Getting Used to Being an American Abroad (and Realizing that 30 Degrees is Hot)

The weather has been gorgeous in France this past week and I’ve been looking at the forecast everyday hoping that the sunshine sticks around for a while. Yet every time I watch the météo on TV or check the prévisions on, I always have to stop for a moment and convert the Celcius degrees to Fahrenheit so that I will know the “real” temperature. Even after 4.5 years in France, I am still not used to talking about the weather in Celcius because it just seems so… unnatural to me.  I’ve finally memorized some conversions (30 is hot enough for me to go swimming, for example), but I still cannot convert automatically and instantly in my head.

But is 10 degrees cold?

Yesterday while we were driving home from grandma’s house, David asked about speed limits in the US and after the requisite “it’s different for each state” line that I have to say for everything concerning US laws, I immediately started rattling off numbers in miles per hour, which of course meant nothing to David. Unlike North American cars, mainland European cars have no use for an odometer which includes both miles and kilometers, so I had to use a conversion app on my iPod to give him the equivalents in kilometers per hour.

Makes driving to Canada much easier

So that got me thinking about other small changes that Americans who live or travel abroad have to get used to, because the US just has to be different from everyone else. Not only is it Celcius for temperature instead of Fahrenheit, or metric measurements instead of customary, but also:

  • writing the date in day/month/year format instead of month/day/year: personally I like the logical progression of smallest to largest, but at the same time, I like knowing the month first because that’s how calendars are designed
  • using the 24 hour clock instead of AM and PM: it seems like only the military uses the 24 hour clock in the US but everyone uses it in France, for public transportation, flights, opening hours, work or class schedules, television programming, etc.
  • chip-based cards with a PIN instead of the swipe & sign type: this is major headache for American tourists trying to use any machine in Europe without cash (or coins in France since few machines take bills*); barely any American banks or credit unions offer chip & PIN cards, though Travelex now does even if the exchange rate is not that great
  • 1 and 2 euro/pound/dollar coins instead of bills: even though the Government Accountability Office wants to switch over to at least the $1 coin, I don’t see it happening any time soon for the same reason excuse a change to chip & PIN cards won’t happen anytime soon – too many machines and cash registers to upgrade even though coins last longer than bills and chip & PIN cards are more secure than swipe & sign cards
  • manual cars instead of automatic: I never learned to drive a stick shift because my family didn’t own any by the time I was 15, and my driver’s training class would only teach us how to drive automatics. Learning to drive a manual transmission was a hassle where I’m from, just like trying to buy an inexpensive automatic car in France. Most rental companies in Europe don’t have many automatic cars, and if they do, they are usually those weird cars that can be driven as either automatic or manual but that don’t have much acceleration power, don’t shift into reserve when they’re supposed to, and roll back when stopped, like manual cars. (I have never had a good experience with renting automatic cars in Europe!)
  • inconvenient opening hours: there may be some 24 hours grocery stores in Paris, but most stores/pharmacies/post offices/hairdressers/museums where I live close for lunch between 12 and 2, close for the day by 7pm, and are definitely not open on Sundays. Banks are generally closed on Mondays. Library hours are completely sporadic. Drive-throughs for ATMs or mailboxes are extremely rare, though they are common for fast food restaurants. Even many restaurants close down between lunch and dinner so you cannot eat a late lunch after 2pm or early dinner – by French standards – before 7pm

On the other hand, there are many differences between the US and Europe (or more specifically, France) that are easier to get used to and come as pleasant surprises when compared to America, such as finding out that going to university doesn’t have to cost a small fortune (only 300€ per semester), health care is NOT reserved for the rich, extensive public transportation and train networks are quite convenient, separation of church and state actually exists, incoming calls are FREE on cellphones as well as many outgoing calls when it’s landline to landline (or any phone in the US/Canada), and you can’t just buy something because you want it even though you don’t have the money for it which prevents you from going into debt and losing your house.

For foreigners visiting the US, it almost seems like adjusting to these changes is easier because chip & PIN cards can be used as swipe & sign cards so there are no problems when trying to pay for something (except for those ridiculous minimum amounts that certain places require for debit or credit cards), automatic cars are easier to drive plus the cost of gas is much cheaper (compared to $9 a gallon in some parts of Europe), and stores that are open 24 hours a day and on Sundays are much more convenient for tourists who have limited time to see and do everything they want while on vacation.

