From Paris to Cardiff – My personal experience of culture shock

 Even though I am familiar with culture shock and the way it influences your mindset -I lived in the US for a year-, I still have moments when I stop and reflect on how strange or how admirable the Welsh are. Here are a few examples of my most memorable culture shocks here in Cardiff.  

 Described by the Cambridge English dictionary as “a feeling of confusion felt by someone visiting a country or place that they do not know”, culture shock embraces a more positive view in French. “Dépaysement” -the feeling of being outside of one’s country or region- is seen as a luxurious feeling that is typically experienced when vacationing abroad or in a different region…

What I love about Cardiff

1/ The city is extremely green, both figuratively and literally. The city’s effort towards recycling is outstanding – I am thinking of food waste caddies (aren’t these the cutest types of bins you’ve ever seen ?) and the surprising amount and variety of objects you can actually put in your green recycling bag. Plus, the lush green sceneries of Cardiff’s parks and their fluffy, perfect grass, always make me feel good. I actually love it when it rains, pours, showers, or drizzle –and I also very fond of these English phrases that offer slight nuances that we do not find in French- because I know that it will bring on more greenery… I could spend hours watching squirrels, and I am always on the lookout for one when I am near a tree. Since grey squirrels cannot be found in France, I am always amazed when I see one here. The grass is always greener on the other side as they say !

2/ Croeso i Gaerdydd ! Cardiff is a bilingual capital, and you will find that almost everything is written both in English and Welsh. Whereas more than forty per cent of the population spoke this Celtic language at the beginning of the last century, the number drastically decreased to nineteen per cent in 2011. The Welsh Language Measure of the same year advocates “Promoting and facilitating [the] use of Welsh and treating Welsh no less favourably than English”. As a fervent advocate for bilingual endeavours and foreign language acquisition, I cannot but applaud these measures, which I am sure protect as well as foster Wales’s culture and old age traditions to new generations of Cardiffian/Caerdyddian.

3/ I love the mix of different styles of architecture that can be found in the city. From Victorian inspired terraced houses, Norman Castles, red brick buildings to the many Victorian and Edwardian arcades in the city center, Cardiff offers a walk through time.

4/ The Welsh are very nice, and they love to chat. Being called “love”, “lovely” or “beautiful” by cashiers or co-workers is also both very surprising and endearing –and not to mention very flattering ! I would like to start saying it myself to people and I think I will do it after a few months when my confidence level has increased. I was also surprised when my new Welsh banker offered me to get me a cup of tea or coffee –it was almost five o’clock. The only time I was offered a drink in France during an appointment was at the hairdresser’s.

5/ Cardiff is a multicultural city, where you can find fine cuisine from many countries in the world. From fish and chips to Peruvian rotisserie chicken, Indian sweets, refined kebabs and Thai street food, my palate is on cloud nine !

What I am not very fond of in Cardiff and what I (did not expect to) miss in Paris

1/ Fitted carpets everywhere. I do not get it. I am not really a cleaning maniac, but I still think it is not very hygienic, has no aesthetic value (even if it is more comfortable when you are bare footed) and should definitely not be everywhere in a house. Do Welsh people love fitted carpets because it makes the floor less slippery, or have they kept the mediaeval habit of putting carpets everywhere to keep the warmth in their Castle?

2/ Many shops and facilities close very early, even on the weekend. If you finish work at four pm, you better hurry if you have errands to run ! Most shops close from four to five pm, six pm at the latest. Even bars and restaurant close down quite early too, probably because British people eat much earlier than us continentals. How can they eat at half past five ? The only advantage that I can think of is that they are less tempted to eat a snack before dinner. On one of my first days here, I ate at six pm and then later woke up famished at eleven pm. Then on my first visit to a typical Welsh pub, the kitchen had already closed at nine pm. No surprise breakfast is so important –you cannot not be hungry after so many hours spent with an empty stomach. Lunch, on the other side, is not as sacred as it is in France, where we like to take our time to enjoy three courses meals (with the entrée first, the plat principal, a choice of cheese and then dessert).

3/The way people drive here is –pun intended- driving me mad. Mind you, everyone agrees on saying that driving in Paris is a pain. But here, many details –notwithstanding the driving on the other side of the road- annoy me. First of all, jay walking is extremely dangerous since cars can come from both ways ! Looking to your right and left when you crosswalk is then absolutely necessary. Even though people here drive pretty smoothly, I am under the impression that they are also quite aggressive, in the sense that they rarely stop or slow down to let pedestrians walk across the road, whether they are waiting on a designated zebra crossing or not. In France pedestrians have the priority, whether they are waiting to cross a road or they are already starting to walk, and drivers can lose points on their driving license if they do not completely stop to let them pass. Here the zebra white paint on the ground is also very rare, which do not make crossings very safe nor very visible ! To cross a road, you will have to push a button. A signal will let you know when it is your turn to walk and you will have to look to your right to see the green light. You will have approximately ten seconds to walk –I tried to count the seconds in my head when I realized how short the allowed time for pedestrians was, and how long the wait was ! Sometimes the green light is right ahead but they are mostly to your right, so you will have to look at the cars too, which would not be such a bad idea if you did not have to rush as soon as the signal is heard. However, I also think this system benefits blind and visually impaired people since the signal is quite loud and the white painting on the ground is often replaced by small bumpers.

4/Let’s talk about cheese now, and I mean real cheese ! Apparently the French have more cheese varieties than anyone else in the world, so that would explain why we are so picky when it comes to these delicacies. Let’s just say that the seemingly tasteless plastic-looking orange cheese that we found here did not make us very happy. And the absence of grated gruyere in supermarkets is just rude. But I am teasing, because I intend on trying every local Welsh food product that I can find -including local cheese- even if I do not buy them a second time…

5/ The other volunteers and I came across many bins with lids that do not open automatically –usually, you open them by stepping on a pedal with your foot. I really do not like these bins because they are not practical and not very hygienic since you have to touch the lid. It may just seem like a small detail but it makes all the difference when you use it every day.

Hélène Chaland, ESC Volunteer in Cardiff 2019/2020