In my experience, British people tend to think that they have France nailed. Many of us have been here on holiday at least once in our lives; and almost all of us have learnt French (badly) at some point in school. The channel may put a reassuring obstacle between the two countries, but on a clear day we can eye each other across the water, and France is not so far away that we can’t pop over for the day to stock up on wine, beer, cheese and chocolate. Failing all of that, the French, with their diminuative stature, their fondness for baguettes and garlic, and their irascible striking habits, feature regularly in our newspapers and on our screens. The French may be different, but that difference is reassuringly quantifiable, familiar, and well-documented.
This familiarity meant that, when I moved to France with my young family in January 2013, I was not overly daunted. It would be novel, of course, to go to the boulangerie each day for a baguette, but what middle-class English person has not secretly dreamed of having croissants on tap? And yes, the prospect of regular transport strikes was hardly enticing, but surely the French tendency to down tools had been exaggerated by the tabloid press and, in any case, I had it on good authority that it went hand-in-hand with an admirable tenaciousness with regard to long lunch breaks (with four courses and wine) and month-long holidays in August. Lyon was further from London than Manchester, to be sure, but that distance was what gave the move its exotic charm.
Since our arrival we have all worked extremely hard at integrating ourselves into local French life. Some of the differences we feared (driving on the right, and the strange school hours, for example) have melted away; and some of those we looked forward to (the wonderful food) have turned out to have their drawbacks. Broadly speaking, French culture is as we expected it to be but, even a year on, it is in the minutiae of daily life that we find ourselves, suddenly and regularly, completely lost.
This blog is intended to chart our navigation of the millions of tiny cultural differences and the joy, frustration and insight that they bring to us.