The glamour of living in France
When I first told people I was moving to France to be with my partner they all oohed and aahed in awe – ‘Oh how fabulous, all that amazing food!’, ‘How lucky! you will have all that cheese and wine to enjoy’ and so on.
I had visited France a handful of times before moving here permanently, so when I first arrived I still had the gloss and excitement of an unknown country to experience.
The reality of living in France
My experience quickly altered to culture shock as I realised I couldn’t speak the language fluently, and all the things I thought I loved about France were becoming a hindrance to my day-to-day life.
For example, the leisurely long lunch ‘oh-so-carefree-and-relaxed’ to a tourist, became annoying because all the retail stores were closed during this time. How do people run errands or shop for goods during their lunch break if nothing was open??
Or, the one store in your local area that sold that one specific item had conveniently sold out.
The nearest store with a similar item is 30 minutes drive away….
But you couldn’t phone them to check if they had the item as they were closed during lunch, and you can’t speak French.
Go with the flow
Now, I have relaxed my attitude to the lifestyle here and while some days things still drive me bonkers (the queues at La Poste, or a busy supermarket with only 2 checkout counters open), life in France is filled with equal measures of humour and happiness.
My Top 20 tips to help tourists (or expats) understand French social customs, etiquette, and idiosyncrasies (note: I take no responsibility for cultural misunderstandings that occur from this list!) :
1. Do as the French do: French people are generally quite formal in the way they act, greet each other, talk and socialise.
Very rarely you will experience loud, drunk, obnoxious French people rolling around the streets abusing other people.
Yes French people are friendly, but, French people don’t really chit-chat with strangers like you may experience in your home country.
Foreigners view the French as ‘stuck-up’ or ‘snobby’ but this is not true. I find the French can be extremely polite.
French people expect proper civilised behaviour, especially in public areas and business dealings.
2. Greetings: When you enter a store, or take a bus, greet the shop attendant/bus driver with ‘Bonjour Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle’ (or ‘Bonsoir’ if after 6pm).
French people think you are disrespectful if you don’t offer a simple greeting, even if you think they did not see you enter the store.
Saying please is also courteous (S’il vous plait), and on leaving, say ‘Au revoir (goodbye)’ and/or ‘Merci’ (thank you).
Often you will hear them reply, ‘Bonne journée’ (good day, literally ‘have a good day’).
You do not have to be fluent in French when you come to France, but carry a simple French phrasebook and you will find learning and actively using these 4 phrases will help you a lot (hello / please / thank you / goodbye).
3. Dress attire: French people generally dress well.
Blazers, well-cut jeans or trousers, Breton stripes, hats, scarfs (they love a scarf here!), men with leather satchels and ‘man-bags’, women with gorgeous handbags, makeup and heels.
In fact, for scarf-lovers, here is a nifty video I found on ‘How to tie a scarf 16 ways’ that you can practise before you arrive in France!
French style is overall an effortlessly classic and tailored style.
Aside from avant-garde fashion, neon, loud graphic clothes or gothic/punk looks are not that common.
Tracksuits, hoodies, sports trainers are for sports fans only.
French mothers don’t do the school run in baggy track pants and Crocs shoes!
If you are a tourist, dress in smart casual attire to blend in.
Wearing a sports cap, crazy patterned shirt and trainers is a sure-fire target for standing out, especially for pickpockets on the lookout for easy prey.
4. Restaurant manners: If you are invited to a meal, it is good manners to not eat or drink until the host has said ‘Bon appétit’ and/or ‘Santé’ (cheers).
Keep your hands off the table, and if you are dining at a restaurant when you are ready to order put your menu down closed.
Do not ever click your fingers at the wait staff or yell ‘garçon’ to get their attention, this will guarantee they will avoid you like the plague.
If you are given bread and there is no side plate it is perfectly acceptable to just rest it on the table beside your main plate.
French waiters are not in the business to rush diners, so get used to a more casual approach to dining and the time it takes for your meal to arrive.
5. Un apéro / private dining: If you are invited to a meal at a private home, the safe option is to take a gift of chocolates.
Don’t take wine as the host will have chosen the wine already, and most probably will save your bottle for another time.
Flowers are a tricky gift as flowers in France symbolise different things – red roses (love), chrysanthemums (put on graves on All Saints Day), carnations (bad luck) etc so if you are set on taking flowers check with a florist first.
Avoid getting drunk. Go home if you are not offered another drink.
6. La bise – the French air/cheek-kiss, it is such an iconic ‘French’ thing to do but don’t be nervous.
Take your cue from the French person as the number of kisses varies by region, and even what cheek to being with.
I really like this map infographic of the number of kisses you should aim for!
7. Small talk: Conversation-wise, it is generally fine to talk about the weather, family, children, life in general.
Under no circumstances talk about money or ask a person what job they do (as this can point to their salary).
Avoid politics and religion unless you like heated debates.
8. Shopping hours: Never assume a store or business will operate at the exact hours on the ‘opening sign’ on their shop front.
