Thoughts on France, Part 1 — conversations, ordering, how to offend the locals, speaking politely and you

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This past trip to France in June was probably one of our most successful trips to date. Tina and I have traveled quite a bit together, for work and for pleasure. We  work on all our trips, because there’s such a blurry line between what we find pleasurable and our work.

This trip centered on the idea that we would travel with friends, Becky F.and Luis V.

Tina and I photographed their wedding about a year and a half ago. While at the wedding, we met some of Becky’s friends — other guests at the wedding — who own a countryside home in the Loire Valley of France. There was one of those, “You guys could stay there whenever,” kind of offers.

You don’t say that to Tina and me without the two of us saying, “We’re holding you to that offer.”

A few months ago, I reached out to Becky and Luis and said, “Remember that time when your friend offered her country home … Tina’s itching to travel.”

The Ball was in Motion

So we Facetime’d a few times and setup a trip where we’d meet in Paris and after getting over a bit of jetlag, drive two or three hours outside the city and see what that was like.

None of us had rented a car in Europe before, which is quite easy. None of us had driven there, which isn’t bad, but I strongly recommend paying for a GPS. They are incredibly helpful when navigating roundabouts and the twist, turns and innumerable exits of the Parisian highway system.

I studied in France back in college, and while it laid down a good base of language, I rarely practiced the verb tenses for polite discussion. I could talk mainly in vernacular and in the familiar form of verb tenses. My experiences were all with people my age, so slang was a big part.

So when Tina and I were on our honeymoon, I had to learn the polite form, which is more difficult than you think.

Becky also has a good base of French language, and between the both of us, we were two people who could have the rough conversational equivalent of talking to a French one and a half year old.

More like … A One and a Half year old with a Speech Impediment

I don’t speak French everyday, so often at dinners, I was off in my head trying to figure out how to order, say, a crepe with Nutella. I didn’t want to be absent from discussion, but I didn’t want to look the fool while ordering either.

There’s a likelihood that I spoke just as much French during this trip than my entire trip abroad in college. Maybe that’s a stretch, but we talked to a lot of people and my conversations ended up being a lot longer than many I’d had before.

There were times when I fucked up. But I just wanted to try. And I think it paid off. I blew off the dusty French in my head and was able to feel somewhat successful (at times) when doing it.

The first night we were at dinner with Becky and Luis, I tried to ask what the legal drinking age in France was. I was using the wrong language and our waiter looked at me like I was an alien. I tried a couple times, but I finally said, “Laissez tomber” which means, Just fucking forget about it.

Do you want a bitch slap with that salad? 

Or another time we were at dinner, and Tina wanted to double check that her salad actually came with lettuce. “Will you ask the waiter?” Tina said.

I doubted my memory for the word for lettuce, so I said, “Becky, do you remember the word for ‘lettuce’?”

The word that she responded with sounded like “Lay Twee”.

So when the waiter walked over, I said what I thought translated to, “If you please, is there lettuce in this salad?”

The waiter looked at me said, “What?”

I repeated my question.

“La truie” is the word he thought I was using.

“Do you know what ‘la truie” means?” he asked me.

“Um … no.”

“It means a female pig” and he proceded to make a pig sound, en français of course.

Lettuce, as I was reminded of quickly, is “la laitue.” Or Lay-too not lay twee.

Shut down in a Blaise Pascal of glory

But the experience that made us feel the worst and the best was when we ordered dinner during our splurge dinner while in Loire Valley at a little restaurant.

First let me explain something. Just because there’s what appears to be a restaurant in a small town with a menu out front listing all kinds of great food and options with a line that clearly reads, “Open”, doesn’t mean it’s a restaurant, that they serve food, or that they are open.

One day we wondered aimlessly. We saw a man in a doorway in front of a restaurant with a sign listing the days menu. I said, “Can we come in and eat, monsieur?” And he said, “No, we don’t serve food.

Another restaurant across from a Chateau clearly said, “Restaurant and Bar.” I asked the waitress if we could sit and eat, “No, we serve only on Fridays.” The nearest restaurant is 3 kilometers that way, and she pointed with both fingers in different directions.

I swear.

In the country side, you have windows of opportunity. First, they don’t have breakfast like we do. You can have a croissant and coffee. Or some toast and jam with coffee, but they don’t eat breakfast like we do.

Secondly, lunch is between noon and 1:30. After that, fuhgetaboutit.

You’re either going to starve or go to a grocery store, if you can find one that’s open.

And finally, dinner is served after 7:30 — if you’re lucky. It kind of works, though, because in the summer in France, the sun doesn’t freaking set until after 10:30.

We also read that most TV shows don’t start until 8:45 because most people eat between 7:30 and 8:45.