So my fellow Americans, anything major that I missed? Canadian friends, which ones are the same up north? And for the non-North Americans, anything else that you have to get used to while in the US?

* Tip: In France, you can find change machines in major post offices and video arcades, which are usually connected to movie theaters, if you need/want coins instead of bills. You can always try asking for change in stores or tabacs, but don’t count on them to help you out. The train station in the town where I live won’t give change even if you just want to use the machines in the train station!

  • Thanks for posting this, Jennie. All of this reminds me why I will probably never live in Europe long term. I love Europe, don’t get me wrong, but I really do love American culture too! It didn’t hit me until I came home after teaching in France. I almost didn’t want to return to go teach in Spain. I did enjoy living in Palma de Mallorca a little better than in Dax, France!

    • I know what you mean. I don’t think I can live in Europe for the long term either. I miss a lot of American stuff, even simple things like temps in Fahrenheit, but mostly just because it reminds me of home and it’s what I grew up with… an nostalgia!

      • MilkJam

        Fahrenheit may be nostalgic but is not exactly logical!! Switching to C was the first thing I adapted to, very easily actually. Rather then spending my time on the internet to find out the weather (didn’t have internet my first 2 years) I would watch tv – by watching the news and then experiencing the temps the next day I was very comfortable switching over (although I can’t convert from F to C even though I understand both).
        Same with kph and mph, driving made it easy to understand both. As to learning a stick it just takes practice, I learned here so am living proof!
        It’s all about using things on a regular basis and not constantly converting everything.

        • Anna

          I always just remember 0 is freezing, 10 = 50F and over 30 = f’ing hot and I just sort of fudge the rest (I can convert exactly if I have a calculator or pencil/paper).

          • Easy for me to say, since I grew up with Celsius anyway, but I imagine the secret is indeed *not* converting, just observing what the temperature is and what that feels like. Much like after a while you stop converting prices from euros to dollars (that also has the handy side effect of warding off insanity over how expensive everything is and how little people get paid).

            Many of the other things you listed apply elsewhere other than the US (other than the metric system and the chip cards and the date). Although you seem to have taken things to a whole new level over there – drive-through mailboxes?!?

            One thing I had to get used to coming from NZ is looking left, not right, before crossing the street. It takes a while before that comes naturally and you stop looking in all directions in a panic! I haven’t even tried driving yet, I did take extra lessons in a manual car before I left home, but to be honest I’m pretty crap at it…Oh and parallel parking – I never had to do a real reverse-in parallel park in all my years of driving at home!

          • We have drive-throughs for everything. American don’t like to park and walk somewhere. lol At pharmacies for dropping off prescriptions, at movie stores for dropping off rental movies, at liquor stores for buying beer (yes, sadly), at regular restaurants for picking up take-out food. Anything to make life more convenient and to be able to get things done faster.

          • We have drive-throughs for everything. American don’t like to park and walk somewhere. lol At pharmacies for dropping off prescriptions, at movie stores for dropping off rental movies, at liquor stores for buying beer (yes, sadly), at regular restaurants for picking up take-out food. Anything to make life more convenient and to be able to get things done faster.

          • Buzybuzy

            How about shading some light into the ridiculous differences of the emergency service in the States and France (911).

        • I’m too obsessive-compulsive about knowing exact numbers to not convert though. Approximates aren’t good enough for me and my maniaque brain.

    • Jesus

      lol ‘American culture’. Surely that’s an oxymoron? 

  • Ellen Francois

    RIGHT ON for these comments, Jennie. I would also add that when an American is living in France, it’s difficult to get used to giving priority to the car on the right, even when the car on the right is turning from a very small street onto a large thoroughfare. Have had some near-misses because of this!

    • Ha, yes!! I will never get used to priorité à droite! It’s so illogical to me. I really don’t see how it’s supposed to slow down traffic and prevent accidents when so many people just ignore it anyway. Luckily I don’t think it’s all that common outside of France.

