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 meteofrance.com, 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!

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Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In January 2010, I started focusing more on teaching and learning languages in general. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at the university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling (though now my trips are usually in Australia) and being an American abroad.

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My Say it in French phrasebook and Great French Short Stories dual-language book (both published by Dover Publications) are available at Amazon.com.

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