–What was your biggest culture shock?
Honestly, I did not spend a whole lot of time with other people. The majority of my trip was me wandering around from city to city viewing the monuments. For the most part, the people I interacted with were mostly hotel receptionists/concierge, servers at restaurants, SNCF (France’s main railway company) workers, and the employees of the tourism offices. There were two main things that stuck out to me with those interactions though.
The first main thing that stuck out to me was the preference of the language being spoken. It was extremely common for the person to whom I was speaking to switch over to English when they could tell I was not a native speaker of French. It happened so much that it was almost frustrating. My French is pretty advanced (though not by any means fluent) and I thought I was doing really well. It took me a little bit of time to realize they weren’t telling me my French was bad. On the contrary, many of the people I spoke to asked how I knew so much French. I realized that they were using my native language in order to make me feel more comfortable and to facilitate our interaction, rather than out of annoyance. This all took me a little by surprise, maybe similar to when they learned that an American knew French because unfortunately, Americans are not known for their knowledge of other cultures/languages. Most of the people I’ve come across in the past few years whether through travel or working in NYC, are pleasantly surprised when you know something about the place they are visiting from, especially if it is their language. For me, it was almost overwhelming how accommodating to English speakers the French were!
The second thing I noticed, and this could also be because I myself am a server, was the service style in France. Don’t get me wrong I made sure to ask my Parisian friends how eating at a French restaurant would be different than eating at an American restaurant, however, it still took a little getting used to. In the States, the saying goes “the customer is always right” but service and dining are not like this in France, and once you figure out how things work, it’s quite a pleasant and relaxing experience. In French restaurants, the servers don’t hover over you because they are actually paid properly and don’t depend on tips for a living so both your server and you can relax. It is also incredibly rude to send food back, say that you don’t like it, or to make unnecessary modifications to your dishes. In the States, restaurants are expected to add and subtract ingredients at the whim of the diners which, when you really stop to think about it, kind of defeats the purpose of going to a restaurant. In France, food is prepared the way that the chef has designed. It’s kind of like eating at someone else’s home, would you tell them you don’t like their food or ask them to add or subtract ingredients as they are cooking for you? Granted yes, you are paying for what you are eating at a restaurant, but there, those kinds of requests are very much frowned upon unless it is for an allergy. All of these differences lead to a different kind of atmosphere. I think this is incredibly important for people (especially Americans) to note when they travel to France because if you expect the server to be at your beck and call, you’re in for a surprise. That being said, if you sit back, relax, and enjoy the ambiance and quality of the food (as prepared,) you’ll enjoy yourself so much more!