In France




 

So, I just returned from spending a little more than three weeks in France.

For you, if you’re a “typical” foreigner, France might be this amazing place you dream of visiting (unless you’ve already done it), or instead, if you’re an idiot loser, you may think that it is a shit place full of surrendering monkeys.
For me, it’s simply home.
And I hadn’t been back in three and a half years (the longest I had ever been away from my homeland – and the last time I was there I barely got out of the house, the weather was just that bad – so it’s really almost six years without really venturing into the country). As you can imagine, it was a very unique and interesting trip.

I’ll show you some pictures of some of the great places I’ve been in due time (even though I didn’t travel half as much as I would have liked), for the moment, I’d like to share with you a bunch of random thoughts I had during my time home, most of them revolving around reverse culture shock, which was both quite strong, and paradoxically not as strong as I had expected.

So here are a few random thoughts about my time in France in no particular order.

 

Yes, the biggest thing that hits you when you’re back in France when living in Japan is how disorganized and inconvenient things can be. It hit me as soon as I landed at the airport. First, note that the trip itself, while uneventful, was unique as I connected through a different country each time. I flew out of Japan to Taiwan, from Taiwan to Amsterdam, and then from Amsterdam to Toulouse, France.
In Taiwan and the Netherlands (and obviously Japan), wi-fi in the airport was smooth and seamless, my phone just connected to the airport’s free wi-fi when I asked it to, and that was all. In Toulouse? Nope… If I wanted to use wi-fi there, I had to sign up to some service, create and account and all that… Really, Toulouse?
Five minutes into the country I was already facing my first inconvenience.

 

The second one was that our baggage had stayed in Amsterdam (the flight from Taipei was late and our time in Amsterdam was basically a race to catch the next plane on time, we did, not our baggage). At least it wasn’t lost, it just had stayed behind in Schiphol Airport.
However, the guy in charge of helping me was super friendly, very helpful and even gave me tips on how to make sure it arrives in the next 24 hours when filling up my “missing baggage form” (in short, don’t say you’ll be at your next location for three weeks, instead say you’ll change location within the next 48 hours, this way a courier will bring your baggage not regular mail, which will take longer, basically). And indeed, the baggage arrived about 24 hours later.

That’s for the people who say that customer service always sucks in France. Not always, it really depends on the situations. And indeed, the next situation was when we headed to the airport’s cafΓ© to order a couple of sandwiches are we were starving. The clerk barely looked at us while we ordered, she served us and we paid. That’s a welcome to France for you, right there.

 

I had been craving French food for so long, and I did eat my share of duck, cheese and saucisson, but strangely I wasn’t overwhelmed by how good it was like I could have been in the past. I think the reason is twofold.
First, if I compare to the time when I lived in the US, where I could spend months without eating something that tastes remotely good, in Japan, on the other hand, even if I miss French food badly, I eat good things on a daily basis as a replacement, not constant crap because that’s all there is to eat.
So, eating French food, returning from Japan is not as overwhelming as eating French food returning from the US.
The other reason is that we didn’t get to go to any good restaurant (the ones I know were closed – either for summer vacation or permanently – or simply, we didn’t get to go). When we went somewhere we ate at cheap restaurants or even sandwiches, we were somewhat on a budget.
Also, I must admit that my mom is not getting any younger, and her cooking skills have decreased seriously since my last visit. πŸ™
I still had a few amazing meals here and there, especially the ones I had with friends.

 

For some reason shower gel and shampoo take forever to rinse. In Japan, it rinses almost instantly, in France, every morning it felt that I was spending more time rinsing shampoo off my hair and shower gel off my body than anything else.
Why is that? I have the feeling that in France shower gels and shampoos are “smoother” and as such, even water seems to “slide” on it, if that makes any sense… Not sure.

 

First time I went out to town I was shocked by how “beauf” (French redneck/white trash if you want) my hometown was. I kinda had forgotten, I guess. Then I realized that I had only been to the shopping mall. When I went downtown, I was shocked by how “petit bourgeois” my hometown was. I had also forgotten. There, you have my hometown, a petit bourgeois core surrounded by white trash and rednecks (ok, it’s not that bad, I’m making it sound worse than it is).

