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The Same… Just Different

The Slippery Slope, Ottawa, October 2011

Thanks to globalization, no matter where you go these days, you will probably experience a lesser culture shock than the great explorers did a few centuries ago. Familiar brands and franchises took over the planet and local customs and lifestyles were exported well beyond their original boundaries. You can find Chinese food in Peru and enjoy an American burger in China, wear a Japanese kimono in Paris and watch the latest Bollywood hit in London.

But it’s not always the same. Or rather, it’s the same… just different. Here are a few examples between France and North America.

I’m French, so bread is a staple for me. It took me a while to appreciate North American bread though. Okay, scratch that—I’ve never liked what people here call “bread”. To me, bread has crust and crumb. It can be made of rye or wheat and sometimes even has fancy additions such as walnuts or poppy seeds. Bread is bought fresh daily and devoured fast.

What North Americans typically call “bread” is what French call “pain de mie” (pan bread) or “pain américain”. These thin slices of white or brown bread are soft and crumble easily. For some reason, kids here apparently like to have the crust cut off, while French kids love to nibble on baguettes’ hard crust. Go figure.

Pickled gherkins are another story. In Canada, monstrous slices of this vegetable are often offered with deli sandwiches. I had no idea what it was until I made the connection with the French cornichon, and realized it was the same vegetable, just a different species. In France, cornichons are small, crunchy and very sour while in North America, gherkins are big, spongy and sometimes sweet or pickled with dill.

On another topic… I skipped a lot of physic classes back in High School so all these voltage and frequencies stories kind of went above my head. I did notice plug sockets were different—in Canada, they look like little smiley faces, in France there are two big round eyes (and that’s exactly the kind of basic observations that did not give me full mark on physic tests in High School!).

I didn’t care much about voltage when I moved to Canada. I mean, as long as we have power, why bother? And we do have a lot of hydro, we even sell it to our southern neighbours. All I had to do was to find a plug adapter and the French laptop I brought in 2004 worked just fine.

But as I discovered a few years later, voltage has its subtleties. In 2008, while on a trip in France, I bought an electric epilator in France—you know, one of these wonderful instruments of torture that pull the hair out. I brought it back to Canada, plugged it into the adapter… and for the first time realized what it meant to use a different voltage, e.g. 220 V in France and 120 V in Canada. Oh, my epilator still worked… it was just torturing me more. Instead of spinning fast, the rounded barrel on which were mounted tiny pairs of tweezers opening and closing at different interval was running very slowly so you could feel each hair being pulled out. Ouch. It kind of defeated the purpose.

Still on the topic of electronics, note that France and Canada use different keyboards layouts, respectively AZERTY and QWERTY. When I first start looking for a job in Ottawa, I was given a typing test and failed miserably when I realized the keyboard I was typing on wasn’t my regular AZERTY. Note that a lot of bilingual people use the Canadian Multilingual keyboard layout for typing in both English and French (with proper accents) easily.

Finally, let’s talk about clothes shopping. Both sides of the Atlantic have a lot of stores and brands in common but you will have to get used to a new size system. Typical dress sizes in France go from 34 to 44 and in Canada it is 0 to 14 or 24 to 34. In theory, a French 40 is a US 10 but in fact, no conversion chart will give you a correct equivalence. I find sizes in France invariably smaller, not to mention that I’m pretty sure clothes are cut differently. For instance, I find that when you go up and down a size in pants in Canada, only the waist is bigger or smaller. Thigh and leg width don’t seem to change. Maybe it’s because women have different body types across the ocean?

How about you? Did you notice these little changes when traveling or living abroad?

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