      • Samantha

        This got me thinking – did you learn to drive a manual transmission Jennie when you lived in France? Like you my dad had an automatic when I learned to drive, so that’s what I have my license in. I have an advantage in that I understand in theory how a manual works and have driven it before – but it’s been a long time. My disadvantage is coming from Australia the thought of learning to drive a manual and on top of that on the opposite side of the road with ‘priorite a droit’ thrown it… Makes me tempted to spend my life on public transport if I ever move permanently to France lol

        • Nope! I still haven’t learned how to drive a manual. It took me 3 months to find an automatic car in France, but it was worth it. Driving there was already stressful enough – I didn’t want to make it worse with a manual car!

  • Really interesting points! I would imagine having the reversed problem with the Fahrenheits and miles. I have a few questions: is proof of identity required in the US when paying with a card? Also, you have to PAY for incoming cell phone calls??

    • Bob

      Proof of ID is not always required. Usually stores will only ask if you did not sign the card (most don’t even check that) or a card was turned down for some reason. Could be expired.

      Yes, incoming calls on cell phones are charged. But, most carriers allow free calling to cell phones within the carrier. I.e. Verizon to Verizon customers are not charged at all.

      • I don’t think same carrier calls were free when I still lived there; that’s good to know!

    • Yeah, cell phones are all based on overall usage minutes so it doesn’t matter who dialed and who answered. It’s pretty annoying when you’re used to free incoming calls!

  • What I love in the US and that we don’t have in Quebec is 24 hours Super Walmarts 😀

    • Walmart hasn’t taken over Quebec yet? I thought they were everywhere by now!

      • Super Walmart just started opening and there are not that many 24hrs, not around MTL at least 🙁

  • At first it shocked me that eggs and milk aren’t refrigerated in grocery stores. I was really grossed out initially but got over it quickly.

    Also it was a hassle the first time I went to Casino Geant and had to weigh my own fruit and vegetables and print out a sticker. Now that I get it, I actually kind of enjoy it!

  • Anonymous

    I find that the massive selection/variety of things in grocery stores in the US is very disconcerting after spending time traveling or living overseas…it is overwhelming to go to most stores here in the US because there is just so. much. stuff. My last expat posting was in Singapore, which is a city/state that is certainly ‘into stuff’ so the shock wasn’t as great when I returned…

    I am able to adapt to kph and C temps rather quickly because I think in terms of fast/faster and warm/hot anyway 😉 and to this day I keep the dd/mm/yr convention in my writing…

    I don’t know if it is still true, however, when I was living in Australia it was always ‘strange’ to me that the landline local phone calls were charged per call on the phone bill ! at the time there was no bundle type of phone plan, and overseas calls were horrifically expensive (cell phones weren’t ubiquitous, and the ‘net was mainly in-company email when I was first posted overseas)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and allowing me a chance to share some memories !

    • Anna

      Totally agree on US grocery stores. The first one I came back to was the sort of “ghetto” one and even it seemed HUGE and bright and way over-stocked. I mean just look at the toothpaste section – I think there’s such a thing as too much choice.

    • jterbush

      I’m in Australia at the moment, and yes, they still charge for “local” calls on the landline. Luckily we can bundle now though… so I pay a flat rate each month, which includes broadband internet and $50 worth of local, national, mobile and 13/1300 calls. Overseas calls are still not included though.

      One thing I do miss from the US, though, is the unlimited (wireless) internet access I had in college. Most plans here are expensive, and are capped as to how much data you can use in both peak and non-peak times, which gets annoying.

    • I can see how the amount of stuff in stores in the US could be overwhelming. On one hand, there is more choice, but on the other, do we really need 93 types of cereal?

  • Zhu

    Canada uses the metric system, although we tend to use pounds instead of kilo and “feet” as well as “meters” (probably the US influence). I have trouble with F and tend to use Celcius, otherwise I use both systems.

    I hated driving a stick shift in France and love automatic transmission. I wonder why French don’t adopt it…

    The clock different never bothered me.

    I always forget that there is no mail delivery on Saturday in Canada, and it’s actually strange considering WE is sometimes business as usual in North America. Oh, and that “pharmacy” in Canada also sell junk food. It just didn’t look “serious” to me at first.

