Culture Shock: The Quirks About Paris

Every culture is different, some more than others. And although there are more drastic changes than moving from Canada to France, I am changing both languages and continents. As a result, I am experiencing major culture shock every day. Some are funny, others are things I would have never thought of. Here are the top eight culture shocks I have noticed so far about living in Paris:

You never smile at strangers

This one seems funny but we all do it. You catch eyes with someone on the street, and you half smile to make it less awkward. You ask someone for help, and you smile at them when you thank them. You talk with the cashier lady at the grocery store, and you smile to be friendly with them. We all do it in Canada, and yet you never do so in Paris.

In Paris, smiling is seen as private, for your closest friends and family, or as a way of flirting. So no one smiles at anyone they don’t know in Paris, lest you give them the wrong idea. At first this makes Parisians come across as cold, but they really aren’t. I have asked for help with directions and I have always been given friendly assistance. Just no smiling.

Everyone stares at everyone

Mix this in with no smiling and you suddenly feel like there’s something on your face no one is telling you about. But no, staring is expected here. The Parisians are just curious, and they like to judge things, positively or negatively. I felt so awkward the first few days because I was wondering what the matter was with everyone. But alas, it’s just the French. Or they are bored on the metro and have nothing better to do.

Bikes are everywhere

In Canada, seeing a man in a good suit biking to work would been seen as strange (or suspicious) but it is completely normal here. Many roads are cobblestone, parking is scarce and the rules of the road are seen more as guidelines so driving is impractical (although I did survive driving in France on a trip to Lyon!). The metro is hot and dirty and full of people you wouldn’t want to sit next to so public transit is a last resort. And walking just takes too long sometimes. So biking it is! And biking is actually everywhere. I myself have signed up for Vlib’, a public bike sharing program in Paris that allows you to borrow bikes from one of thousands of stations around Paris for free. There are similar options in major cities all over France. It is (in my opinion) the fastest way to get around Paris, not to mention the prettiest. Biking is also seen as healthy, environmentally friendly and enjoyable, and not as though you can’t afford a car to drive.

Nothing is online

In order to register for my university classes, I actually had to book at appointment with the university, arrive, and then go classroom to classroom to see the lecture schedules posted on the doors. In Canada, I go online, search new classes, select and save. What a change! Nothing in Paris is electronic. Paperwork is a way of life and everything is sent by post. The idea of walking in to an establishment on your own terms and walking out with anything is laughed at. It takes a week for this, a week for that, and you sign your name a million times. It’s slow, and many people don’t like it, but it’s the way it is for now!

Doors are the most confusing things I have ever seen

I feel ridiculous about having typed that last sentence. I am in an honours bachelor program at a top Parisian university and yet a door stumps me. But, it is much more complicated that you’d think. Many things about doors are confusing in Paris. Sometimes the doorknob is smack in the middle of the door so there’s no way of knowing which way it swings. The door handles also look the same whether it’s a push or pull door so you don’t know which way it works. Then in the elevators there are two doors – one you open and another that opens itself, but the automatic one takes a while to open itself so you are confused at why it isn’t working and paranoid that you are locked in. On the subway train, the doors don’t always open themselves automatically. Sometimes it’s a button you push. Other times its a lever you swing up or down (but of course it won’t say which way to swing it either). Then in banks or government buildings, you have to push a button and wait for it to unlock the door to enter, and the same again to leave, so you look like an idiot trying to open a door that just opened for the guy ahead of you but won’t budge for you. Sigh. Morgan and I see doors now and we wait until someone else goes to use it so that we can just follow them through. Problem solved.

Appliances are not the same as back home

You can’t even rely on electronics to be remotely familiar. First of all, they are really, really small. Then the machines themselves are very confusing. Here is a link to a French washing machine. They are tiny and usually in the bathroom so I thought they were water heaters. Everything about them is confusing. You decide the number of rounds per minute the machine spins, the temperature of the water in degrees Celsius, and other confusing settings that don’t exist back home. How many rpm do your clothes need to get clean? I hadn’t the slightest clue.

Also, in my apartment you need to flip wall switches in order to turn on certain appliances, which stay on for a yet undetermined amount of time before turning itself off. Update: I think it’s about 8-10 minutes. So suddenly, your food is no longer cooking and you can’t figure out why until – oh that switch turned off again! The switches also aren’t labelled so it’s a bit of a game to figured out which switch works what. By the time you get the stove working, you’ve got the toaster toasting, the oven preheating, the microwave defrosting and overhead fan roaring away. I have figured out that the top switch turns on the oven and the bottom on turns on the stove. I have absolutely zero idea what the middle one does. Microwaves are also different, with dials you turn to choose the settings like an old-school television. Toasters are the only thing that are exactly the same. Only toasters.

Toilet paper is weird…

I am not kidding, the toilet paper in France is the most bizarre thing. You’d think you could only have so many variations of toilet paper but France will surprise you. The main difference is the colours. White toilet paper? How dull is that! Oh no. Here, the toilet paper is mostly a rosy pink, but you can even get electric blue, hot fuchsia, lime green, or designs and patterns that look more like wrapping paper than toilet tissue. I have only seen white toilet paper twice. Here was my discovery when I went looking for Kleenex at the grocery store:


The Twizy

Cars in Europe are small to begin with, but Paris brings it to a whole new level of little. The Twizy is the vehicle that makes the Smart car look spacious. This ridiculous looking vehicle is quite popular here, but to me they look more like the red and yellow toy cars small children sit in and pedal their feet to move. It’s only 57″ x 47″ x 92″ and is described as a two person (TWO PERSON?!) vehicle. Just look at this crazy car!

So those are my top eight quirks about Paris so far…I’m sure I will collect another bunch very soon and I will share those too. Who would have thought that France was so different from Canada?



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