Sarah Mann is a 39-year-old Canadian who worked in radio while living in Canada. Now based in England, she looks back at her experience as an expat in Paris where she spent several years as a “trailing spouse”. Unable to make a direct career transition from Canada to France because of a language barrier she was forced to look even farther outside her comfort zone than she anticipated! She talks about adapting to Paris life from a Canadian perspective.

What were your expectations before coming to Paris?
I think, like a lot of people, I had a very “Hollywood” view of Paris. My previous experience was only as a tourist so in my mind Paris was a lot of leisurely afternoons in cafés, wine, the Eiffel Tower; all the things you see on postcards. There wasn’t any waiting in line at the supermarché while someone writes a “chèque”, or lining up at 7am at la Préfecture.

What do you think are/were the impressions the French have/had of you?
Well, obviously I can’t speak for them necessarily, but I will say that most assume I’m American. I can understand why. I sound very American to everyone but Americans! But when I clarify that I’m actually Canadian, many people are very happy to break into a story about their last visit to Montréal, or their cousin who lives in Ottawa. There are a lot of French folks in Canada apparently!

Could you give me a couple striking differences in culture that you experienced?
First and foremost the biggest adjustment for me was the French definition of personal space versus the Canadian definition. It took a while to realize that people were not running into me or standing too close to me on purpose, it wasn’t meant to be rude or aggressive. They’re just used to living “on top of each other” here in Paris. In Canada we’ve got nothing but space, even in our urban centres, so I had to make an effort not to feel invaded when someone behind me in line was breathing down my neck!

How did you cope with it?
The more I observed the more I understood it wasn’t personal. They weren’t just walking on me; they were walking on each other as well! (laughs)

What other differences did you experience?
Well, aside from having to stop wearing my yoga pants to the grocery store I’d say the social formalities were intimidating. I (naively) didn’t realize France came with so many rules! Having never lived outside Canada prior to this I didn’t know how “casual” our culture is relative to Europe. Things like greeting every shopkeeper, saying hello and goodbye to people on elevators, and thanking everyone for everything all the time – even if they didn’t actually do anything. Oh, and kissing people even if you’ve never met them before!

Learning all these small but important social cues took observing the interactions of others while out and about, but also a lot of mistakes on my part. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes! And now these interactions not only come naturally when I go back to Paris, but I feel like a better person for adopting them. When I told my friends back home that I would greet my boss with a “bise” after vacation they thought I was odd. But like I said, what was at first intimidating is now what makes me feel comfortable.

Because initial social interactions in France are essentially scripted. And I don’t mean in a bad or artificial way, but that they are always the same. You always know what to expect when you’re meeting someone. It makes approaching new people easier because you’re all working from the same script.

Very good! You are Frenchified now!
Well, I am more now than I was before for sure! It still feels as though I stumble through things now and then. I like to say, “my Canadian comes out.” Whenever I run into something I don’t quite understand, the difference now is that I have French connections who can explain it to me.

Such as?
Why do clothes dryers never fully dry your clothes? Why does “no” sometimes actually mean “maybe?” Why does salad come after dinner? Why isn’t anything spicy? Where are all the blueberries? And why can’t I have my coffee and dessert at the same time?

What would you consider to be the biggest misconception about France or the French?
The impoliteness. Canadians have a reputation for being a polite people, and while we certainly aren’t awful, I’d say there is a lot we can learn from the French! We could stand to benefit from the polite greetings when entering or leaving shops, the frequent use of Mademoiselle/Madame/Monsieur, and even taking a moment to do a polite exchange before getting down to business at work. The first line in my emails now is always a short courtesy line, not my request/expectation/need! And to be fair, I have to add that I think everyone could benefit from Canada’s overuse of “sorry” (pronounced sore-y.) (laughs)

What would you recommend to newly arrived expats? Any tips?
You can find anything in Paris – just not when you’re looking for it! (laughs) No, but really like anything else you get back what you put in. It wasn’t until I stepped entirely out of my comfort zone that I really got to know the city and community outside that Hollywood image. I made it a point to leave the familiarity of my neighbourhood in the 16th arrondissement to explore the other side of Paris in the 18th, 20th, and 11th. And what I got in return wasn’t just access to peanut butter, but a fuller understanding of what it means to live in Paris. I’d recommend not sticking to what is “safe” and familiar, don’t just join American or Canadian associations because that’s what feels natural. Think internationally; Paris is an international city.

How much of a barrier was the language for you?
I know as a Canadian I should have a bit of a French advantage, but the truth of the matter is sadly not all Canadians speak French. So I actually found that language was both my biggest obstacle and my greatest asset to figuring out where exactly I fit within Paris.

How come?
I had a difficult time, at first, learning how to live day-to-day in Paris with my weak French. But being an Anglophone in a French speaking country meant I knew the distinct group I fit in: fellow international English speakers. Like I said, not necessarily other Canadians or Americans, but Australians, Russians, South Africans – people from everywhere who are away from home and have French as a second or third language.

So language has acted as more than a communication tool?
It’s how we identify each other, relate to one another, and bond. On Sunday I taught the Quebecois word “toque” to a group of Australians, French, and Italians! (By the way, it’s the knit-cap with a pom-pom on top that you wear in the winter.)

So what is it to actually live in Paris as a Canadian according to you?
It’s the ability to live the “Hollywood Paris,” the knowledge to live the authentic Paris, and the guts to live just as yourself in Paris. I’m not Parisian, I’m from English Canada, I’ll never be French (Canadian or otherwise) and that’s okay! Paris is big enough, diverse enough, and the Hollywood image is just malleable enough that you can fit in exactly how you are – there’s room for all of us. Even us English Canadians who speak terrible French!

If you had to summarize your experience in three words what would they be?
Difficult But Unparalleled…

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Sarah’s experience is what we call an “intercultural process”. It is her ability to balance expectations by appreciating new things and distancing herself from her own value system — in turn accelerating her adaptation to French life.

Her adventure, like any other intercultural process, is based on embracing the differences between the world you are from and the world you are now living in. No matter how different your new environment happens to be from what you may have expected, successfully adapting is just a matter of maintaining objectivity, openness, and appreciation for all the new things you will experience daily.

Forget your preconceptions. Forget your rules. Let go of your restraints. Be open. Do not be afraid of losing yourself in the experience. Avoid getting caught up in comparing your old world to your new world; the richness and authenticity of your intercultural experience lies in the difference, in that special space between the two.

Paris, a city of revelation, will make you a citizen of the world!