Postcards from Abroad: The 5 different stages of culture shock

Lucy is a History & French student (no, not just French History), spending her year studying at Paul Valery University in Montpellier. A self-proclaimed Brunch Queen, she enjoys music festivals, yoga and Hugh Grant films. After living in South Korea when she was younger, Lucy loves visiting new countries, but has no sense of direction whatsoever. Lucy is freakishly organised, and is compared to Monica from friends on pretty much a daily basis. Lucy is enjoying the relaxed coffee culture in France, however is struggling to adapt to life without Yorkshire teabags.

The Leeds’ pre-Year Abroad meeting covered how to overcome the initial culture shock of moving to France, to which I chuckled at: How different could France be from the UK? We’re only separated by 20 miles of water, we share a Western European identity and we can hop on a train to pass between the two. You would think that a Brit abroad in France wouldn’t face as many cultural challenges as, say, a Brit abroad in China. That may be true, but I have faced many cultural “challenges” here in France, and as the Leeds Study Abroad Handbook warns, one can expect to experience 5 (yes, 5) different stages of culture shock. These included Honeymoon, Distress, Re-integration, Autonomy and Independence.

After immediately falling head-over-heels in love with the beautiful weather, quaint little streets and charming culture of Montpellier, even after a few days I noticed many differences from life in the UK, much to my surprise. The first of which was the totally different pace of life here in France. As a considerable-sized city, I thought that the buzz of Montpellier wouldn’t be that different to a major city in England. I thought wrong. One of the most annoying/challenging things about living France is the opening hours of shops, banks and post offices. Or lack thereof. Shops close about 5pm, as well as often closing for lunch from 12-2pm. And don’t get me started on Sundays in France, where most (if not all) cafes, shops and restaurants are closed. I obviously completely understand this is so the French can spend the day with their families (and rightly so) but when you realise you don’t have any milk to make that much-needed cup of tea, or any food for dinner, Sundays become a problem when every single supermarket is closed.

Equally, the politeness of Brits is a well-known stereotype, but I have found it to be completely true, especially as patiently queuing and stepping aside to let people pass are behaviours lacking entirely from French society. I genuinely find myself on a daily basis resisting from giving painfully-slow walkers in front of me a gentle shove to hurry them along, and now understand where the saying “Vite! Vite!” (Quick quick!) comes from… because the French move at a glacial pace. But it’s all part of the chilled way of life in the South. No one’s in a hurry to do anything or to go anywhere and it’s the perfect atmosphere in which to spend a year abroad.

During this Honeymoon period, I dedicated most of my energies to immersing myself in French culture. By this, I mean the main cultural aspect for which France is known is, of course, its food. It’s not just the beautifully buttery brioche, the fresh market produce and the cheesy deliciousness that is French brie, but also the way in which the French eat. In England, for lunch, you just grab a quick sandwich or salad, but in France it’s perfectly acceptable to order a steak and chips – even at University, where you can spot the Brit in the canteen, as they’re the one not eating a sandwich. There is no word for fast food in French, purely because it’s not something they actively engage in. There is no English version of Bon appétit, a phrase said routinely before eating, even if it is just a croissant. I was once eating an apple on my way to Uni, to which a stranger walked past and proclaimed ‘Bon app!’ The French are so passionate about the cooking, eating and sharing of food, and we enjoyed partaking in this element of their culture, of which they are so proud. I remain baffled by how the French manage to stay so slim when all they seem to do is amuse their bouches with copious amounts of croissants, cheese and wine, and am still amused every time I see a French person walking through the streets with a half-eaten baguette.

Despite riding on the wave of bliss that was the honeymoon period, the early signs of distress manifested itself in the hurdle of the language barrier, of which I hadn’t quite anticipated in such force. Almost daily, I would begin conversations in French to which I was answered in English. The French revel in the opportunity to practice their second language, due to the increased popularity of English and American culture in France, whereby everyone is watching the same American and TV shows and films, which are available in cinemas in English simply with French subtitles. English music is played everywhere you go and you need a basic level of the language to get even the most basic of jobs. This was ideal for British tourists, but not British students who want to learn to speak French.

University enrollment was another shock to the system, I had never appreciated Leeds’ VLE so much, after spending the first few weeks here traipsing from building to building looking at the paper timetables on the walls, from which you chose your modules, Equally, toilets that are quite literally holes in the ground will never be okay. Yes, they do have holes in the ground at my Uni and no, I still haven’t come to terms with it and no, probably never will.

So. Reintegration. After a brief re-acquaintance with the comforts of home, it was back to Paul Val Uni and back to enduring couples snogging in lectures (yep, really).After two weeks back in the UK with friends and fam, I wasn’t too excited at the prospect of returning to France, but re-fell in love with Montpellier and its beautiful blue skies. This is when I experienced the next stage of adaption: autonomy, and found myself adopting various French behaviours, saying ‘bonjour’ and ‘bonsoir’ to everyone I could, watching Le Meilleur Patissier rather than the Great British Bake Off, and even enjoying wine. And it was then, that I realised that I’d adapted to le rhythme Montpelliérain and that French culture wasn’t such a shock anymore. In fact, living in France taught me that it’s perfectly normal to say hello to strangers, if you don’t get something done today you can just get it done tomorrow and that there’s no such thing as too much cheese.

The final phase of the 5 stages of culture shock has been, by far, the most rewarding – independence. Though there are days I come home from University wishing I’d never moved to France and just wanting to speak English, watch Made in Chelsea and drink tea, there are also far more days where I wander around the city feeling incredibly lucky to be living where I live. There’s something so liberating about living in a different country and the ability to just say yes to countless opportunities and weekends away – none of which I would have been so easy if it wasn’t for living in France.

I would fully recommend doing a year abroad to anyone, given the chance. Just remember that ‘culture shock’ is a very real thing and that sometimes it is okay to just crave a roast dinner and a decent cup of tea.I know by the time June rolls around, I won’t be at all ready to go home. And if I keep consuming wine and cheese at my current rate, I’ll need to be rolled home.


Lucy xxx



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