 

Talking about people, it was fascinating looking at people. This “normal” when I grew up had suddenly become “abnormal” and I couldn’t help but staring at people all the time. For many reasons.
Clothes first.
Sure, we’re talking about casual summertime clothing here (all what 90% of what French people will wear in August). I wasn’t too surprised by what men wore. All in all, despite variations, it’s not that different from what Japanese men wear, and even less from what I wear.
Women on the other hand. I had forgotten how much skin French women show in summer. In Japan, women overall show much less skin than in Europe (despite the weather being hotter), and in summertime, they tend to show even less skin, as contrarily to Europe most women do not want to tan, keeping their skin white is of the utmost importance, so long sleeves, long pants, even gloves are the norm in summer in Japan! I guess I got used to it, and seeing women showing that much skin was always a surprise (sometimes a good one, sometimes not so much).

 

Talking about skin, nowadays, is there anyone left in France between the age of 30 and 50 who is not tattooed?
In Japan, as you may know, tattoos are still somewhat taboo; they’re still associated with organized crime and with the most unsavory members of society. So you pretty much never see any. First, they’re much rarer, and people who have some tend to hide them.
Back in the days, when I lived in France, I remember a few people having (usually small) tattoos, but nothing to the scale that I could see this summer.
The number of people who had tattoos was really really high. The tattoos weren’t small.
Also, I was surprised to see a lot of tattooed people who were older than me. I mean, I’m not that young anymore… I also have the feeling that it’s mostly my generation that gets tattooed.

Actually, it reminded me of something our parents’ generation used to say when we were young and thought about getting tattooed (yes, the idea crossed my mind too in the 90’s, never did it, I don’t regret it): “What about when you’re old? How are you going to look with your tattoo?” And it made sense in a way, tattoos were for young people, so an older tattooed person had to be an outcast, right?
Well, nowadays, tattoos really are a middle-aged people thing, and when they’re old… Well, it definitely will be an old people thing, and you can be sure that very few younger people will get tattoos in a decade or two, it’ll be something their parents or even their grand-parents do. Having tattoos will be quite uncool.

 

Another surprise (well, I had seen pictures on social media) were the beards… Beards everywhere… What happened to my country?
Beards (with some very few exceptions) are some on the least cool things I know.
What’s wrong with you, people?

 

While we’re on people’s appearances topics, a few more serious thoughts.
People are fatter than I remembered. Part of it is that I live in a country of mostly skinny people, so yes, my memories may be a bit distorted. But I’m convinced that people are actually fatter.
The scary part was the kids.
Children really got fat.
When I was a kid, fat kids were a rarity and it usually came from health issues.
This summer, some days, I felt that almost half of the kids I ran into were overweight. Yes, crappy processed food really has become part of the French diet. I had the feeling that it was a serious risk during my last years in France. It did happen. πŸ™

 

Still on the topic of people, I remember my hometown always being very white.
Sure, there used to be a certain number of people from North African descent and a few Asians (from Vietnam as there was a refugee camp nearby), but it was still more than 90% white.
Now, it really has become multicultural. People from all colors walk down the streets. If my hometown has become multicultural, one can say that yes, France has indeed become multicultural.

 

There also was a rather large number of Muslim women wearing headscarves. I know it has become a hot and sensitive topic in France, but once again, I thought it was limited to large cities and once again, back in the days, the number of women wearing headscarves was quite limited. Not anymore.

I guess it comes from a few things. There may be a generational element: the first Muslim women who arrived in France wore headscarves, so their daughters, the first generation of Muslims born in France, didn’t. So, the next generation does?

There may be some of that, but there also are some darker forces at work.

France (and Europe) really is at a cross-roads of its history. The continent and the country are becoming multicultural.
Whether you like it or not, it’s happening!
And the more conservative parts of the population don’t like it a bit. Muslims have become the main target of racism in France, and even after three generations, the Arab French minority is still not considered as fully French by a large chunk of the population.
Islam in particular is targeted. Of course Islamic terrorism doesn’t help (actually it feeds off those tensions – if those didn’t exist, Islamic terrorism would be totally ineffective in Europe – never forget that the IS and the National Front are the best allies, they have the same interests and they share the same goals).
And the more French Muslims feel rejected and the more their identity is being denied, the more they want to express it, the more they want to externalize it.
There’s nothing mysterious. The more you want to oppress someone, the more they want to resist. As simple as that.

