The Minutia of Living in France Part 2: My Cellphone Debacle and Other Shopping Insights

I can’t believe yet another week has gone by since I’ve moved to France. I was talking to a friend on video chat the other day about how my sense of time and space has drastically changed since leaving the US. On the one hand, I feel as if time is moving more slowly because it takes me about three times the amount of time to do day-to-day things as it would in the US. On the other hand, I feel as if time is moving more quickly because it takes me so long to get things done. For example, I might go grocery shopping, go to the bank, and read through my mail—I’ve learned that French banks, phone companies, and insurance companies love sending hard copies of every statement, agreement, and confirmation by mail. Before I know it, the afternoon is over and I’ve barely accomplished a thing (if we’re going by my US pace of life). It is as if I’m in one of those time lapse scenes where I’m standing still and everyone else is going about their lives and is moving quickly around me.

Of course I would be remiss not to acknowledge the culture shock factor. I admit I am probably in the midst of it. I don’t think I’m following the Lysgaard’s proposed U-curve of cultural adjustment* to a tee, but I do feel as if my last three weeks in France have been full of ups and downs. The only way I know how to deal with it all is to remain positive. I have to laugh because things that I never would have considered accomplishments in the US are suddenly huge victories for me in France. I managed to find a grocery store and feed myself, huzzah! And although in some ways that is kind of depressing, in many other ways, I am so glad to have taken myself out of all that I know and dive into an unknown. It’s as if I’ve been told to go up a mountain in a manual car having only ever learned how to drive an automatic and the only thing I know I can count on are my wits.

Side note: This could literally happen seeing as manuals are the standard in Europe and I really only do know how to drive automatic. But don’t worry, I’m not planning on taking any road trips anytime soon.

In any case, if anyone is interested in how I’ve been managing my life in the last 3 weeks, here are some of my insights about shopping in France.

*For more on Lysgaard’s U-curve, read his original publication here starting on page 45. I’m not a psychologist, but from what I can tell, Lysgaard’s work in the 1950’s was a launching point for studies on cultural adjustment. Since his publication there have been many others who have studied and contributed to the subject.

Going Shopping

Cellphone Service

I am a planner by nature. This comes in pretty handy most of the time, but what I’ve come to realize is that there are always going to be things in life that you cannot plan for. The following account of my adventures in cellphone service illustrates this idea.

Before leaving the US, I knew my US cellphone plan has unlimited international text and data, so I wanted to keep my number with them. I did the best that I could to pick a cheap French phone service before going to France. From what I could tell on the internet, most expats agree that Free is the best value for the price. Unfortunately for me, Nancy does not have a brick and mortar Free store and I would have had to purchase a plan through a vending machine type kiosk or online, which requires a French address and bank account. Ironically, getting a French address and bank account requires having a French phone. How very chicken and the egg.

On my second day, I decided that getting a French phone number was the first thing on my priority list. I would just get a cheap pay-as-you-go phone. The thought of getting a Free SIM card via vending machine sounded intimidating to me and I wasn’t sure that they sold cheap flip/brick phones either, so I decided to walk into the first other major provider I saw in Nancy that had customer service agents. This happened to be Orange.

I bought a SIM, brick phone, 5 euros worth of credits with the option to recharge minutes for a grand total of 33 euros. I remember walking into the store and not even knowing the correct French terminology for what I was looking for, but thankfully the customer service people were friendly and patient as I described what I was looking for in broken French. I walked out of the store with a working French number that would allow me to apply for a bank account and insurance. All seemed well.

The problem would come two weeks later when I ran out of credits. At this point, I had already opened my bank account and I had picked up my bank card. (Yes, the bank sent me a paper letter telling me to go pick up my card in-person.) What I didn’t know is that in France, in order to make online purchases with your card, you need to register your cellphone number to your account via text, and then you’re sent a confirmation code by post to finalize the process. Sounds tedious, am I right?

Unfortunately for me, I was already out of cellphone minutes and I couldn’t use my bank card to pay for more because I hadn’t registered my phone number yet. Again, how very chicken or the egg. I figured I could remedy the problem by paying for a recharge in cash at the store. I went to the store and bought a recharge. Because I had run out of credit so quickly, this time I bought the recharge that was unlimited texts and an hour of calls for a month for 5 euros instead of 5 euros of credit thinking this would be better.

When I got home and tried to set up my bank card via text, I kept getting the message that I had no credits. How was this possible? I just bought a recharge. Turns out fine print is very important. The fine print for the phone recharge said unlimited texts for mobile and landlines. The fine print for the bank card activation said there is a 0,15 euro fee for each text. And like that, my phone recharge was essentially useless to me.

