“Move to a new country and you quickly see that visiting a place as a tourist, and actually moving there for good, are two very different things.”
Someone more experienced than I said that, and although I’m sure they lived it to a fuller extent, I understand what they’re saying. Even though I’ve traveled in my life, living in Toulouse was a whole different thing. We found out that “cultural exchange” was not for the faint of heart.
As with life anywhere, you can have good days and bad. It’s just when you’re living in a foreign country, you’re exposed to a bigger learning curve. I never knew what kind of day Toulouse was going to throw at me. Was it going to be the day I get scolded for not knowing to weigh my produce? Or is it the day the bank teller patiently helps me deposit a check in the ATM, kindly ignoring the line growing behind us? Or better yet! Is the old guy who walks up and down our street every day finally going to recognize me and return my greeting?
Aside: he finally did after almost 7 months and the “bonne journée, Mademoiselle” made my day.
The learning curve compounded with speaking French as a second language made for a very humbling year. People have asked us at different points during this year, what it was like and I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it. France showed me so much; a lot of it I loved, and a little of it made me homesick.
Overall, southern France was warm – in regards not only to the climate but to the people. Of course, there were some generalizations that proved true about Toulousians (the French can be a low-trust, inexpressive culture), but on the whole, they were similar to how people in the American south can be – hospitable and relaxed.
To look at our year a little closer, I’d like to share the things I learned/loved/want to adopt and a few of the things that I can live without.
The French Know How to Party
I thought I was a good hostess, until I lived in Toulouse. The art of entertaining is performed to perfection here. From the smallest gathering to a rager, there will always be food and drink provided. And by food, I mean an array of meats, cheeses, and other delicacies.
Dan and I once helped a friend move and afterwards, they opened bottles of wine, all kinds of cheese, rillette and pâté. There is no meal that the French don’t take seriously.
I Learned (and used) Military Time
No more having to ask, “Is that am or pm?” Roger that, see you at 22h.
This has to be one of my favorite parts about life in Toulouse. Every evening around 7pm, the restaurants spill out onto the sidewalk and the street corners swell with people eating, drinking, and socializing. It’s really contagious and tempts you to stop walking towards home where you’ve just filled the fridge with groceries.
Lead with “Bonjour”
I believe one of the reasons that the French are accused of being rude is because foreigners approach locals or enter shops without giving the obligatory greeting, “bonjour”, and then expect immediate results. To the French, this is rude.
You also are expected to say “au revoir” as you leave. This is especially evident when you ride the city bus. Everyone, and I mean each individual person, says “merci, au revoir” to the bus driver as they get off and the driver in turn smiles and nods. It’s really sweet.
That Low-Trust, Inexpressive Bit
I’ll set the scene: Dan and I are at a restaurant and over his shoulder, I see an overt and purposeful display of side eye shot in our direction. Our conversation, which is already at a hushed level, has been deemed too loud by the girl at the next table. Toulouse made me, an introvert, feel like an excitable and loud speaker. But it’s just because in public spaces (the metro and shops included) they prefer a quietude. And if you hope to enjoy a new culture, it’s best to swim in the direction of their social norms.
Regarding the low-trust aspect, it took that elderly neighbor almost 7 months to not look at us with wary eyes. People in Toulouse can be low-trust in social and workplace situations, but once you do break into their circle, you’re golden.
Relaxation is a Right
The work/life balance in France, and perhaps especially in southern France, is downright dreamy. When Dan reported to his lab on the first day, he was told that he had a mandatory 51 days of vacation. As Americans, this was unheard of and extremely exciting.
With generous amounts of PTO, parental leave, a 35 hour work week, and a 2-hr lunch break it’s a wonder how things still get done. But the cities aren’t burning and I think people seem healthier for it. Walk through the park any day of the week and you’ll see all ages and walks of life sprawled out and enjoying the day.
And summer in France is no joke! For the entirety of July and August, almost everyone makes a mass vacation exodus, leaving all government buildings and mom and pop shops alike shut down. This can be frustrating if you need to make copies or buy…anything, but again we learned how to swim in the French flow. This presented a complicated ideal to me; on the one hand I learned how to slow down and savor, but on the other, I like the “work hard, play hard” mentality of American culture.
Dog poop, everywhere! Smeared, piled up, turned to mush by the rain, and sometimes…human??
For having so many codes of etiquette, the French don’t give a shit about scooping poop and leaving it for others to step in. The mindset is, “it’s not my job”. So as tempting as it is to look up at the beautiful architecture, you have to keep your eyes trained on the sidewalk to avoid stepping in something nasty. This Guardian article perfectly describes the scene in most French cities.
I’ve accepted that I’m too awkward to ever pull off a perfect “bise”…
This year was one of the best in my life! Dan’s hard work made for a successful post-doc, I found work as an English teacher and improved my French, we were able to travel to 17 cities, and relationships were forged in the fire.
Bare with us when we first get back, because we’ll probably have a lot of stories, but we promise we aren’t returning as annoying “expats”.
See you soon!