Sometimes, when you’re not ready to say good-bye to a place, it can help to dredge up all the things you don’t like about living there. As I start having my French “lasts”– last tartelette aux pommes, last drink with a dear friend, last visit to my favorite part of the park, last, last, last, I’ve also started to mentally kiss the things I won’t miss “au revoir”. Here they are, ten things chiantes (chiant = really irritating, pain-in-the-ass) about life in France that I will be happy to leave behind me*:
- There is no outside-the-box. In general, I’ve found this to be a culture shackled to protocol, routine, and things being just-so. There’s a frustrating apathy in the face of obstacles, and a refusal to do anything not on the list of well-defined tasks for a position or situation. I don’t get the sense that this is a solution-oriented culture, nor one disposed to creative problem-solving. It’s also one in which it’s very hard to switch careers or to network professionally off the prescribed path. “C’est comme ça,” the French say with a shrug and a relinquishing of personal responsibility. There aren’t many things about my own culture that I’m proud of lately, but I do miss the efficiency, resourcefulness, and “can-do-ism” that is typical of my experience of it.
- The paperwork. Immigration is a paperwork-heavy process pretty much everywhere, but the amount of paperwork in everyday life in France is maddening. Trying to exchange an inexpensive battery I’d bought for another battery of the same size and price, I once had to wait in two separate lines so that someone could fill out a form, stamp the form, and have it approved by another person before the exchange could be effected. I felt my latent inner capitalist bristle as I fantasized about firing the first person, setting fire to the paperwork archives, and stream-lining the half-hour process to a snappy five minutes.
- Restrictions on work: the flip side of the work/life balance. It’s a bit depressing to realize that work/life balance needs to be facilitated by legislation, but part of the reason that France is known for its “joie de vivre” is its strict protective laws. Of course, it’s wonderful that these laws give everyone a chance to enjoy life outside of work. But some of these laws go a bit too far, in my opinion, and can limit personal freedom in a way that may partly explain the aforementioned apathy and aversion to creative problem-solving. For example, people working in certain professions (like teaching) who wish to hold an additional job, even one that is more of a paid hobby like playing in a band, may technically not be allowed to do so by law.
- Over-organized labor. It’s also really, really hard to fire someone on a long-term contract, even if they totally and completely suck at their job and fail everyone around them. Unions are so powerful that they can essentially bring the country to a stand-still. As excellent as the transportation system is, it is regularly thrown into chaos by strikes that paralyze entire regions and leave people stranded. Protesters wreck public property and shut down school systems for weeks on end. I wish that Americans felt more confident standing up for their rights without losing their jobs, but I see France as another extreme. For example, I’m mystified when I read about worker temper tantrums over proposals to raise the retirement age in sectors where it is under 60: exactly how do they propose everyone continue to retire at 55 with life expectancy rising and cost of living increasing? Companies shouldn’t be able to hold workers hostage, but workers shouldn’t be able to hold companies hostage, either (although I guess demonstrations mostly grind to a halt during the summer, which doesn’t say much for their conviction). For my part, I want the freedom to be able to work as much as I want, with a higher basic standard of living attainable for all through a reasonable number of weekly work hours. I want workers to be able to stand up for fair conditions and compensation, but not when the demands are completely irrational and damaging to their own cause.
- The lack of camaraderie between strangers. When you go out to a bar in the United States with some friends, it’s a given that you will meet and talk to strangers. That’s part of the fun! It’s not weird to make a comment about a book someone’s reading on the subway, or make conversation while waiting in line. These things are doable in France, too, especially if you’re in an environment with people who have lived or worked abroad. But overall it seems riskier to reach out, and less well-received. People tend to go out with groups of friends and then only talk to their friends, and interactions with strangers are, generally speaking, kind of chilly (unless said strangers are pretty drunk or you personally happen to be doing something so entertaining that strangers can’t help but comment– e.g. carrying cupcakes or balloons, true story). It feels like a less publicly open culture, even to someone like me who grew up with the relatively cold fish of the Northeastern U.S.
- The bise. God I hate the bise.
- Being a foreigner. As much as I enjoy expat life and am aware of how lucky I am to be able to choose it, it can get tiresome to be foreign and not a native speaker of the language. People are usually interested and polite when they hear my accent or find out where I’m from, but sometimes they will take the opportunity to a) tell me what’s wrong with my country (something people often seem to feel is their right when it comes to the States, though I would never dare to make this kind of comment to someone I didn’t know about their country) or b) ask me questions that implicitly presume I can represent the perspective of all Americans instead of those who share my narrow slice of experience. Of course, I also find it difficult to fully convey my personality in French, to express subtle ideas or make jokes, and in general people aren’t all that forgiving of or helpful with mistakes. It’s partly, I think, because the French are less used to hearing their own language spoken by foreigners, and therefore less used to having to interpret and help along a non-native speaker, and partly a result of their rigid language norms and education system.
- The paradox of French politeness. People are overly polite in the way they speak and write (using the formal “vous,” and adhering to formulaic salutations and requests), while also being overly willing to shove you onto or off of the subway, cut you in line, sneeze on you, or tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong in any situation. Baffling.
- Gooey romance and infidelity. Another paradox: people get serious fast, and tend to be overly saccharine in their affections (at least for this pragmatic, sarcastic New Englander), while also participating in a culture of infidelity I find really icky. It’s one thing to have an open relationship, in which both partners have agreed that pursuing other people is OK, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve come across shameless, messed-up cheating scenarios disrespectful of a partner who’s in the dark. The French certainly aren’t alone in their infidelity, but it seems accepted in a weird way here. I don’t want to talk about marriage or destiny on a second date, but I also don’t want to date a man who’s in an exclusive relationship with another woman. Gross and grosser.
- The mother-f@#$cking poste. Never have I so appreciated the surly workers of the United States Postal Service, and their rain-or-shine reliability.
Honorable mention: The fact that, for some reason, businesses and organizations maintain websites that are reminiscent of the 90s in design and functionality, and/or do not keep their basic information (like whether or not they are even open) up to date. I won’t miss traveling across town to an establishment only to find a hand-written sign on the door telling me it’s closed for the day.
France and Frenchies: I love you. I just don’t love everything about you. I’ll still miss you so much it will hurt.
*Keep in mind this is gross generalization formulated from a personal perspective– a limited experience, as most are.