I'm as European as you can get. I lived in Greece, studied modern languages at uni, am now married to a Frenchie and living in Paris.
I have lived in France now permanently for three years. Three years of baguette buying, raw steak munching and smelly cheese tasting.
Yet the French touch still remains an enigma to me. It is absolutely fabulous in so many ways yet perplexing at the same time.
These contradictions turn daily life into a rollercoaster - lots of highs but a bit bumpy along the way.
For a start this is the country which invented the words joie de vivre thanks to its sunny climate and azure coastline, yet if you dare smile at anyone in the street it is met with a grimace. Smiling at a stranger is code for wanting something from them.
Or the place that obsesses about beauty and personal appearance but has no qualms to leave their dog's poo on a pavement. The sight of a beautifully manicured old lady in a twin set and pearls letting her pooch do its doodoo and walking off is a common occurrence.
Or the nation where everyone is equal yet everyone is judged by whether they went to a grande ecole ou non. Whatever your background French culture is your birthright. Everyone from a banker to a butcher knows the difference between chevre and camembert. For many Brits it is just cheese. But the downside is that the judgements raise their ugly head when it comes to education. There is little chance of a great job if you haven't been to a business school. What's more you need to make your career choices before you have even left school. In the UK you can muddle through a generalist, vague degree such as English and many jobs are open to you at the end. I know many classicist lawyers or physicist management consultants.
Maybe every country is full of such paradoxes but as Johnny English it is quite bewildering.
Then there is the whole subtext thing. In Blighty you say it as it is or you keep quiet, keep calm and carry on.
In France there is a veneer of words behind which the truth lies. After one
too many lunches where friends have said everything is 'top top top' (brilliant brilliant brilliant) I started to wonder if the Frenchies were super human happy beings. The idea of being honest and admitting that 'life is a bitch' is just not the done thing. This veneer is something they live with also. I have heard many women here say they don't care where their husband is at night so long as he is around the breakfast table. In Britain they would get their breakfast wrapped round their head if they had been out all night.
Brit daily life is also generally pretty simple maybe even simpleton to our Froggy neighbours.
Food is straight up and scrummy. Shepherds pie, fish and chips, crumble. To them it looks like slops. The look of food is as important as the taste. So the pressure when entertaining is unbearable. I break out in sweats weeks before. I will never forget the first dinner we had with my husband's family. I suggested a spag bol. Nothing fancy but wholesome and hearty. You'd have thought I'd suggested serving fried Mars bars. Spag bol was never, ever for guests. Then making salad I was chopping the tomatoes and cucumbers as you do. But heaven forbid I'd left on the skin of the cuke and not de-cored the tomato.
Then there's the French idea of smart and the English one. In the Uk 'I'm popping out for some milk' can be done in trackie bums, pjs even. In the posher areas of Paris you need a blow dry to even face the postman. Once we had a family lunch and I had thrown on leggings and a long shirt. I heard some rummaging in the kitchen and found my husband digging out a dress and ironing it. It goes for heels too. I only ever wore wedges in the UK. High but comfy. Here they are a major fashion faux pas. A heel is a spikey thing that elevates you high in the air. It also should never inhibit life. So heels can be worn to the park, at clubs, for shopping - in other words all the places they hurt like hell.
Then there's the obsession with doctors and medicine. In the UK its the corner shop, post office and fish 'n chippie if you're lucky. Here 'la pharmacie' reigns supreme - it's as common as Starbucks in London. Back home flu is solved by a lemsip. Over here the doctor will give you at least three medications often including a suppository. But I shouldn't complain. There are no queues at the doctor, they actually spend more than one minute on you and there is a brilliant carte vittale that gets you discounts on all kinds of medicines.
But most of all the difference I find most staggering is the humour. I remember one of my first nights out and was doing my usual arms in the air crazy dancing on a podium. It was a giggle. It was irony. But they all took me totally seriously as if I was some kind of dog on heat. Or self deprecatory comments - auto-derisoire in French - just fall flat. They actually take you 'a la lettre' and believe your opinion of yourself. Eg 'I'm such a cr@p cook, I can hardly cook an egg' means - note to self never dine with me. Or 'oh this old thing I just threw it on this morning' means yes I am a haphazard dresser. But in fairness they must feel the same. Their philosophical puns and witty remarks often drawn from deep culture are usually lost on me.
We are close in geography yet in so many respects utterly miles apart. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been easier settling in Beijing. It is as if France is yin to the Brit yang. Strong espresso for them and milky tea for us. Civilised bistrots versus our pub 'culcha'. Haute couture versus our hippy non conformism. They are defined by their education, we are defined by our accent. Everyone versus the superior one. Jean de Florette versus Downton Abbey.
Life is a challenge here but there's never a dull moment. I'm here so at some level I have chosen the yin for my yang.
One day, maybe just one day, I will ask for a latte in a classic Parisien cafe and they will actually bring me what I want. Instead of looking at me with disdain and say, "in France we drink un creme Madame" - a subtle dig that I am no longer a young thing - and serve me an extra strong espresso with a dash of UHT milk. It makes you wince it's so bitter. The coffee and the comment. But it is sweet revenge for our cheese and pickle and stewed sugary tea concoctions.
Vive la difference, vive l'entente cordiale.
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