I recently had someone ask me for some advice regarding an upcoming trip to France. They had never been, were extremely excited, and also extremely worried. Those were the exact same feelings I had regarding the French the first time I visited there. Unfortunately, there tends to be a stereotype that the French are mean and nasty. I have always tried to emphasis that this is not true. I think we Americans can be considered just as mean and nasty to tourists as the French – so that really isn’t a fair point for anyone.
What you have to understand about traveling is that every country is different. The way they dress, regard politics, watch movies, television shows, language, cultures, music etc. I could go on forever, but that is the beauty of traveling! You get to experience a whole new set of ways and customs and ideals. Fantastic! It’s not ‘just like home only with an Eiffel Tower’ – pish posh!
So when I went to France for the first time I was bound and determined to ‘get’ the French. I really wanted to try and get it right. It’s so much more than wearing a black and white striped shirt with a red scarf and a beret whilst sipping a café au lait. As cute as that is – it’s a stereotype and it will not serve you well en la France.
I read two fantastic books to learn more about the French:
Savoir Flair: 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French by Polly Platt
Culture Shock! A Guide to Customs and Etiquette – France by Sally Adamson Taylor
Some of my favorite tips from these books are:
- Always greet someone with bonjour – even if you can’t speak a lick of French
- Always tip your waiter and cab driver
- Learn the French hotel star system – a three star hotel in the US is different from three star French hotels
- Don’t assume everyone in France speaks English
From all of my experiences the best piece of advice I can give you regarding traveling in France is - try to speak the language. A little goes a long way. You don’t have to be fluent – just considerate. A nice hello and an ‘excuse me do you speak English’ in French will do nicely.
To further extend my language skills (or the lack of) I used Rendez-vous with France: A Point & Pronounce Guide to Traveling, Shopping & Eating by Jill Butler
The point and pronounce guide was a hit. The French seemed to be impressed with the cute little book. It is helpful, stylish and it proves that you are committed in trying to speak French or at least attempt the language.
And now there are so many apps that will help you out - you can take the conversation to the next level!
I have been to France three times and I cannot wait to get back. So here are some of my tips that I have learned through experience:
Don’t fly eight hours on a plane to eat at McDonalds or drink a Starbucks. While it is fun to peek at the McDonalds menu and have your Pulp Fiction Le Big Mac moment just move on and go with a small corner café – trust me.
Go shopping in a grocery store or covered market and picnic. You don’t have to eat every meal in a restaurant. Plop yourself down and take in the sites with a bottle of wine, a baguette and some cheese.
Rent an apartment and live like a local. Depending on your style renting an apartment is cheaper than a hotel and you get more space and kitchen!
Take in a few hours of television. It’s always fun trying to figure out foreign game shows!
If you find a café/restaurant/bar that you like- go back multiple times over the course of your stay. The owners and staff will take notice and you build a relationship.
Keep your voice down, don’t gesture a lot and try not to smile too much (it targets you as a foreigner).
Treat waiters with respect. Look I waited tables in college, and I hated it. People can be real jerks. In America the customer is always right – no matter what the circumstance is. Not in France. Being a waiter is a respected profession. He’s not going to be all ‘Hey I’m Jacques your waiter. Let’s chit chat!’ He is going to give you the best service and the best meal in town (because all French waiters think they work at the best restaurants). They will seem distant – but that is how they do it over there. You are there to eat – not chit chat.
Take your time eating. Eating out in the culinary capital is an event – no matter where you are. Fancy or cute and cozy – enjoy. Don’t rush. Have an aperitif – the before dinner drink (I prefer champagne). Relax take it in.
You don’t have to order the most expensive wine on the list. Again – everything on the menu is good even the cheap house wine. The French aren’t going to serve you anything that they feel isn’t up to par.
Print a Google a map of the location of your hotel/apartment and the address and glue to an index card. In case you get lost or can’t communicate you can show the cab driver where you need to go.
Carry a coin purse and fill it with all your change – some public restrooms are not free or have an attendant that must be tipped. Oh, and carry a travel size Kleenex pack with you as well! An attendant on hand does not always equal tissue paper.
Most importantly slow down, try new things and take it all in – Viva la France!