One of the richest and most diverse countries in Europe France boasts an enviable natural beauty, culture and heritage that has inspired artists throughout the generations. But the French are famous for their behaviour, and not always for the right reasons. So here are some of our insider tips for experiencing the true joie de vivre in the land of baguettes, brie and sunflowers...
1) Province versus Provence
To the rest of the country’s dismay, France is still very much centralised and therefore very Paris-centric. An illustration of this is that everything that lies outside of the French capital is usually referred to as ‘province’, and isn’t to be confused with ‘Provence’, one of the country’s most picturesque regions in the south. Despite everything outside Paris being lumped together like this, France is actually one of the richest and most diverse countries in Europe with mountains lying east (Alps) and south (Pyrenees), rivers and lakes, rolling hills, beaches to die for, scenic islands, quaint villages, burgeoning cities, bucolic forests – and exotic islands.
Lavender in Provence, source: Flickr/decar66
In fact, the country is split into 101 departments that include overseas territories (outremer or DOM) like Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, Mayotte in the Comoros archipelago, French Guiana in South America and Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea, which, despite the difference in cultures, are all part of France, abide by French law and have French postcodes.
2) Opening times
France might be a developed country but that doesn’t mean that taking time out from work is cast aside, which is why you shouldn’t be surprised to find that most shops, restaurants and museums are closed either on Sunday or Monday or both. Shops can also close for lunch between 12pm and 2pm (sometimes 4pm). When planning a trip, it’s always a good idea to check the opening times of establishments you would like to visit and if you don’t find the opening times on a website, call first to save you the trip just in case.
Cable car in Chamonix, source: Flickr/Matt Gillman
3) Kissing strangers
Kissing people on both cheeks, or doing the bise, when you meet someone in a non-professional environment is the norm across the country. It’s done between women, women and men, and usually between men too although most opt for a handshake when complete strangers. In a business setting, a handshake is the done thing. Also good to keep in mind is that the number of kisses given depends on the region. For instance in the Languedoc-Roussillon, three kisses is normal, whereas in northern regions it’s four. Note not to hug people when you greet them, even those you know well - you will rarely see French people hug, even if they are close friends.
Fishing in the Côte d'Azur, source: Flickr/Thomas Leth-Olsen
If you’ve got a little command of the French language, French establishments might not be the best places to show it off, especially if you have a strong Anglo accent – others tend to be forgiven. Waiters and shop attendants will unmercifully speak back to you in English in most big cities, so don’t be offended and either stand your ground and continue speaking French or switch to English.
However, be aware that if you start speaking English outright, you can expect a hard cold stare and very little cooperation thereon. So if you don’t speak any French, it’s a good idea to learn the basics as most people will (secretly) appreciate the effort (even if they end up speaking back in English). After having muttered a quick bonjour, you can then politely ask, along with your best helpless smile, if English is spoken.
Bonjour – Hello
Au revoir – Goodbye
Parlez-vous anglais? – Do you speak English?
S’il vous plaît – Please
Merci – Thank you
La note s’il vous plaît – The bill please
5) Forget bacon and eggs for breakfast
In some cultures having a savoury breakfast is a regular thing. However, most French people would be horrified at the thought of eating noodles, curry, fish, or bacon and eggs (don’t even think about mentioning baked beans) in the morning. Acceptable breakfast foodstuffs include sweet pastries, toast, fruit, yoghurt, muesli, or cereal. You’d be hard-pushed finding anything beyond that anyway unless you go to a dedicated brunch in a city.
Chocolate croissant, source: Flickr/Basheer Tome
6) Apéritif is golden
When going out for dinner or when invited to a French person’s home for dinner, you will usually be asked if you would like an alcoholic beverage before sitting down to dinner. This is an apéritif or apero for short. It is frowned upon not to join in so even if you don’t drink alcohol ask for juice or cordial and water like a diabolo, which is generally mint or grenadine cordial with water.
You can ask for most types of apéritifs although a sure bet your host will have in store is a kir, which is a glass of white wine with a dash of cassis (blackcurrant) or mûre (blackberry) cordial. A kir royal is the same but with champagne instead of white wine. Kir is a real staple across France and you’ll find it in any bar, brasserie, bistro, restaurant and café.
7) Summer terrace frenzy
Summer is always a godsend for the French and what better way to enjoy it than out having lunch/dinner/coffee/apero on a terrace? If you’re thinking it then remember that everyone else is thinking the same so to be sure of getting a table, get there early – and early means before 1pm for lunch, before 6pm for a drink and before 7pm for dinner.
8) The customer isn’t king (unless you’re from the United States of America)
Although Paris is reputed to be the worst for service in the country, there’s (a lot of) room for improvement elsewhere too. Remember that when the waiter/ress pretends not to hear you calling them over or ignores your manically waving arms to grab their attention, it’s not just you. Just put it down to their need for asserting their power in being able to choose to bring you food or not. Some won’t look at you when you speak or won’t acknowledge they’ve heard you, which can get tricky. Just remember a simple rule: it’s their way or the highway. Just sit tight and see if your order comes out. Don’t hassle staff too much though because the risk of someone tampering with your food is never too far away.
However, if you’re from the USA, it’s a completely different story. You might notice that you get treated a lot more amiably than the rest of us – and that’s usually because of the great North American tipping culture.
Night in Paris, source: Flickr/Zdenko Zivkovic
9) Running the meat gauntlet
Although a perfectly respectable choice, being a vegetarian in France is tough. Vegetables are usually used for decorative purposes on a plate and finding meat-free options at regular restaurants can be difficult. While most waiters might make you feel like you’re putting them out if you ask for a vegetarian dish (or any dish that’s not on the menu) to be made up especially, most restaurants will do it so don’t be afraid of asking.
10) Etiquette in public
Although tourism makes up a large portion of the country’s economy, the French generally have a strong dislike of tourists. So, when travelling around France, try to sink into the background by adopting the right etiquette in public. For instance, Italian, Spanish, English and North Americans, who usually tend to speak loudly in public, should observe a quieter attitude when out and about if they want to avoid long icy cold stares. Remember that speaking and laughing loudly is seen as disturbing and obnoxious, especially when you’re not French.