I lived in France for about seven months last year. I was an English assistant in a small town in Southeast France, tucked between Provence and the Alpine foothills. Overall it was an amazing experience and the downsides were pretty minimal. For me, the hardest part was adapting to the rigid and sometimes unspoken rules that govern French life.L’administration (bureaucracy)The French state is a massive and occasionally benevolent octopus that reaches its tentacles into every aspect of human existence. Every state function is meticulously categorized and organized from the top down, yet the bureaucracy still manages to be comically inefficient.Of course this doesn’t have much effect on you if you’re on a tourist visa. But if you’re a citizen or permanent resident and work in France, dealing with the administration is a part-time job in and of itself. Doing anything requires stacks of documents and endless photocopies (for some reason the French state loves photocopies) sent by registered mail. The bureaucracy frequently loses or misplaces your file or rejects it for no reason, leaving you to wonder what on earth happened. Even though they may lose or burn your dossier, you are still responsible for getting your paperwork done on time and the civil servants have zero sympathy. And no, in most cases you cannot apply for your residency permit (or health insurance, or housing assistance) online. This fondness for paperwork extends into private sector tasks too, such as opening a bank account or getting a library card.In his American-in-Paris story Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik claims that dealing with the administration is the French equivalent of grueling gym workouts,“Every French man and woman is engaged in a constant entanglement with one ministry or another, and I have come to realize that these entanglements are what take the place of going to a gym where people actually work out. Three or four days a week you’re given something to do that is time-consuming, takes you out of yourself, is mildly painful, forces you into close proximity with strangers, and ends, usually, with a surprising rush of exhilaration: ‘Hey, I did it.’”I can definitely speak to that rush of exhilaration when you finally get a long-awaited document in the mail!Customer serviceContrary to popular opinion, customer service is not bad in France. Most employees take their jobs very seriously and are unfailingly polite. However, they are usually not willing to make any exceptions to rules or go “above and beyond” the way American service workers will. They do their job and nothing more, and do not particularly care if you are satisfied with their service or not. Also, service workers don’t usually consider it part of their job description to smile or make small talk (though sometimes they do at American companies like Starbucks and McDonalds).Last winter, I was returning home from a weekend in Spain and found that the only SNCF (train) kiosk at the airport was out of service. No problem, I thought, I’ll just ask the man at the ticket window to print it out for me. I explained the problem to him in my most polite French.Non, he shrugged, he couldn’t do anything but I should talk to the bus driver. So when I boarded the bus, I again explained about the broken kiosk and showed the driver my bus ticket on my phone.Non, he said disinterestedly, il faut payer (you have to pay). When I argued, he suggested I buy a ticket and contact SNCF for a refund later. I agreed, bought a ticket, and printed out my original ticket when we got to the train station. The next day I went in to my local train station, waited in line and once again told my story.Non, sniffed the woman behind the counter, it wasn’t her job to handle refunds for other stations and the person who did handle them wasn’t there. I started to get frustrated and asked her what I was supposed to do. She handed me a card with the SNCF website on it and called the next person in line.On the SNCF website, I had to fill out an application with a detailed description of the problem. I also had to scan and upload supporting documents. Altogether, I spend about an hour trying to get my 9 Euros back (it was a matter of principle, and also, I was a broke assistant). The SNCF representative who e-mailed me several weeks later was extremely courteous and gave me my money back without any apology.In France, an out-of-service kiosk was my problem. In the US, it would have been considered the company’s problem. That’s the difference between American and French customer service.Café food is kind of disappointing**Having heard all my life that French food is the best in the world, I was pretty let down by my meals in French cafés/brasseries. The food was often bland, portions small and prices high. More and more French restaurants use processed or packaged rather than fresh food. This is especially true in touristy areas, but I found it to be the case in local neighborhoods as well.A typical café plat du jour might be a small piece of roast chicken or chewy steak, mixed vegetables and a bit of artfully arranged carbohydrate (with salad before and dessert after, if you spring for the full menu). It’s a little higher quality than the food at a typical American family restaurant, but I often left feeling hungry.I remember going out to lunch with the English teachers on my first day of school. I was famished after my 3-hour train ride from Paris that morning. I ordered chicken biryani, expecting a fragrant and spicy dish with tons of rice, meat and vegetables. I got a small mound of rice shaped into a disk with a few pieces of unseasoned chicken set on top. I devoured it in three bites and found it tasteless and deeply unsatisfying. It cost 17 Euros.Also, you can’t just show up at a café and expect to be served anytime you please. Most places keep strict lunch and dinner hours (typically 12–2 pm for lunch and 7–9/10 pm for dinner). But that doesn’t mean you can turn up for lunch at 1:30 and expect to be fed—if they don’t have any free tables they will turn you away instead of having you wait. The advantage of this is when you do make it on time to get a table, you’re free to linger as long as you like. However, when visiting a new city you really have to be proactive about finding a place to eat lunch and getting there by 1 pm. Otherwise you’ll find yourself chowing down on kebabs or MacDo in the middle of the afternoon.**I do want to add that my complaint about French food only extends to midrange cafés and brasseries. The meals I was invited to in French homes were lovely. The French food I cooked myself (like tartiflette and pot au feu) was delicious. I love French cheese, baguettes, crepes, coffee and pastries. And I’m sure the food at really high-end French restaurants lives up to the hype, but I couldn’t afford to eat at those places as a poor assistant.**Villages and small towns are extremely sleepyYoung people usually migrate to big cities for university and then stay in the cities to work. Villages and smaller towns (like the one where I lived) are comprised mostly of families and retirees. They don’t have enough jobs to attract many young professionals. This is not a problem exclusive to France, of course, but it made it hard for me to meet French twentysomethings.Somewhat related—small towns tend to be dead after 5 or 6 pm, except perhaps in summertime. Families increasingly prefer to live in spacious and comfortable housing at the edge of town rather than cramped apartments in the centre-ville (old city center).Some things I expected to be downsides that were not:Anti-Americanism: Granted, I speak decent French, but I experienced almost zero anti-Americanism during my 7 months in France. And this was in late 2016/early 2021. right in the middle of the US Presidential election and the early months of the Trump administration (both of which were all over the French news). My students loved American music, movies, TV shows, fast food restaurants, clothing stores and even books. It’s pretty hard to be anti-American when you’re immersed in American culture.Grumpy/rude/unsmiling people: I was really surprised how frequently French people laugh, joke and smile. I never tried to hold in my American grin, and nobody minded. Also, people were usually quite willing to help with directions or other questions (yes, even in Paris).Stinky people: In my experience, France has no more smelly people per capita than the United States. There’s always that one random dude who hasn’t showered and really should, but he’s the exception that proves the rule because he exists in every country!