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Ten Things You Notice When You Arrive in France (Both Cultural and COVID-Related)

Everything could have been different this summer, but France actually feels pleasantly familiar and oddly normal.

And what could have been boringly normal actually feels extra special, rare, exceptional—sitting at a table on a café terrace and having a drink, seeing Mark play with other kids, taking the train, going to the beach, hugging relatives and even just seeing people in the street.

Sometimes, I wonder if 2020 is a marketing strategy that spiralled out of control, like some kind of viral campaign designed to make us rediscover and appreciate life’s little pleasures that went way too far at one point. Don’t you feel the same? I mean, a year ago, ordering a soda, then sitting down to enjoy the drink with a friend or two wasn’t that unusuall, was it?

Even though I’m French, going to France is still a bit of a culture shock, especially during pandemic yearMC.

The elephant, Île de Nantes, July 2020
The elephant, Île de Nantes, July 2020
The elephant, Île de Nantes, July 2020
The elephant, Île de Nantes, July 2020

In France, you’ll notice…

… Seriously old stuff. Not “Subway, established in 1965” but “Mark, look at this wall, it was built in year 270.” Not a typo, by the way—you can still see parts of the first Gallo-Roman walls in Nantes close to the castle, itself built in 1207, then rebuilt 1466. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Canada turned 150 in 2017…

… The familiar musical sound of Northern and Western Africa languages, including Arabic, Wolof, Baoulé and Malinke. No, France isn’t being “invaded” like far-right political parties claim. It’s just that in my corner of Canada, I’m more likely to hear Cantonese, Vietnamese, Somali, Hindi or Tagalog.

… The smell of booze everywhere, instead of the smell of cannabis. Marijuana is illegal in France but booze is part of the culture. Across the pond, you’re far more likely to see someone smoking cannabis (legal) than drinking alcohol in a park (illegal) in Canada.

… And since we’re on the topic of smell, the smell of hot bread, butter, coffee and scented cosmetics.

… People eating and taking it very seriously. None of this “I’ll have the cheapest, tasteless stuff on the standard menu—to go, of course” nonsense. Food is seriously business here and I’m always surprised to see how tasty even the simplest meals and most basic ingredients are.

… So much variety in stores! In North America, you have quantity but just the illusion of choice. Supermarkets are huge but three aisles are dedicated to breakfast cereals and chips, two to sodas, one to sweets and you’re left with few options to actually cook a balanced meal. I never get tired of the endless choice of dairy products (yogurt, cheese, etc.) and local brands widely available in France.

… Pedestrian-friendly cities where everybody is walking to go places. There are more people, bikes, tramways and buses than cars.

… A different way to handle the pandemic, compared to Canada. French seem to be talking about le confinement, i.e. the strict 55-day stay-at-home order from March 17 to May 11, as a thing of the past. Sure, COVID-19 is still around but as far as most people are concerned, life goes on. The atmosphere is less “we’re all doomed” and more “remember these two months? Crazy, eh?” as if everything was over already.

… Contrary to what the news and social media report, I find French do comply with restrictions and new rules. I took the subway and the train twice and absolutely everyone was wearing masks, as required. Same in stores. This is purely anecdotal and yes, you’re likely to hear “where the fuck is my mask already…” in front of the supermarket but I have yet to see anyone rebel.

… France apparently secured an endless supply of hand sanitizer because it’s everywhere. All stores actually require customers to use some before stepping and it seems more widely used than in Canada.

A "stay-at-home" sign left in a bakery, Nantes, July 2020
A “stay-at-home” sign left in a bakery, Nantes, July 2020
Île de Nantes, July 2020
Île de Nantes, July 2020
Château des Ducs de Bretagne, Nantes, July 2020
Château des Ducs de Bretagne, Nantes, July 2020

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