Personally, it doesn’t bother me, partly because living abroad allows me to stay above the fray of the silly debates taking over the whole society at times (French mass media and politicians are very good at involving everyone in their “society issues” that they create themselves most of the time), partly because being a foreigner myself for about half of my adult life taught me a lot about being more accepting of differences. Especially the cultural ones.
The only time it really bothered me was one afternoon, at a playground where I had brought my daughter, a little girl, no more than 10 years old, was wearing a conservative Muslim attire, including headscarf. That bothered me greatly, because if I’m correct, even in Muslim countries, little girls don’t wear those before becoming teenagers. I also found her a bit aggressive towards other kids. Yes, her parents probably weren’t the best people to be around and they probably had perverted her young mind in unpleasant ways. Her dad was Arab, but her mom seemed to be a convert. While the dad looked like a normal guy, the mom and her daughter really looked like the kind of people who would one day disappear because they joined the jihad in Syria. As it was my first day mingling with locals, I was glad that the other guy near me was also Arab, also with his young daughter, and they were the nicest and friendliest people. It helps you keeping things in perspective, especially when all you hear about your country when you live 10,000 km away is the shit the media try to fill your head with.

 

So yeah, my hometown has become very multicultural, and there are more headscarves there than I had ever seen. Suddenly, and sadly, I understood why the National Front arrived first in my hometown in the recent elections.
I hate that vicious circle that can’t bring anything good.

But good and hopeful things there were too. They came in the form of an unheard number of multi-ethnic couples with multi-ethnic kids all around me to the point that even my kids didn’t really look special to most people when we walked outside.

 

This really gives me hope for the future of my country. This, the media never talks about. Of course, it doesn’t.

 

On a lighter note, let’s talk about the weather. The day we arrived it was COLD! Probably 18 degrees (Celsius) I couldn’t believe it. This temperature won’t arrive in Japan before late October. Luckily it got warm again soon after, even hot some would say.
OK, here is the thing. A temperature between 30 and 35 degrees is not uncommon in my home area in August, actually it was between 30 and 37 pretty much the whole time I was there. Where I live in Japan, those temperatures also are the norm in Summer.
So, why is it so unbearably hot in Japan and not in France?
I already knew the answer, but I got to experience it, facing both weathers in the same week.
In France, humidity is low, very low in summer, whereas it’s high in Japan, very high.
Also, at night, in France, temperatures will cool down to around 18-20 degrees. In Japan? Yeah, it will cool down to 27-29 degrees, i.e. it won’t.
So, there you have it, and today I can tell you that a 35 degrees in South West France feels like a 27-28 degrees in Japan.

 

This post has gotten longer than expected, time to end it soon, but I need to share a few more thoughts with you, some light, some serious.

 

Climate change is real and it’s happening (why do I even need to state that? Oh yes, because of some idiots in the US that are trying to kill us all), even in my parents’ garden. The bees are gone! They used to be everywhere in the garden in summer. I saw two or three. No more! On the other hand, mosquitoes are everywhere, and I don’t mean the usual European mosquitoes, no, I mean the tropical kind. Asian tiger mosquitoes have literally invaded Southern France. They’re everywhere, they’re aggressive. You simply couldn’t stay outside in my family home’s garden after 5-6 PM. One of the things I was looking forward to doing in France was having apΓ©ritif and dinner outside. I did, when I visited friends. In my parents home, it simply was impossible because of mosquitoes.

 

France is losing the battle against rampant destructive capitalism (yes, the same one that tore down the social fabric of some countries, the same one that is the cause of global warming). Sure, you may be aware that my compatriots have elected a bank executive as their president, but it started before him, he’s just making things worse. Highways have been privatized a while ago. Now airports are.
Where does a country that privatizes its infrastructure and its public spaces go?
Not in a good direction.

 

One of the situation where I felt out-of-place was when shopping. I look like a local (I used to be one), but I guess my behavior was just off enough to appear weird to most clerks I interacted with.
I remember one detail in particular, when paying something by card, back in the days, when it was a machine where you insert the card yourself, after the transaction was complete, the machine used to tell you to get your card back. It doesn’t anymore. So, almost every time, after paying I just waited for the machine to say something that never came and the clerks to look at me wondering what I was waiting for exactly.

 

I was both looking forward and dreading (because my daughter is scared of them) summer thunderstorms and we only got two small ones. I was almost disappointed.

