My year abroad: The one with the French culture shock

Posted on: 17 April 2020 by Emily Holtom in 2020 posts

Photo by Nicolas from Pexels

After being in France for a few weeks, the initial excitement of moving to another country has started to dwindle and is instead being replaced with a sort of limbo-like feeling. I officially live in France, but I’m still not quite used to the complexities of Rennes life and culture. The things that were exotic and fascinating at first now seem confusing and disorientating. We were warned about experiencing culture shock in Liverpool’s pre-departure briefings, but it’s only now that I’m realising that that’s exactly what this comedown is. To help new travellers out, I’ve prepared a list of things to look out for, things to be warned about and things to get you hyped up about going abroad:

This article was written prior to the social restrictions imposed following the outbreak of COVID-19.


This sort of goes without saying, but if you’re going to a different country then you should definitely expect to have to speak the language. It’s incredibly mentally tiring to begin with (your brain is working overtime to keep translating after all), but after a while it’ll become much more natural and you’ll stop noticing how often you use French without thinking. The French in particular are quite precious about their language, so do use it as much as you can. But if you’re really struggling, just ask the person to speak a little more slowly and explain that you’re not from around here. They’ll understand.

Do be warned though that classroom French is much different to street French. This was another of those culture shocks that hit me even 6 months after living here. I still struggle to understand the slang and speed at which some people talk outside of university, but I suppose that’s the same for the different areas of the UK. And I got along with Scouse just fine.


Expect food to be different. What you consider to be gross might be considered a delicacy in other countries (I’m looking at you, escargot), but don’t make a sing and a dance about it. You don’t have to wolf down every new and exotic thing you see, but you might be surprised at how tasty these things can be if you give them a chance. Your favourite snack might not be in stock, but there are plenty of other tasty things for you to experiment with.

La Bise

Since being here, I have discovered that the whole cheek kissing debacle that the French love so much is actually so much more confusing than you’d think. Area to area the number of kisses changes, social etiquette of when and where is appropriate to do it shifts and no one can ever seem to categorically explain these changes and why they exist in the first place. If you’re meeting a French person, I’d just take the lead from them and laugh it out if it goes wrong. You’ll soon pick it up.


I couldn’t talk about French culture shock without talking about the French love of going on strike and protesting. Now I’ve been on my year abroad at a particularly turbulent time of year for France, and it’s not unusual to have large scale protests and strikes 3 times a week. Just prepare yourself – they can get pretty intense. I’m talking riot police and everything. So you might want to stay in for days like these. They’re normally very considerate and announce the strike days a few days early so you’ll know when to prepare for those duvet days (websites like will quickly make their way into your favourites tab). Just for goodness sake keep an eye on public transport at these times. The last thing you want is for your lovely day trip to be ruined by being stranded in a random French city because the trains home have all been cancelled.


It’s common knowledge that the French don’t work on Sundays, but I didn’t quite realise what this meant before I came, so I’ll clarify: the French DON’T WORK ON SUNDAYS. There might be a few little restaurants and bars open, but you’d be incredibly lucky to find a corner shop or supermarket open for you to grab dinner. The streets are near deserted and even the tourist spots close. Plan of action: big shop in the week, stock up for Sunday, accept that you’ll probably spend the day in bed.


The French take their lunch veeeery seriously. I’m talking an average of 2 hours lunch break every day. So if you need to head to reception or go to the bank or want to go swimming, avoid the middle of the day because it’s likely that no one will be there.

In fact, normally a French lunch is much bigger than a French dinner. We’re not talking just a baguette and some crisps. We’re talking a baguette with all the sandwich trimmings, a selection of cheeses, some side plates of pasta salad, multiple yogurts, bit of fruit, panacotta, caramel crème and a partridge in a pear tree.

In the next entry to Emily's blog series, she'll discuss the specific peculiarities of Rennes.

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Read the previous entries of Emily's Year Abroad blog.

Study in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Liverpool.

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