Gemma – Exchange to the Catholic University of Lille, France
Semester 2, 2016
As a sociology minor there is something so fascinating about moving to a new country and absorbing all that it has to offer. Each culture, population or nation has so many intricacies and differences that are at once strange, adorable, off-putting and eye-opening.
I have been living in Lille, North France for about two months now. I have finally settled into a routine and have had enough time to process the similarities and differences between here and ‘home.’ A few things have struck me as bizarre and worth discussing.
Smoking: I suppose the thing that most shocks an Australian living in France is the ever present smell of cigarette smoke. We even have scheduled smoke breaks throughout class! As a non-smoker myself and having been brought up in Australia where it is drilled into us from a young age how bad it is for one’s health it is a rather overwhelming social norm. Coming home from nights out it is mandatory to air your clothes overnight!
Driverless trains: Honestly the only thing that runs on time in France are the trains – and that is because they are driverless, automatic and run on a two minute cycle! Lille is really well connected by public transport and the train system is fantastic. You don’t need to worry about schedules or timetables as every two minutes another train will come along. The first time I used the metro was quite scary as I wasn’t a fan of the sensor operated trains – ghost trains – they have no driver and pull up and leave rather quickly.
The kiss: The classic French greeting kiss ‘La bise’ is at all times confronting, overwhelming and really requires the social rewiring of your brain. Every time I am introduced to someone new I automatically extend my hand to shake theirs and they lean in for the kiss and its awkward all round. I am told that the amount of kisses and which side of the cheek you kiss depends on the region – an interesting concept if you are from the North of the country and try greeting someone from the south! A French friend tried explaining to me that when I leaned in to give him a greeting hug he felt uncomfortable and I was invading his personal space and I struggled to make him understand that when he leaned in to kiss me I was the one who felt uncomfortable!
Co-ed Bathrooms: I could live in France for the next ten years and I still don’t think I could ever get used to mixed gender bathrooms. There is something not ok about during a lecture break and you washing your hands as your professor talks to you from the urinal.
The nightlife: Lille is by definition a university city and the population supposedly goes up by about 100,000 people during the Semester! As imagined this atmosphere creates for a vibrant nightlife. What I do find interesting is the police seem to close off about 4 main streets and create somewhat of a safe/party zone within the main bar/club district. With so many people and not a lot of seating space the crowds spill out onto the streets and Lille turns into one huge street party. All the bars serve drinks with plastic cups and it’s just such a crazy atmosphere! It really is the ultimate house party. In terms of safety I have never felt unsafe – however it is questionable once you leave the police barricades.
The running late/laissez faire attitude: Laissez faire is a French word and I’m sure they invented the concept. In a social context it is used to describe an aura or attitude of care-free-ness. The French don’t seem phased by much – I once thought the Australian way of life was rather laid back but the French have it down to a fine art. They love enjoying a glass (or two) of wine after uni and an extended lunch! It has taken me a while to learn that when my lecture is supposed to start at 10am, chances are it will start at 10:15, and it is ok if I am late, as chances are the lecturer will be late also.
The coffee: As a uni student coffee is a staple part of our diet; until moving to France I didn’t realise how Australia is a land of coffee-snobs! I suppose in Melbourne we are spoilt for choice – but the 50c coffee machines certainly have nothing to commend them. The French make brilliant quiches, tarts, pastries and their wine is to die for but honestly their coffee – needs improvement!
Baguette culture: The baguette phenomena never fails to make us laugh – every lunch time out on the grass outside uni students sit in big groups eating their baguettes. There are baguette shops on every street corner and more often than not there is a long queue. For three euro and a multitude of fillings you can’t go wrong – it is just amusing as we really thought it was a stereotype – but it is not uncommon to see people walking everywhere with baguettes tucked under their arms. Bread is bought fresh daily from one of the many bakeries (boulangeries).
Weird opening hours: In France one must adjust one’s schedule to allow for odd opening hours. The French as mentioned before love a long lunch and it is not uncommon for most shops to close for two or three hours throughout the mid-afternoon.
The wine: Another shock upon entering a supermarket are the aisle after aisles of wine. Whole aisles dedicated to whites, reds and roses. It is shocking! I stopped and asked an employee for a dry white, not too sweet and he literally gave me a 10 minute run-down on how to choose a good white! Upon arrival for our orientation we even went to a wine tasting and they taught us all about the various wine regions throughout France!
The security: Due to recent events and the fact that the State of Emergency has been extended the French remain on high alert. At uni we have special security passes that need scanning to gain entry to the buildings and our bags are checked at everydoor. I went to the mall the other day and got the full pat down by security! Unfortunately this is the way of the future – for now anyways. It is clear that the recent events throughout France has really shaken the psyche of the nation. As an Australian we are not really exposed to weapons in public but I am growing accustomed to seeing hordes of military on street corners with their automatic weapons slung over their shoulders.
It is truly fascinating drawing comparisons between another culture and your own. Not only have I been learning lots about the French way of life but I have learnt so much about my own country in which I thought was so normal – but I am only now learning is perhaps not quite so!