    • Some parts of the US are also stopping mail delivery on Saturdays, which seems really strange to me. With such a huge population, it seems like there would be a need for it, especially since a lot of people work on weekends and not having mail on Sundays is bad enough for those who work 7 days a week and need to get things done. But the postal service is losing too much money and can’t pay their employees so I can understand why.

      I actually thought it was strange that pharmacies in Europe *only* sell medicine and a few other things! I was so used to a pharmacy (or drugstore as I call them in the US) selling tons of stuff, from makeup to food to toys for kids to holiday decorations.

  • Jane

    One thing you didn’t mention that my French friends who are here in the US have mentioned is letting other people bag your groceries. Apparently, they don’t like having a bagger bag their items because they do not bag the way my French friends would like and use way too many bags. I don’t know if that’s something you had to get used to, Jennie, having to bag everything yourself….

    • Ha! Ah yes, I am going to have to write a huge post on grocery shopping in Europe. So many differences!!!

      • Lorianne

        YES PLEASE!! I’m hoping to start being an au pair in France in September (2013). I have visited the South of France for 1 month two summers ago and found many differences but reading all of them from personal experiences is awesome! KEEP IT COMING! Love the blog right now

  • Anna

    Don’t forget RDC-1-2-3-etc instead of floors 1-2-3-etc. Back here I still get a kick out of 2nd floor meaning only one flight of stairs. I drove a semi-automatic and the rolling back thing was freaking me out lol. And then if it’s in reverse it rolls forward. Hoping to learn manual sometime before going back…

    We did get screwed with telecommunications in general big time. Internet, cable, landline plus an ok cell plan all for under 40-50 euros plus no charge for incoming? WTH USA?

    • I still complain about the RDC thing in France and how it’s labeled 0 in elevators. How can a floor be a 0? lol

      It does seem like the US is pretty bad when it comes to phone/cable/internet. That’s definitely one thing that is way more expensive in the US compared to France. But at least there are no data caps like in Canada and Australia. Plus the lack of SIM cards in phone makes them pretty useless overseas unless you want to pay outrageous roaming fees.

  • Counting on your hand is different here, you start with the thumb, so I always think people at the market are giving me a thumbs up, lol.

  • Nadine

    Directions! In the US it’s North-South-East-West everything, in Germany it’s Highway 123 in direction [major city], and in France it’s just a mess I thought. Some streets have numbers, some have names, but most often they have several numbers and names that changes without warning depending on who knows what. A GPS is desperately needed there I thought! All roads lead to Paris, that’s often the easiest one to figure out!

    • Yes! Driving in the US is so much easier. I hate trying to figure out stupid European roads that don’t go in a straight line and change names and don’t have good signs for telling you which way to go. I don’t know how they chose numbers for the highways either, but yeah using directions instead of cities would be much more helpful!

      • MilkJam

        At the same time I find it SO helpful in towns that you always have a “toutes directions” sign, when in doubt follow that and you’ll find a sign to get you where you’re going!

      • femmedunord

        Again, older, New England cities and towns are just like that and our street names even in smaller places like Burlington, Vermont do change half-way through.

    • femmedunord

      It’s not easier in the US if one is from older cities like Boston where the cardinal points are simply not concepts used for directions.

  • Anonymous

    Jennie…I’m wondering what you’re ‘seeing’ on the street there (so to speak), about the ban on (burqua clad) face coverings ? Hopefully you’ll be blogging about that soon 😉

    • It doesn’t seem like a big deal here. I’ve just seen one or two things on the news about people in Paris. But really there are only like 2,000 people in France out of the what? 65 million? who live here that cover their faces anyway. The police aren’t allowed to remove the veil and the women just receive fines of 150€ which a few have said they don’t mind paying for being able to practice their religion. If men are caught forcing a woman to wear it (and how the hell will they catch them or prove that?!?), then they will be fined 30,000€ and there might be jailtime.