In reality, store owners can return after lunch in their own time or close unannounced on weekends.
Generally, most businesses are closed a few hours during the middle of the day, and operate limited hours on weekends.
You will find very limited late night shopping (especially not 24-hour supermarkets or mall shopping that you find overseas) and be aware if you need to refuel your car, buy pharmaceuticals, get food after a flight arriving late at night – you may have to wait until the next day.
It is important to also note that a bank holiday in France can mean businesses close for 2-4 days, including the actual day of the bank holiday.
So, if a bank holiday falls on a Thursday you may find stores are closed the Thursday AND Friday also – this is called ‘faire le pont’, the French make a bridge to the weekend and it is perfectly accepted here.
9. Language: Don’t assume everyone speaks English.
Try to speak French – even ‘Excusez-moi’ or ‘S’il vous plait’ before you can ask if they can help in English.
10. Queues: French people can be oblivious about the concept of queueing.
Airports – yes, they queue.
Post offices, traffic jams, banks and supermarkets – sometimes they queue, sometimes every second person jumps in front of you.
Don’t take it personally, because when you get to the front of the queue it’s your turn to take as long as you like.
11. Public toilets: Carry your own tissues and travel hand sanitizer with you as they often don’t have toilet paper and soap.
For automated public toilets, carry small change for entry (between 30-50 centimes).
For attendants at public toilets, leave a few coins (30-50 centimes).
If you are desperate and must use the bathroom at a restaurant, it is courteous to at least buy a coffee (or similar) and say ‘Merci’ when you leave.
12. Tips: Tips are generally included at restaurants (the bill will say ‘service compris’), however it is customary to leave a few coins and to tip additionally for good service.
13. Customer service: The transition between countries is immense across the globe in the reality of customer service.
French stores don’t fight for your attention.
They don’t shower you in compliments with your choice.
They believe you walk in their store for a reason and you already know what you need.
Don’t be offended if you receive a ‘Bonjour’ from the sales assistant then you don’t see them again.
14. Admiring beauty: French men look at women.
It’s a compliment, though it can be unsettling for tourists.
15. Business dealings: Don’t assume you will receive quick responses to emails or enquiries.
Many companies don’t have websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts so they are very traditional and conduct business face-to-face or via the telephone.
Believe it or not, many businesses first point of contact is by post or fax (Fax! who still owns a fax machine!).
Address everyone as ‘Monsieur/Madam/Mademoiselle’ until they are well known.
It is not in French culture to share with work colleagues compliments about how great you are.
If you arrange tradespeople, confirm and reconfirm exact times to meet and conduct the work required.
16. Markets: I love the markets in France.
Fruit, vegetables, cheeses, cured meats, olives, jams, oils, fresh herbs, flowers.
If you visit a market, don’t touch the produce before asking.
The stall seller’s are happy to answer questions – they are very proud of their products – so they may ask you when you intend to eat the produce as they will know which produce is ripest or best consumed for what date.
17. Kids: French children are mostly well behaved, especially in restaurants.
If you have an active child (like mine!), probably best to dine out at their optimum time for calm eating than subject a busy restaurant to an overtired child running around the restaurant.
High chairs are not as common as I expected when I came to France.
Many restaurants have children’s menus, or are happy to split menu costs in half.
Baby changing facilities are few and far between compared to foreign countries – large department stores are your best bet for a clean bathroom area for diaper changes.
18. Directions: Signage in France can be confusing.
Street names are on the side of buildings, however major highway road signage is quite good.
If you ask a French person directions, they are usually helpful and willing. And often wrong.
Telling you “It is not far, just straight ahead 200 metres on the right” often translates to walking for 30 minutes with no sense of direction.
Take a map, and if driving always have a Tom Tom/GPS. Via Michelin is an excellent website for driving directions in France and has helped me with estimating toll costs.
19. Coffee: I used to drink my coffee quite milky before I came to France, but now I prefer ‘un café’ (a small black coffee/espresso).
Restaurants will understand what a cappuccino is, but don’t expect to see an exhaustive coffee menu.
Unless you are at Starbucks, a double hazelnut frappucino with whipped cream and caramel syrup is probably not going to happen.
It can depend on the region you are visiting, but here in the south-east, ‘un café’ is a small black coffee/espresso, ‘café crème’ is usually coffee with milk and steamed milk so has an element of froth to it, ‘café au lait’ is a coffee with milk but generally not frothy, ‘une noisette’ is a small black coffee with a dash of milk. Confused? 🙂
20. Bread: It is well known globally that French people love a baguette (French loaf).
There are also options for grain breads, wheatmeal breads and all sorts of artisan breads. Buy your bread at a boulangerie as they are experts.
Specialty breads that you may find easily in your home country can surprisingly be hard to locate here in France or have limited range – bagels, flatbreads, foccacias, crumpets, muffins, wraps, gluten-free options.
Have you found my Top 20 tips has helped you on your quest to understand ‘la vie en France’ ? Do you have any tips for understanding life here? I would love to hear your own experiences via Facebook or Twitter