 

And I’m ending this post with a picture of my parents garden (at dawn, our first morning in France, awake very early because of jet lag). The garden where I grew up and where I feel that my kids spent the most time while we were in France. And it really warmed my heart and made my trip to see them enjoy it exactly the same way I used to do when I was their age, be it overfeeding the fish in the pond, circling around the house for what seemed hours with a small bicycle, or picking up tomatoes… I’m glad they got to experience that. I hope they will again.

 

 

 

 

 


About David Billa

David was born and raised in the French South West. After a few years in the US and a few more in Paris, he finally settled down in Japan. He blogs here about his various experiences and travels, with an emphasis on his home country, France.


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6 thoughts on “In France

  • Dru

    I generally have similar feelings when I return to Vancouver, although the culture is different to France. I tend to return at least every 2 years so it isn’t so bad.

    Regarding the soap and shampoo, it is usually the type of water that is available. Hard water rinses quickly, but soft water can feel like it takes forever. Of course it is relative on where your water starts and which way you go. So it is likely the water in Takamatsu is harder than the water in your hometown. I find Tokyo water to be pretty soft. My friend in Kanagawa, just 30 minutes by train away, has hard water. It all depends on the source and the methods they get the water. I found Vancouver to have slightly harder water than Tokyo, although it can also be due to the pipes at your home.

    On the Muslim and headscarf front, I see a lot of them in Tokyo, although 10 year olds are not so common. Vancouver has very few people wearing headscarves but lots of turbans as we have a big Sikh population. Perhaps it is growing up in a relatively multicultural environment but it doesn’t phase me as much. Niqabs, however, still make me do a double take but I try to not care. If it is their choice it is their choice.

    Unfortunately racism and xenophobia is growing in Canada. Also, as an outsider looking in with concerned eyes, I believe it is a shadow effect from the big orange ball of fat and hate. The words that multi-bankrupt guy says is emboldening people to be stupid in Canada as well. Thankfully the minorities are much stronger and hopefully they will be able to grow past it.

    As for being a local, yet not quite, I’m completely in the same boat. I bow too much in Vancouver and I don’t know how to use the machines anymore. I’m used to the staff doing the work for me. Even if it says “you can take your card”, I often “forget” as her in Japan they always do it for you. It is almost taboo to touch the card machine aside from putting your PIN in. Felt strange to do so much on my own in Vancouver.

    Looking at your photos on Facebook and such really made me want to visit France even more. I have a couple good friends who left Japan years ago and still long to visit them someday. It is hard but hopefully it will happen. Really want to visit the south of France as I only got to go to Nice in my senior year of High School and my memories of the area was short but memorable. Made me really long to go back and really explore that area properly. Hopefully someday.

    • David Billa Post author

      Yes, reverse culture shock is universal and yet, unique to everyone. I think the strongest I experienced was when I moved back from the US. I pretty much stayed home for a couple of months, and then moved to Paris (partly because I couldn’t deal living in my hometown anymore because of that culture shock). This one was very mild, especially because it was vacation and I did fully “re-enter” French society.

      Concerning the shampoos, I’m not too sure. Water in my home area is pretty hard, the underground is all limestone (that’s why we have all those amazing caves), and my parents always complain about calcium (?) being bad for the pipes and all. Also, last year, when my parents visited they left their extra shampoo and soap, and I remember having trouble rinsing it… Hmmm…

      Unfortunately, racism hasn’t waited for the American turd to become a thing in France. The National Front has been around for a while, but there’s really been a shift in recent years. Racist people are now out and proud. And that really worries me. Especially as French people continue to elect jokes as their presidents (that’s the third one in a row) and it will result into a French Trump sooner or later.

      The bowing! I bowed all the time in the street (if a car let me cross for example), even sometimes in stores. People really must have thought I was a weirdo. Also, saying sorry all the time, even in situation when you don’t have to say it.