I went back to the store again and this time bought 5 euros worth of credits that can be used in any way I want. I activated my bank card and now I’m waiting for a piece of mail to arrive that finalizes the whole thing. Then, finally, I will be able to make online purchases with my French bank card.

What happened to me was the perfect storm of how things can go wrong when you don’t understand the administrative practices of a country. From my experience in the US, most customer service lines for businesses are toll free and activating your bank card/credit card for online purchases isn’t a separate process from activating it in general. The moral of the story, read the fine print, never use all of your phone credits if you have administrative things you still need to get done, and if you are unfamiliar with how things are done in France, ask a French person to explain it step-by-step.

Also, I’m pretty sure I’m switching to Free after this month’s phone debacle. But hey, you live and you learn.

Buying Food

The French are great at food, from the actual produce, to cooking, to putting it on the table. The thing I quickly realized when I got to France is that grocery shopping here is different in practice than grocery shopping in the US. Of course there was also the minor problem of me not knowing the names or locations of grocery stores, but that was remedied by a morning walk around the neighborhood and glancing at storefronts.

What I mean when I say that the practice of grocery shopping is different is that French grocery stores are not one-stop-shops like they are in the US. In the US, you can pick up your prescriptions, produce, shampoo, socks, light reading, snacks, toothpaste, and sometimes even housewares all in one place. Thanks Target and Walmart! But it’s not just Target and Walmart, I’ve noticed that even regional grocery stores in the US offer these goods and services too. And even if you’re less of a Target/Walmart shopper and more of a Trader Joe’s/Whole Foods shopper, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods usually offer more than just produce.

The closest thing they have to the American experience of grocery shopping in Nancy is Monoprix and Carrefour. These chains of stores will carry most everything you need, but if you’re looking to buy a pair of cheap flip flops, storage bins, and a tube for your bike while also getting some produce, that’s probably not going to happen. It seems like a good number of people shop at these chains, but it also seems like a good number of people still shop at specialized grocers. When I walk around the streets of Nancy there are bakeries on every corner, a healthy number of butchers, shops that just sell produce, pharmacies, and laundromats. Every store has a purpose.

Quantity of products sold is also a difference that I’ve noticed. It is true when they say that everything is bigger in America. I’ve grown accustomed to Costco-sized quantities of toilet paper rolls. I don’t typically shop at Costco in the US, but even the quantities of products sold in regular grocery stores are larger in the US. From the ounces/grams of milk, lotion, detergent, jam, pasta sauce, and juice, to the number of Oreos per package, they just sell everything in smaller amounts. When it comes to food, this is probably healthier. When it comes to toilet paper, I think it’s less convenient.

Oh, and one last anecdote about food! Being from the land of GMO foods, I forgot that grapes have seeds in them and when I chomped into my store-bought grapes I was treated to a friendly reminder.

House Essentials

Moving into a new apartment means I’ll be needing a few home-related items. It’s at moments like this that I find myself missing the relatively inexpensive home goods (plates, cups, sheets, pillows etc.) of Target. Of course, I’m in Europe, so I think there must be an Ikea around. It turns out the nearest one is in Metz, a city about 45 minutes away by train.

I’ve browsed Monoprix and there are some options, but the options are more expensive and less varied than I’d like. From what Nancy has to offer, I’ve come across several options. The Saint Sebastian mall has several smaller boutiques that have house related items, but are too expensive for my teaching assistant salary. Maisons du Monde is chain that has cute designs, but is also a bit pricey. Casa and Eurodif are probably one rung down in price and have some nice selections as well.

However, after shopping around, I get the feeling that I will probably be furnishing my life in France from which is basically the Craig’s List of France. After all, I do want to maintain a healthy travel and food budget!

All in all, I really do enjoy the process of discovering new brands and chains in France. Every once in a while, I’ll see the familiar American product, but it’s not overly obvious. I did come across an American themed boutique in Nancy, which I have yet to visit, but I am intrigued to find what French people consider to be staple American products.

I’ve planned a somewhat spur-of-the moment trip to Heidelberg, Germany tomorrow, so I might take a break from this series next week to write about Heidelberg. Who knows? We’ll see how I feel!


    • Yes hopefully we’ll see each other at orientation! If you consider slowly realizing that you overpaid for most everything when you first got here as having a good time, then yes. I’m having a great time. Haha I’m kidding (mostly). It’s all part of the adjustment period! 🙂


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