      I also don’t really know if the law just refers to Muslim women or if it’s written like “any person covering their face in public” – on one hand, it doesn’t seem like they could discriminate against a religious group (but the government does discriminate openly against gypsies…) so the wording may be the second one, however, what does that mean for people who just had surgery on their face and need to keep it covered to heal properly? Or what about wearing surgical masks to prevent breathing in pollution or germs? Or what about Carnaval and wearing masks and costumes?? And if it is against Muslims in particular, what happens if a non-Muslim wears a veil in solidarity? She’ll only be fined if she’s Muslim? Ugh, such a stupid law!

  • Yes the US has to be different!! Strange. I can’t stand anything non-metric. The US also does not use “metric” paper that is the “A” system – A5, A4, A3 etc. It also uses 110 volts instead of 220 volts.

    Since I’m from Australia I’m glad that (according to your list) everything is almost the same as in France. We don’t pay for incoming calls and have chips in our credit cards. The differences are that we drive on the left hand side of the road and don’t use 24 hour clock.

    Regarding dates, I actually prefer the system of year-month-date. It’s far more logical to me and that’s how I name my photo folders on my computer so I can sort them chronologically.

    • I actually prefer A4 paper now. It does make more sense that A3 is twice the size. I hate that legal size paper is not twice the size of letter.

      Canada and the Caribbean islands also use the same paper and volts at least, so it’s not just the US. Actually I think temps in F, non-metric measurements, and no $1 coins are the only things that are strictly American. Canada is pretty similar to us in a lot of ways.

    • I actually prefer A4 paper now. It does make more sense that A3 is twice the size. I hate that legal size paper is not twice the size of letter.

      Canada and the Caribbean islands also use the same paper and volts at least, so it’s not just the US. Actually I think temps in F, non-metric measurements, and no $1 coins are the only things that are strictly American. Canada is pretty similar to us in a lot of ways.

  • banlieusarde

    As a Canadian who did the assistantship last year there was nothing to get used to in terms of temperature or the metric system. Although they do use cL in France to measure liquid, which we don’t in Canada. I always had trouble in bars while ordering beer cause I was never really sure what the sizes were.

    The way the number 1 is written in France, with a low swoop, was kinda weird. I usually cross my 7’s any way (and so do the French), I never really understood why they did it. Since France I’ve taken to swooping by ones but I could near bear to swoop it as low as they do in France. They look like upside down V’s!

    As for the money/payment methods aspect, Canada is starting to get the chip pin. Over the last few years all the new cards I’ve gotten have the chip and I’ve been getting replacement ones in the mail for my old ones.

    One of the things that boggled my mind most in France was how their credit cards aren’t actually credit cards. I had a debit card for my bank account but decided to get a credit card so I could buy plane tickets online. At my appointment, the banker explained to me that you could only use the amount of money you had in your account. I was incredulous. I asked her what the difference was then between a debit card and a credit card. She said having a credit card just meant you could buy things online and build a credit rating (based on what I don’t know.)

    I sense some animosity towards the North American style credit system in the post. But I am a firm believer that if they are used properly, the credit card is an amazing tool. Before the economy took a hit, interest rates for high interest savings accounts at mostly online banks (ING Direct, President’s Choice) were at about 4% per annum. Back then I would charge everything to my credit card, leaving my money in my savings account to collect interest and pay off my credit card bill just before the due date. Every month I was at least making a few dollars of interest on my account. As long as you paid your bills on time, it was an easy way of getting money for nothing.

    • I love my credit cards. I’ve never actually bought anything that I didn’t already have the money for, so I’ve never paid interest and it’s mostly a way for me to build up good credit and keep my money in my ING account for as long as possible too. I remember when the interest was over 4% a year. Those were the good ol’ days… Too bad there are so many people who abuse credit cards and give them a bad name. I just think the US is way too lenient on who can use credit cards and who can live on credit, and therefore in debt, for their entire lives.

      I hate the way numbers are written in French too! I had to get used to crossing my sevens or else everyone thought they were ones.

  • H, Cover

    I’ve found that I just don’t convert. It’s the same as the language. I don’t translate everything I hear to English, then figure out what I’ll say, then put it in French I switch over. Same thing with temperature, Euros, and speeds. I don’t have to know what it is in the US, I just have to know what it feels like, how much I have vs. how much I want to spend/save, and how fast I can go. So, I just “switch” over.

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