Le Raison D’etre

One night in the countryside, we were determined — as a group — to land a meal in a real restaurant. We waited until about 8 p.m., just before we almost turned into cannibals from hunger.

We drove over to one we had passed before. We parked the car and noticed three other people entering the restaurant. So we knew we were okay time wise.

We walked in and asked for a table. The waitress — who ONLY spoke French — asked if we wanted to sit near the fireplace. It was inordinately cool that night, so we said, “Of course! The fireplace.”

Like many restaurants, there was a formula meal option. For 23 Euros ($30.00), you could choose one appetizer, one entrée and one dessert or cheese option. We all agreed that we’d do that.

When the waitress came over to get our order, we said that we’d like to do the formula option.

Great.

Becky went first. She ordered the Foie Gras. Then the waitress said something we didn’t understand. It seemed like she wanted to know if we were all going to get the same thing.

“I thought we all had a choice.”

The waitress said we did.

When Becky ordered it again, the waitress looked at the table and asked something that seemed like, “You’re all having the Foie Gras?”

My brain was in knots. We didn’t all want the same appetizer.

We wanted a choice.

I said, “Excusez-moi, madame. Expliquez a moi comment ce marche. J’ai pensé il y avait un choix.” I think I said, “Excuse me, ma’am. How does this work? I thought there was a choice.”

She came over and politely told me — about 10 different ways — how it worked. Honestly, I was not listening. I was trying to think if I used the subjunctive form of a verb tense correctly in my question.

Finally we figured out that she was asking who else at the table was ordering the same appetizer.

That way she could put it together on the order.

It may not seem like a crazy story to you. But to us, who just wanted to order our meals, in a foreign country, in a foreign tongue, in a respectable way, it was super flipping frustrating.

By the time we were finished, we had a great rapport with our waitress. We joked with her. She joked with us. It felt good to translate jokes that we made to her so that she could respond, ever so quickly.

When I was ordering which cheeses I wanted, Tina called me a pig. The waitress thought that was hilarious. When I ordered some strong cheese, she said, “You might have to find another car to ride home in tonight.” Tina said, “Or another bed.”

When I translated that to her, the waitress laughed a good, solid laugh.

Achtung! Attention! Warning! This is the clean plate club. 

I will say, though, that the French aren’t too happy when you don’t clean your plate completely. When Luis didn’t eat all of his appetizer, she asked, “Does Monsieur not like his appetizer?” I assured her that he did, and that he was finished with it.

Luis didn’t finish some of the rum from his rum cake, and she asked again, “Does the monsieur not like his dessert?” The proper way to affirmatively respond “Yes” to a negative question is “Si” not “Oui.” I said, “Si, il l’aime ça bien, mais il ne peut pas manger plus.” In other words, “Lady, leave the dude alone. He’s finished.”

And when I wasn’t going to finish my last sip of red wine, because of the teaspoon of tannin sand lodged in the bottom of my glass, the waitress walked over, tapped the top rung of the glass and said, “Finissez.”

And like an obedient child, I took that last sip of sand and swallowed. I forgot that aspect of French culture. They are an all or nothing lifestyle. When they are your friends, they are your friends. When they are not, run for your lives.

En Conclusion. 

We left there that night with full stomachs, blistered minds from both succeeding and failing at the language barrier, and both happy and sad to think that our time in France was nearing its end.

If it were a battle, we were licking our wounds, but reeling from a fun, successful evening win. We were only there for almost three hours. It was finally getting dark outside. And if we had to do it again, we’d be much more knowledgeable.

International experience is like that. And in a country like ours that serves excess, doggie bags, high calorie,  low-taste content meals. France is a place where eating is an art, and it’s a pleasure. And it’s a hardship when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

But damn, it’s fun.

Below are pictures from our splurge dining experience. Tina and Luis both ordered a ribeye that was cooked on coals from the fire beside us.

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on France, Part 1 — conversations, ordering, how to offend the locals, speaking politely and you

  1. Wonderful recap of our experience! You’ve captured it perfectly. It was such a great adventure, and Becky and Luis were exceptional travel companions. I especially enjoyed how Luis conquered the round abouts!

  2. Do did you not get the french coffee experience as well. A coffee with milk is as you learn at school “Café au lait” but when you go into a French restaurant/cafe they’ll correct you with “Café creme”. But if you go the next day to the very same place with the very same restaurant and say “Café creme” they’ll say back “Café au lair”. Lesson is…you can never win with the Froggies.

    1. I didn’t get the café au lait one, but after being there for a couple weeks, I was pretty confident that people understood me.

      My last experience was at the airport ordering “deux cafés” at a little kiosk.

      This little asshole pretended not to understand me. “Comment?” He asked, “Je ne vous comprends pas.” And then said, “You mean ‘espressos?'”

      Putain de fucking merde.

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