Life Abroad is a new monthly series that gives some insight into what it is like to live as a foreigner in a particular country. It will focus on experiences and day to day living of expats and international students. This month, we’ll be looking at living in France.
Living in France
My first visit to France was as an exchange student in high school. I lived in Lyon, the second largest city after Paris, for three months. As someone from a small town, living in a big city was a big change in itself, nonetheless in another country. Overall, I loved my time in France, and as my first time travelling abroad at 16, it really opened my eyes to the world.
While living there, I spent most of my time in Lyon. I was also able to visit Paris and Nice. I’ve since had the chance to visit France again and each experience has been different. Here are some things about living in France that I found to be good, bad, or overall different as well as some inspiration and tips for living in France.
An Exchange Student Living in France
The main difference I noticed while I was living in France was just how different the school system was. Firstly, I was expected to take my courses via correspondence IN ADDITION to attending my exchange partner’s classes with her. On the flip side, when my exchange partner came to Canada, she had no work from her home school. She was also able to choose her classes in Canada. She took classes like art, drama, and ESL. While I was in France, there was no FSL option, so I had to attend her French class (meant for French speakers), and other classes like history — I even had to attend her English class! The only classes I could get out of was her additional language course.
Overall, I found the school system to be much stricter. As I had correspondence work from my home school, I often communicated with my teachers via email. During my exchange partner’s language course, I would head to the library. The librarian would berate me for checking my email, saying “this is not an Internet Cafe”. It took a while to be able to communicate that I was indeed doing school work, just for my other school.
The overall atmosphere of the school felt very different as well. Once you arrive you go through a big metal gate (I noticed this on many schools, not just the one I attended). Unless it was lunch hour, there was no leaving without being signed out by your parent or guardian. This felt very prison-like to me, though perhaps it’s for security, or to curb skipping class (probably both), but either way, not a great vibe.
Look Good or Look Out
Both in and out of school, fashion was of high importance. As someone who practically lives in sweatpants, I felt more than a little out of place. You certainly didn’t see as many “casual” looking people as you would in North America. There was absolutely nobody out in their pyjamas (not that I think you really should be, but I’ve definitely seen it in Canada).
Appearance overall was key. Not just physical appearance, but how presented your life in general. It really didn’t matter what you did, as long as it looks as though you’re doing well (in school and in other aspects of life). While that could be said about anywhere, I found that particularly true there.
Being the Foreigner
At first, I felt like the shiny new toy. My exchange partner practically showed me off to all her friends. There was a lot of “practising English” with people (this got old fast) and answering questions about Canada. My exchange partner’s youngest sister (she was six at the time) had me into her class to answer questions about Canada.
One of the things I found most surprising (and frustrating) was how much people seemed to know and be excited about America, and how little they knew of Canada. I was asked questions like “Do you have cars?” among other ridiculous notions. Mind you, this was mostly from children, but these same children seemed to think that America was the greatest place in the world. I had some common ones from adults as well, like “is it cold ALL the time?” *face palm*. As much as it pained me to say it, I effectively had to explain Canada as “it’s like America.”
Another part that was odd for me, that I didn’t really notice until I lived abroad in other countries, is that I wasn’t obviously a foreigner. Often, until I spoke, I was assumed to be French. Perhaps because I wasn’t in a touristy area. This was kind of nice. The only time it was a bit difficult was when someone comes up to you speaking French and you take an unnaturally long time to process what they’re saying and (attempt) to reply.
What Surprised Me About Living in France
- Meals take SO LONG. I’m all for relaxing and enjoying your meal, but I also have things to do.
- French people aren’t rude. Maybe a little pretentious, but not rude.
- The cities are dirty. In a not “shiny and new” kind of way, but a grungy feel that I kind of like. And also dirty as in the sidewalks are COVERED in dog poop.
- There are pharmacies everywhere.
- I have no idea why, but there’s a little carousel (left) in each city’s main square.