Reflections on France, Three Months In

So it’s been a little over four months since I arrived here in France. I’m working, but only what I’d typically consider about 1/3 of “full time” and so I’ve had lots of time to unwind and just enjoy myself. Bring newly wed, I’ve also affectionately referee to this time as a “honeymoon” too. That said, there’s a few things that stand out in my mind.

Home

Home is a funny word to start with, and adding more to the “fun,” it lacks a direct translation in French. If home is defined and “where one belongs,” which I have offered as a definition to many, the closest term in French is probably chez moi, although it reflects the sense of possession and thus refers to the things that belong to you. But setting aside definitions, where should I call home? Should it refer to my boyhood home, now on the other side of the world? Should it be the city I lived in for five years while at University? Should it refer, in a broader sense, to Canada? to North America in general? Sometimes I use the term as a sort of metaphor for way of doing things different than French, but I’m not always sure people catch the meaning when I used the term this way. Perhaps home should refer to here in France. The problem with that is this assignment has always been temporary in nature and thus I have struggled to raise this place in France to the status of home. Perhaps the best definition is “Home is where your heart is” and so where my loved ones are, there is my home.

Cellphones

Cellphones, or portables as the French call them, have become a prominent facet of modern life. For much of my University career, my cellphone was the best way to get a hold if me. But in moving to France and looking for a simplified life, I decided to forgo a cellphone an just use the landline included with my Internet package. A large part if it was economics too - most of the plans were very limited in minutes, maxing out at about 150 (compared to the 900 minute plan I had in the States) and being here for only a half dozen months, I faced the option of either buying an expensive phone up front and going with a month to month plan or signing up for at least a year and facing a substantial early termination fee when I check out in a couple of months. But in truth, I call as often back to North America as to France and those calls are free from my landline but never would be from a cellphone.

But cellphones are ubiquitous here in France in a way that I’ve never seen in North America. By way of example, I can recount when I signed up for the Internet: They asked me for cellphone number and when I told them that I didn’t have one, he looked a me like I was from Mars. Later I was looking at my file, I realized that there was a cellphone number on file and not one that I had provided. I wonder if their computer system requires a cellphone number to submit the order…

Driving

One of the last things I did before I left North America was sell my car and one of my first adventures when I return will likely be buying a car. That said, I enjoy not having to worry about a car here in France. The whether has been decent and so walking hasn’t been an issue. When I want to got further than I care to walk, the city buses and the intercity trains provide good service at a reasonable price. There have been a couple of occasions when I’ve needed to rent a car and so I can comment in the driving here.

Almost every car here is a manual and I was surprised at how easy it was to pick up. The few places where I highly prefer an automatic, both because of the smoother engagement of the drivetrain: backing up and advancing repeatedly in tight circumstances (think parallel parking), hill starts, and starting on snow.

One thing that France is perhaps famous for is its round points or “roundabouts” as the British call them. On the surface, they seem like a great way to eliminate stop signs and traffic lights, however the small turning radius they require make them absolutely horrible in the snow and ice. For that reason I hope they never catch on in Canada.

Sometimes it’s the simple things that make a surprising amount of difference; in thus case I’m thinking of running lights on trucks - the little orange lights that run the length of the truck top and bottom. I didn’t think much of these little lights until I drove down a highway here in France and kept being surprised to be next to a truck without them. Without these little lights, it’s lot harder to tell, from a distance, whether the vehicle in front of you is a passenger car or semi truck.

Wayfinding

Wayfinding, or the way to find the route from one city to another, is fundamentally different between France and the United States, but the methodology is perhaps a reflection of the transportation history of the respective countries. In France, many of the transportation routes were established by the Romans. The Romans were known for making their roads straight lines between the given cities without much concern for the terrain that might have made smaller people reconsider. The outgrowth of this is that you generally navigate the highway system by knowing which town is at the end of the road you want to travel and then travel across the country by following a string a cities. In the United States, the Interstate system, like the US highway system before it, was largely laid out as a grid and then adjusted to ensure that the system hit the points of interest, such as major cities and armed forces bases, that the system was designed to serve. Thus, without obvious endpoints, the American system was simply numbered and each road given a cardinal direction (north, south, east or west). (The roads are still numbered in France, just most people don’t have any idea what the numbers are…) In practice, this means that if you want get from Salt Lake City to Denver, you take I-15 South and then I-70 East; while in France, if you want to get from Paris to Nantes, you drive out of Paris following the signs for Le Mans, then Angers, and finally Nantes.

Living Next to the Ocean

There’s a certain wonder to living next to the ocean like I am right now. Perhaps I feel that way because I grew up so far from the sea. I’ve heard of the moderating effect the ocean but it’s another thing to watch it in action. For example, earlier this winter I was visiting a town about 60 km (35 miles) inland and it started snowing. By morning, they had between 10 and 20 cm (2 to 4 inches) of snow, while I, on the coast, had only a skiff of snow. Other times I’ve been spared snow while those further in haven’t. The conclusion I’ve drawn is I can see the wisdom in living right in the edge of the ocean rather than several kilometres back.

French Paperwork

Much has been said about the mountain of paperwork the French system required of you, and the reputation is well deserved. That said, the French system is not particularly aggravating. In my experience, the major difference between French and American paperwork is the response when it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to: in America, when you the guy behind the desk them you don’t have the paper they want, they tell you to ‘take a hike;’ in France, they sort of knowingly moan and roll their eyes and regularly you can argue your way out of needing the paper in question if you know the rules and have everything else they want. And French paperwork seems mostly involved with getting settled, and so once I sorted everything out in the first couple of months, it’s mostly quieted down. That said, I’m not looking forward to the paperwork of closing out all our accounts…

France continues to be a blast and I look forward to the time that remains. :)


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