The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.
Today’s subject on Abroad Life talks about how her love for French from a young age helped her decision to move to France 8 years ago. She talks about the culture shock she experienced her first few months there, how the French society is classist and the similarities between the French and Nigerians.
When did you leave Nigeria?
I left Nigeria in 2013. I moved straight to France.
My relationship with French grew over the years. I remember being interested in the language straight from primary school even though it was just “Bonjour” and “Ça va”. In secondary school, I was one of the few people that chose French as my elective. Though I didn’t really like my French teacher, we used a projector and had media elements like music and movies, so the classes were less boring. I became more interested in the language over time and started summer lessons.
I never really thought about moving to France.
I worked in a telecommunications company shortly before I left Nigeria, and we had some clients in Brazzaville. Everyone knew I could speak French to some extent so when we had to send a representative for a two-month program, they sent me. When I was there, I realised that my knowledge of French was better than I’d imagined and decided to move to France for my masters in telecommunications. The culture shock when I did move was… well, shocking.
My expectations of “abroad” were the things I’d seen on TV about the UK and America, so I expected lights and loud noises and bling-bling everywhere. I was wrong. I moved to Paris, and once I got past the awe of the Eiffel Tower and all the other stuff and settled in, I realised that the French are classy. No loud colours or over-energetic scenes, just people going about their business.
How was settling in?
It was hard. It took me a few months to transition from my expectations to my reality. Learning things about the new culture was tough. For example, in Nigeria, you go to a bank and someone attends to you. Even if they’re not solving your problems immediately, they’re making you feel important because you’re a customer. Here, you get to a bank and they tell you to book an appointment with your account manager before you can be attended to. If you don’t know who your account manager is, they’ll tell you to book an appointment on the website to find out who your account manager is.
Here, the customer isn’t king. The service provider is king and the customer adjusts to whatever they do.
In restaurants, they take their sweet time. You can’t go to a French restaurant and expect to get food quickly like you would in a Nigerian restaurant. And you have to wait. If you complain, you could be asked to leave.
All of these new experiences helped me understand that I was seeing the entire world through the same lenses. I had to quickly learn that different countries have their different behaviours, cultures and accepted ways of doing things. I couldn’t say “Oh, this is how Europeans behave.” or “This is how Africans behave.”
Was it easy for you to integrate into society after your master’s?
After my master’s, I had to quickly unlearn the Nigerian “go-getter” attitude. People don’t want you to be in their faces, introducing yourself, throwing around your CV and putting yourself out there. You have to do things subtly. They’re not even friendly with people they don’t know in the first place, so you have to build their trust.
What did that mean for you in the job market?
It wouldn’t have changed much because there’s already a system in place that decides the types of jobs you get based on the school you went to. In France, the school you go to and the course you study are two major important things that every employer takes into consideration.
No matter how skilled you are in a field, if you don’t have a university degree in that field, nobody will hire you. If you like, show them all the amazing things you’ve done, they’ll ask for your CV that shows you got a university degree in that field. If you can’t provide one, you’re wasting your time.
That’s not even the most interesting part. In whatever industry you are, there are top three to five schools that are recognised. What this means is that if you didn’t go to one of the top five schools that offers your course, you probably won’t get a good-paying job.
It’s a society run very largely on classism. Everybody already knows where they stand based on the school they went to. So you know that if you went to a top-five school, your salary falls within a specified range. If you went to the next five rated schools, you can’t get jobs in certain places, and it’s impossible to earn a salary as big as the people who went to better schools. These things aren’t probabilities. It’s the official way things are done. Years of working experience in France also count for better pay.
How did that play out for you?
I didn’t go to the top 3 schools overall in the country. However, lucky for me, I went to the top 3 in my field but even at that it was a difficult 3 months looking for an internship.
In the three months when I was searching, I considered a change in career paths but that wasn’t possible as I had to have studied whatever career I wanted in school.
In the end, I got my first job – a compulsory internship when a friend took my CV and dropped it on her boss’ table and told him to hire me. Nepotism is also big in France.
How’s the Nigerian community there?
Although there aren’t as many Nigerians here as there are in Germany and even Spain, the Nigerian community here is growing. When I came here in 2013, I didn’t meet many Nigerians. But now, more of us are choosing France as a study destination. There’s also the older generation of people that do informal jobs like selling stuff like hair extensions.
It’s been eight years since you moved. Are you now a permanent resident?
I’m a citizen. France isn’t big on permanent residency. They’ll give you one-year extensions on some visas, talent visas and 10-year stay visas but not permanent residency. You have to go through a long process to apply for citizenship. I did, and now I’m a French citizen.
What’s the best part about living in France?
The beauty and peace that comes with living in Paris is pretty nice. People have a romantic idea of France about Paris and a lot of it is true. The food? The food is top tier especially the pastries. I’m at the point in my life where I can’t imagine living without access to a nice croissant or a nice baguette.
What about the people?
I think the French are very similar to Nigerians. Hearing their H-factor makes me laugh. It just jumps out.
Another thing is respect culture. The way some Nigerian languages have words that indicate that you’re speaking to someone older than you, French has the same, and the French take it very seriously. They demand respect for both age and class difference.
The French are also very proud of their country. You hear them complain about the government and the country all day every day, but the day someone from outside tries to trash-talk them, they’ll attack the person. It’s the same way Nigerians always complain about Nigeria until someone from another country says the same thing.
Is there anything you don’t like about living in France?
There’s a lot of pretences especially with issues like racism. People say, “You can’t say ‘Blacks’” or ‘Asians’, just address everyone as human”, but there’s a lot of lowkey racism that goes on.
I don’t like that people don’t have room to diversify; they can only stay in career paths they’ve chosen. It makes us feel like robots.
People say Paris is the capital of love and sex. Is that true?
Omo, there are streets where you see rows and rows of sex shops– both shops that sell sex toys and shops where “things” go down. The French are very romantic and sensual. Even in French movies, the sex scenes are much more real than in American movies.
It was in France I first saw a gay couple expressly displaying love. The Nigerian in me was shocked, but I soon realised that things like that are normal here.
What’s your social life like?
I like experiencing things, so I go to museums, exhibitions and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes, I go to restaurants and theatres. The highlight of my social life in France was when Falz came here to perform, and because my friend was close to him, we all went out after his show. It was fun club-hopping and having a nice time. Falz is a fun guy.
Must be nice. What’s one French experience you can’t forget?
The day the Notre-Dame cathedral caught fire. I was headed to the metro station when I saw the smoke. Everyone thought it was a terrorist attack but then we started hearing some banging. We ran towards the sound and when people saw that it was the Notre-Dame on fire, they threw themselves on the floor and wept. It was so painful to see. For me, it was a tourist attraction that had caught fire, but it was much deeper for them. We stood there for a couple of hours and just watched. It was truly heartbreaking.
Want more Abroad Life? Check in every Friday at 12 PM (WAT) for a new episode. Until then, read every story of the series here.