Culture shock in Nice, France
by Anastasia Sotiropulos
Phoebe is studying Politics and French at Exeter University, and is spending her year abroad as a Language Assistant in a lycee in the centre of Nice in France. Here are her observations of the cultural differences she has experienced, from bar etiquette to schooling, in Nice, the second-largest French city (after Marseille) on the Mediterranean coast...
The Alpes-Maritimes offers a diverse landscape. In between working as a language assistant, one of my aims of the year is to take advantage of the €4 ski bus that goes to Isola, a ski resort which is only an hour away in an attempt to learn to ski!
I am lucky to have been placed in such a beautiful and unique area of France, yet there were a few aspects that I had not envisaged. At first, it’s easy to perceive cultural differences in a negative light. However, you do get used to cultural quirks and before long, you may find yourself wearing increasing amounts of black and having 7 different varieties of cheese in your fridge to go with your standard glass of wine every evening...
1. The love of balladsFrance is not world-renowned for their music - most people would be hard pressed to name a current popular French singer. I for one would have only been able to name Carla Bruni; sadly only as a result of her role as Sarkozy’s first lady, and not for her singing career. However, due to Chirac’s law ensuring at least 40% of the music played on the radio is in French, the music to be heard is usually the arm swaying, eyes closed, mouth-wide-open-singing-one’s-heart-out ballad. As a lover of underground, electronic music and a scene akin to Britain’s many summer music festivals, I was not overwhelmed with joy when confronted with the many Johnny Hallyday–esque music acts along the Riviera.
However, there is a reason for the difference. Even in late October, the Mediterranean climate allows you to sit outside a bar sipping rose late into the night (I feel more sophisticated each time I partake in late night rosé sipping!) In Britain, we take comfort in sheltering inside clubs from the cold wind and rain that autumn brings. Possibly partly due to a more similar climate to the UK, you can find a more diverse, bigger music scene up north in cities such as Paris or Lyon.
2. The love for blazers and blackOr preferably, black blazers. French fashion is undeniably chic and sophisticated. You will not find any quirky, colourful Urban Outfitters or Topshop wearers as much as in the UK. At the moment it is hotter than a (rare) sunny British summer’s day. As a result, I made the mistake of wearing to my first week of school, light floral dresses and sandals, which I thought were appropriate for the weather. Having BRITISH stamped across my forehead would have been less obvious.
Consequently, darkly-clad French school children, wearing the Zara autumn collection of black suede wedge boots and leather jackets looked me up and down in horror, asking ‘n’ êtes-vous pas froid madame!? Ce n’est pas l’été!’ As autumn colours have come into stock, wearing anything resembling even a trace of summer will make you a look like a blatant Brit on the continent, and not the chic Francophile you aim to be whilst on your year abroad!
3. Bar etiquetteOne of the most amusing things I have found since being in Nice is seeing many of my British friends make the mistake of going to the bar to order a drink, and not waiting for come and be served (I only avoided making that faux pas because of witnessing them doing it before!) Many bartenders have looked genuinely confused at being asked to serve a drink at the bar. I imagine this is partly due to the daytime cafe culture in Nice, which extends to lazy evenings/nights sitting outside in the same spot in the Old Town. I also believe the lack of a binge drinking culture contributes to the trust between bartender and customer. I’ve been on a night out when I have been out for many hours until past midnight, racking up a hefty amount of drinks with my friends, without even being brought the bill!
4. T’es une VÉGÉTARIENNE!?!Being in Nice has been the biggest temptation of my life to start eating meat. Telling a French person that you are a vegetarian brings the biggest wide-eyed amazement, similar to the reaction you would get if you revealed an extra arm under your jacket!
Carrefour, Casino, Monoprix... I have searched them all. Yet you will not find a ‘vegetarian’ section in a supermarket, and I doubt ‘quorn’ exists in the French dictionary. I love cooking and, moreover, eating! Although I eat fish (being in France – it’s a blessing that I do to be honest!) going out to eat in one of Nice’s many restaurants brings major temptation with the lack of vegetarian option and such well cooked and interesting meat dishes. Being on the coast, seafood is a speciality, which is lucky for me! It doesn’t bother me at all as apart from meat, I will eat virtually anything. Just don’t be surprised to go to a restaurant and not see one vegetarian dish on the menu.
5. Schooling systemAs a language assistant, the difference in schooling systems has come as one of the biggest shocks to me. On an obvious level, I did not expect there to be such a lack of IT equipment in classrooms, although this is by no means a disapproval. The most eye-opening difference has been the strict curriculum that is followed, which focuses on preparing students for a set career path for the future, depending in what stream they enter. If pupils fail a year, they have to move down. Conversely, bright pupils are moved up levels without hesitation. It came as a shock to find myself teaching a ‘terminale’ class which consisted of an age range of 16-22.
Compared to the UK, there is little encouragement of creativity. This became evident when I did a job interview role play exercise with a class. To make the role play more interesting, I told them to pick any job in the world: perhaps the President for example... I was met with panic-stricken faces and all pupils ended up choosing to be a PA, waiter, or banker! I have no criticism towards how focused most of the pupils are towards finding one career path, and there are exceptions, but I feel as if the French schooling system leaves little to creativity and nurturing special cases due to France’s perseverance of its ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ ideology. Égalité is truly sought after; the education system is undeniably fair and all pupils do the same work as everyone else in their class, but the truly mixed ability has left me having to adapt lessons for bored, higher-ability students as well as lower-ability students struggling to keep up with the level of work.