      Expect more photos to come (maybe not on FB, but definitely here), and yes, you should visit, although I know how difficult it is (same here, every time I have money and time to travel abroad, I go home, so I don’t go anywhere else).
      Be careful though, I often hear North Americans talking about the French South as if it was one thing, it definitely isn’t. South East and South West are very different in many ways (both geographical and cultural), and it’s a mistake to bundle them up together. To give you an idea, my hometown is closer to Paris than to Nice and Southeastern culture is as different from mine that northerner cultures can be. A bit like Vancouver and Halifax. πŸ˜‰

  • Edith

    Hi,
    Interesting article. I can relate to what you say. I am a French expat who has lived in California for many years. I do go back to France every year and notice all the changes.
    I disagree with your comment about bad food in the US. I live in California and we have excellent restaurants. Not sure where you lived in the US. Actually, I’ve had my share of bad restaurants in France, especially awful service.
    I see my home town in France being more Americanized but not in a good way. Suburbs full of gigantic warehouses with huge advertising panels and even worse, fast food places like McDonalds and KFC in the middle of historical areas.
    For me, the most annoying thing I notice is the level of service in France and rude employees. This past May, I went grocery shopping in a supermarket and asked a clerk if she could help me find an item. She rudely answered “Je n’ai pas le temps” LOL

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your blog.

    • David Billa Post author

      Hi Edith,
      Thanks for stopping by.

      Concerning US food, I’ve had this discussion countless times, but I understand that you may have not seen it (and I’m not even sure where to direct you on the blog either πŸ˜‰ ).

      In short:
      First, remember, California is not really the US. πŸ˜‰
      During my time in the country, I spent time all over the East Coast (more or less minus New England) and lived in West Virginia and Florida. But it’s really not about the restaurants, it’s about food in general, and especially the one you buy and eat at home… In the US everything is processed, full of sugar, oil palm and whatnot. Meat is just gross (thanks growth hormones), vegetables and fruit have no flavor and lots of shit added in them too.

      So, sure you can find good food in some restaurants (usually the pricey kind), but that’s just a little thing, that’s not representative of the state of food in the country. But even restaurants, a mediocre restaurant in France will be as good as a “good” restaurant in the US.
      It’s really a cultural thing. Food is just not important for Americans, not like it is in France and a bunch of other countries (Italy, most of East Asia, etc).

      Note, that here, I’m only talking about the food, not the service and such (once again, it’s not about the restaurants, it’s about what a general population put in their stomach and how they put it there).

      “more Americanized but not in a good way”
      Is there a good way to be more Americanized? πŸ˜‰

      Concerning service, it’s complicated.
      As I said, it really depends on situations, the way one deals with people and all that. Sure, service is much better in the US and even better in Japan, but in France I must admit that I like how clerks and other employees don’t have to be your lackeys just because you throw money at them. That really bothers me in the US (and to a lesser extent in Japan). I believe French people are right when they think that an exchange of money shouldn’t dictate how you behave with someone.
      Now, sure, some could be friendlier, there’s no doubt about that. Usually when French people say that Americans (or Japanese people) are hypocrites because they’re friendly with people they’ve never met and for whom they don’t have positive feelings, I underline that French people are no different when they’re unfriendly with people they’ve never met and for whom they don’t have negative feelings, and that the former makes everyone in a better mood and as such is preferable.

  • msmezzo

    this was very interesting. Having spent a lot of time in both Japan and France, it was interesting to read your impressions. One thing I am very curious about. You write “if I compare to the time when I lived in the US, where I could spend months without eating something that tastes remotely good”. Why are you eating such bad food in the US? Do you only go to fast food restaurants, or don’t cook at home? Of course you can eat poorly in the US, (just like in France….or Japan) but you can also choose to eat very well. It’s a choice.

    • David Billa Post author

      Hi MsMezzo,

      About the food thing, I just responded to Edith just above.
      To add a few things, of course eating well is a choice. A choice I make as often as I can, and in the US, I don’t think it ever was an option.

      And of course, I’m comparing what is comparable, that is home food with home food, restaurant food with restaurant food and even junk food with junk food… And US food always loses these comparisons.
      It’s really something that’s in the culture and in education, even physical education, most American people’s palates sometimes don’t even know what good food is. For example, when I lived in Paris, I often took American people I knew (mostly friends visiting and students studying abroad for a semester or two and that I was taking care of) to dinner, and their mind was blown by food that I considered just OK. Or on the opposite, they sometimes wouldn’t be able to really appreciate more complex and subtle favors that require a certain education.

      But really, it comes down to the way the culture apprehends food. If you’ve spent a lot of time in those three countries (France, Japan and the US) you’ll know what I mean.