I studied abroad in Southern France during the Spring 2016 semester, and there were a lot of things I experienced in the first few weeks that I didn’t expect when I was planning my semester abroad. I took several French classes before I left, so I knew the basics, but one of the great things about study abroad is that you get to learn things about the culture that you can’t get out of just learning in a classroom. There were far too many times I experienced culture shock in the first few weeks to share all of them, but there are a few things that stick out in my mind when I think back to what surprised me the most once I arrived.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in France was how small everything was. The cars were small, the streets were narrow, and the buildings were close together. The people in France are used to navigating the tiny streets with their cars while pedestrians amble about in the middle of the street, but that didn’t stop me from being terrified the first time I rode in a car in France. Every time my bus went up a narrow street on a steep hill, I got very nervous, at least for the first few weeks. As with everything else, I didn’t think much of it by the time I left.
Speaking of narrow streets, another big area of culture shock for me was the sidewalks, or lack thereof in some cases. The sidewalks were just as narrow as the streets, and were often part of the streets in the center of town. I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, where there is a lot of pride in the historical look of the town. While this is definitely one of my favorite things about Aix, it also meant that the sidewalks were often very uneven, riddled with potholes, and even had trees growing through the pavement. Needless to say I really had to get into the habit of watching where I stepped, a habit I never had to think about walking the relatively smooth sidewalks of UK’s campus.
Pet culture was huge in the city I lived in, so I always saw several people out walking their dogs when I went into town. When I first arrived, I was shocked by how well behaved the dogs were. They were very often off-leash, but never ran up to strangers or bothered other people in any way. Unfortunately, there were also many stray dogs, including one that often walked home with me when I got out of class. The large number of dogs in town also meant that there was a lot of dog poop on the sidewalks that people were not always careful about picking up. Although this really grossed me out when I first arrived, it was also one of the things I got over very quickly.
The last big culture shock I had upon arriving was the dining culture in France. In America, I was used to eating dinner early in the evening, eating quickly, and leaving relatively soon after I arrived at a restaurant. There are many things I could talk about regarding the differences in French and American restaurants, but the thing that I was most unprepared for was simply the timing of the meals. I was prepared for the differences in the types of food and the ways of paying for and ordering food, but the differences in when I ate was something I didn’t even think about before leaving. Most of the sit down restaurants in France don’t even open until 7 or 7:30pm and meals can last for several hours. The first time I went to a restaurant in France, I was confused when the waiter just left us to talk for hours without even trying to bring us the check, until I looked around and saw that everyone else was sitting for hours as well.
Culture shock can make it a little harder to adjust to your new culture, but it goes away quickly. A few weeks into my exchange, I had already learned to adapt to new habits and a new lifestyle. Most of the things that seemed most shocking to me when I first arrived I thought very little about soon afterwards.
Caitlin Smith is a senior at the University of Kentucky studying French and Sociology. She studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France during the Spring 2016 semester.