From an expat in France, a few thoughts about globalization, culture, and how living abroad has made me rethink things I never expected – including the “right” color for toilet paper.
Daniel left toilet paper with little pink flowers on it in our apartment.
I know this flowery TP is not mine because sometimes, on an entire wall of toilet paper in France, there’s just one pack that isn’t pink or flower-patterned. And I always go out of my way to find it.
It’s true what you may have heard: Toilet paper is almost always pink in France, and it’s often floral patterned. It’s one of those little cultural quirks that I love as a traveler, even though I find it ridiculous.
But back to Daniel and his toilet paper. Daniel is my virtual roommate – the Swiss professor I share an apartment with in this mountain town in eastern France. We don’t actually live together, but for the past few months, we’ve had a set-up that goes like this: He trusts me with a set of keys and we trade another set second set back and forth. When he goes to Canada or Lebanon for months on end for work, I come here to Grenoble to live in his apartment, and go to work at my French office job. When he occasionally comes back, I return to Italy and telecommute from my laptop in my living room in Milan. It’s quite a modern arrangement we have.
Obviously I met Daniel online. (Via a site called LeBonCoin, which is a sort of French Craigslist where you can find anything. Definitely look it up if you’re moving to France.) We’ve exchanged dozens of emails about dates and mail box keys, but we’ve met in person just once. We traded life stories over a beer and judged each other mutually trustworthy.
But apparently we have different opinions about toilet paper.
This is the first time I’m writing about living in France, and instead of telling you about all the éclairs I eat, or how beautiful the Alps are from my window, what I’m going to tell you first is that I despise the toilet paper here.
I was once certain I had a logical reason for this TP rage, but now I’m not so sure.
The reason was this: My practical mother made sure I learned to never buy scented pads or tampons – because (logically) you don’t want cheap perfume in or around important, delicate body parts. When I got to France, I guess I applied the same logic to the pink dye in so many rolls of French TP.
But it was so much more than that. I found the pink weird and unnecessary and just so… useless. It seemed so prissy to try to dress up something that does not need to be dressed up.
(Related: Want to experience all surprising discoveries of living with a local in foreign country? Check out these alternatives to AirBnb and Couchsurfing, including some great new options for finding homestays with locals. And don’t forget to read some of my favorite Couchsurfing stories.)
In other words, it was different and foreign, so I decided it was The Dumbest Thing Ever.
Yet I never noticed that for my entire life I’ve used scented soaps and body washes on those delicate body parts. I only even thought of this because of a different European quirk: Italian “intimate wash.”
When I moved to Italy and started living with my boyfriend (long before he was my husband), I asked him why he had special “intimate” soap in the shower.
He made a face like he was realizing for the first time that I might be disgusting.
“What do you use?”
Probably some scented, artificially colored, non-Ph-balanced, unhygienic bar of soap. Which is normal where I’m from. That’s just what I’m used to, so I don’t think about it. Even if maybe it’s no less ridiculous than pink toilet paper in France.
When it struck me as weird that I felt so strongly about toilet paper, two things came to my mind:
First was that I was probably exaggerating how important this little thing was (but that didn’t make the reaction any less automatic).
If you travel and you can just get past that “ewww / gross / weird / that’s-dumb / that-doesn’t-make-sense / that-must-be-so-unhealthy” reaction, you can start to calmly observe and learn from so many different ways of living in the world.
That’s one of my favorite things about visiting places I’ve never been (or places where I have been, but where I still feel foreign). Those places give me a refreshing opportunity to see everything – myself, my language, my habits – through a different lens.
The second thing I realized was that these are the wonderful little bits of culture that aren’t changing with globalization.
Everything in the world may seem international at this point, but the details are always local. You can book a flight or rent an apartment nearly anywhere. But the more you zoom in, the more you realize how different and diverse places still are. Not everything is as simple as it looks online.
Food is more often my topic of choice (not toilet paper) to talk about how distinct and rich and unique different cultures still are (despite globalization – hello Starbucks in Milan). To me, food is this huge, important, amazingly fun topic that is one of the most interesting carriers of culture.
But the small, less important things that are so easy to ignore probably keep me just as attached to where I’m from – and just as aware of where I’m not from. Even down to the pink toilet paper in France.
If you’re looking to understand more about French culture, I highly recommend a book called Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. It’s a readable, entertaining guide to French history and culture and how French society works. While I was living in France, I had a lot of moments that made me think, “Ooohhhhhh, just like in the book!” (The link above is for Amazon, or you can order it on Bookshop here.)
Or check out my other favorite nonfiction books that give a window into different countries and cultures.