, you will most likely smell cigarette smoke – something many Americans have lost an appetite for in recent years.
Public health efforts to reduce smoking in the United States were undeniably effective. As of 2022, just 10.9 percent of the population over the age of 15 reported smoking daily. In contrast, France saw 24 percent of its population (over 15) smoking daily.
The majority of US states have enacted some form of ban on smoking in enclosed places, with many expanding that to the public space directly outside of restaurants and bars too.
Smoking is banned in public indoor spaces in France (eg museums and government buildings), as well as inside of restaurants and shops. However, in most places, you can still smoke in the outdoor terrace area of a café or restaurant, meaning that most streets smell of smoke.
If you walk into a French pharmacy, you will see that it is quite different from an American CVS. You will not find any bags of chips or candy, though you will find a large natural medicine selection with plenty of homeopathic options.
Grocery stores, on the other hand, do not carry over-the-counter medicines, like low-intensity painkillers and cold & flu medicines, as is common in the US.
The general rule is that grocery stores are for food (with some exceptions for households goods or soap and shampoo) while pharmacies are the place to go for any medical or health related items.
French pharmacies are a special place though – you can bring your wild mushrooms in to verify none are poisonous, and you can receive medical advice from the pharmacist or even basic first-aid, if needed.
The formal French garden is sculpted and symmetrical – an exercise of man bending nature to his will (think Versailles gardens). And it seems to me that this approach extends to green space overall in France. Many parks and outdoor spaces have areas where you can look at the grass, but you certainly cannot go touch it, sit on it, or play on it. The Jardin de Luxembourg is a great example of this.
In my first year, I worked as a nanny and took the kids I looked after to the park next to their house after school. There were a few trees – one perfect for climbing – and I had zero issues letting them hang on the branches, until I was told off by an older French gentleman that the tree was for admiring rather than for climbing.
The same is true for the shared green space in my apartment building – look but do not touch. The cats living in rez-de-chaussé apartments are the only ones allowed to walk on the grass.
All of this being said, you certainly can find French parks to go lounge around in, where it is perfectly acceptable to be on the grass (just check the signage first).
And of course as soon as you’re out of the cities there are green spaces galore in France’s many forests and natural parks.
Kissing instead of hugging
One of my most consistently awkward interactions in France is the instinct to go in for a hug when the other person is expecting bisous. I am sad to say I have done this multiple times, and the result is a weirdly intimate hug-kiss that neither of you were looking for.
For the French, cheek kisses are less intimate than a hug. Most Americans I know would say the opposite. Just be sure to memorise which direction goes first (usually left then right) or you could end up in an even more uncomfortable situation.
The entire month of August
The country (with the exception of tourist areas) closes down – including shops, bookstores, restaurants…you name it.
This will come as a shock at first, perhaps if you were hoping to get your bike repaired and now you’ll have to wait three more weeks, but the benefit is that the summer slow-down is expected of everyone.
Take advantage of it and enjoy the more relaxed pace of life.
Genevieve Mansfield has lived in Paris since 2019 and is mostly very happy there. Do you agree with her culture shocks? Share your views in the comments below