I’ve been to France seven times since 1996. Each time, I glean some new understanding or nuance about the culture that I’ve never known before. Or I have to remind myself of the little things I’ve learned in the past. Below is a compilation of these thoughts.
It’s a long list, so I put the majority under the fold.
If you know any that I’ve left out or I’m wrong on, please leave word on the comments.
- French are polite. They greet each other respectfully with hellos, pleases and thank yous. They pay respect to elderly and handicapped. Salut each other with goodbye. When exiting the metro, the person in front of you will hold the door longer than you think to exit. They will wait for someone they didn’t see yet. It’s amazing. I watched three different people take turns escorting an elderly lady through a courtyard with different tiers of stairs, most of the escorts were teenagers. And their patience and sense of duty is awe-inspiring. I’ve even been reprimanded for using “Merde” (shit) with someone I don’t know — as opposed to a kinder “zut” (crap) or “ma parole” (my word).
- Even if you speak NO french, when in shops, restaurants, museums, say “Bonjour,” “S’il vous plait” and “Au revoir”! If you’re a foreign traveler in France, be sure to at least say, “Bonjour” upon entry to any store, restaurant, or establishment. “Merci” when given what you want and “Au revoir” when you leave. Even your apartment super or concierge. It’s not only polite, it’s considered rude not to. I’ve been reminded on a few occasions of a forgetful rudeness for not doing it. If you don’t speak the language, you will likely not hear their disdain. Unless you don’t care, then fuck it. Don’t. They won’t see you again. I personally like to assimilate to the country or environment I’m in. This is a small, courteous way to respecting the local culture.
- Keep small change for baguettes or small items. Do your best not to empty a cash register of its small change or cash. I’ve been reprimanded more than once for paying for a €0.90 baguette with a €10 bill.
- Sundays usually mean most stores are closed. In Paris, you can usually find what you need to be open. But plan ahead. Especially outside Paris. Because if you don’t, say, buy provisions for Sunday breakfast, lunch and dinner, you could find yourself snacking on bags of chips out of a machine that you found in the metro. Even worse, there might be a holiday on Monday and then you’re screwed for two straight days!
- Walk to the right. When on the street, in the metro, anywhere, walk to the right. On coming foot traffic will stay to their right.
- Avoid eye contact on the metro and usually on the street. This one is particularly hard for me. I’m a people watcher and a “stare-er.”
- Eye contact is usually reserved for shared experiences. For instance, one day we watched a choreographed dance routine through a street window and after the dance was over, we shared smiles and wows with others who watched on. Otherwise, it’s rare to connect with strangers outside of stores, restaurants or other businesses.
- Pickpocket isn’t just a movie on Criterion Collection. I searched for anyone who kept their wallet or even phone in their back pockets and I couldn’t find anyone. This drives me nuts because I’ll move my wallet to the back outside of touristy areas. But I try to keep it in a front pocket or chest pocket, which I think risks the chance I’ll snag my keys or loose change from my front pockets and it’ll spill onto the ground.
- For dinner or lunch, check the restaurant if they take reservations. This doesn’t apply to bistros or cafés. Even if they aren’t busy, reserve your party. It concerns how much food/product to anticipate serving. And the French love reservations. This is a new fact I just learned from here.
- Forever downward glance on the sidewalks for dog shit. The French love their dogs, but they do not always clean up after them.
- Tipping isn’t necessary but appreciated. I hate not having a few Euro to drop on a tab or bill. I have left a meal without tipping, but it’s rare. The price includes service.
- Stay in AirBnB. I’m torn by this idea only because I’ve seen/read that AirBnB is destroying some areas of the world by augmenting the cost of living for the locals. The AirBnB advantage is the offer to live as a local. Especially in France, where the prospect of fisheries, cheese shops, produce shops, meat shops, bakeries, etc are all in small pockets of neighborhoods. Every trip we try to frequent these shops and get to know the people working there, at least by face. And we LOVE it.
- Lines are part of daily life. Get used to it.
- Lunch is sometimes the biggest meal of the day. Find a bistro and order the daily special. Be prepared to walk out stuffed.
- “A bad meal is a crime” in France. I have had bad meals, but it’s rare and it’s likely my fault for not knowing that I might not like the entree they’re serving. But I try to try new things every time I’m there. I order the beer off the menu I’ve never tried. This last time I had wild boar for lunch. Experience what THEY have to offer. Otherwise, you’ll be eating exactly what you eat at home and that’s a crime!
- The Metro Train system is the easiest, cheapest way to navigate Paris. It’s €1.49 a ride. Transfers usually don’t work. I’m still trying to figure that out. But getting around is easy and quick. You can get directions on your phone via google or apple maps. It’ll tell you which way to go, how many stops. Or you can ask the nice people at the Metro desks. We rarely wait more than 3 or 4 minutes for any train. And your destination is rarely a long walk from the train stop. We buy 10 tickets or more at a time, and be sure to leave with some so that when we return we’ll be all set.
- We also take €25 to €50 home with us so that when we get back we already have pocket cash to hit the ground running.
- Choosing wine. This advice goes back to when I spent a semester in college. Choose a bottle based on its label. You’re rarely going to get a bad bottle. Cheap bottles of wine do not insinuate crap wine. When in doubt, stop in a Nicholas, a chain wine shop or a mom and pop and ask the person working there for a recommendation. Be prepared with your menu or if you’re simply having a baguette with cheeses.