France is an amazing country, and one of the easiest for Americans to see and navigate. However, from my extensive experience in the land of croissants and cheese (trademark pending), there are some things foreigners should know before arriving here.
1. France is More than Paris
For many people, going to France means going to Paris, sitting in the City of Lights (not named for actual lights) in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Paris is wonderful, but it represents all of France in the same way New York City represents all of the US: it doesn’t. France is a diverse country, and Paris is not the only place worth visiting. For beach lovers, try Nice or Marseille. Is food or wine your passion? Lyon and Bordeaux make great destinations. There is skiing in the Alps, castle hopping in the Loire Valley, and so much more! (In my experience, people are also a bit nicer outside Paris.)
2. Plane, Train, Bus, Car
So how does one navigate visiting a diverse country roughly the size of Texas? Getting around is actually fairly easy. When traveling between cities, all four of these options are possibilities. Flights connect major cities (I flew between Bordeaux and Lyon, for instance). Trains and buses are the most common form of transportation, though. Major rail networks link hubs, which have smaller networks splitting off from there.
For trains, there are two types you will see: TGV (the high speed rail) and TER (slower regional service). There is also OuiGo, a budget service with its own web portal. Bus services are diverse, from international lines (my bus from Marseille to Avignon continued on to Barcelona, for instance) to budget OuiBus and FlixBus. All of these bus and train options can be found on a single portal here.
As far as auto options go, you can rent a car (most are manual shifting, so beware), or sign up for Bla Bla Car, an intercity ridesharing service. Speaking of driving…
Driving is an option around France. Just be careful not to end up like this (fake) vehicle emerging from a structure in Bordeaux.
3. The Green Man
Pedestrians here have the right of way when the green man is showing to walk at crosswalks. However, jaywalking is ubiquitous, mostly after checking that the way is clear, but sometimes not. If you are driving, be careful for pedestrians crossing against a red, as well as zipping across with no intersections at all. If you are walking, don’t worry about waiting for the green man, but please check before crossing anyway.
4. Sunday No, Monday Slow
France is still a very Catholic country. As such, things tend to be closed on Sundays, since staying open means paying overtime/holiday pay to employees. While most tourist locations are open, restaurants may not be. Even grocery stores may not be open (or will probably close early).
Mondays, on the other hand, tend to be off-days for nicer restaurants, and for many tourist locations. Make sure to check the hours for any place you really want to see.
Sundays are rough in France since everyone is at church, or at least pretending to be.
5. Lunch Hour
Noon to 2pm is the lunch period in France. Many tourist destinations are closed during this period, especially smaller ones with minimal staff. When I was in Annecy, I only had about five hours, and both places I really wanted to visit were closed for two of them. Plan accordingly given this, especially since those two hours will be more crowded at popular lunch spots with tourists waiting the lunch break out.
6. Eating vs Dining
While we are speaking of lunch, eating out (or even in) in France is different than in the US. Here in the States we go out to eat. We expect swift service, we eat our food, and we leave. In France, dining is an experience to be savored.
For one thing, service is not fast. The French take their time, they sip a glass of wine or a coffee, and they typically don’t allot themselves short windows for meals. Service acts accordingly. It may take fifteen minutes or more for your presence to be noticed, for your order to be taken, or for a bill (in French it is called the addition – pronounced add-is-see-on) to come. It’s not the server being rude; it’s just the pace at which dining moves here.
Many restaurants will have a daily (or even multiple) formule, a set menu (maybe with a couple choices). You will see options for entree, plat, and dessert – sometimes just two of the three – for a good price. First off, these are typically good deals and to be sought out. Secondly, an entree in France is an appetizer, while what we in America call an entree is called a plat.
A couple other notes on eating out. Tax and tip are always included in the price unless explicitly saying otherwise. Feel free to add a euro or two for above and beyond service if you choose, but it isn’t expected. Secondly, at many places the bill will be paid at the front. Credit cards are nearly universally accepted; ask to pay par carte or for la machine (the contraption one sticks the card into).
The food in France is amazing, but the experience is definitely a change.
7. Don’t Pay for Water
Restaurants will try to up-sell you on bottled water, since water isn’t just brought as in the States. For free tap water (perfectly safe in France), order une carafe d’eau (eau is pronounced oh), a carafe of water.
8. Try French
Whether at a restaurant, a shop, or just on the street, try speaking in French. Most French will a) appreciate the effort and be a bit nicer to you and b) notice that you are butchering their beautiful language and respond in English anyway. Don’t take offense.
If you aren’t able to understand someone who decides to respond in rapid French, you can say je ne comprend pas, or ask tu parle anglais – if the person speaks English.
While we are on this topic, one of the key phrases that does NOT translate directly into French is “good morning.” Nobody wishes anyone a bon matin here, although for afternoon or night it works. Just use bonjour for good morning.
Smoking is incredibly common here, and something you’ll have to just accept. While it isn’t allowed inside restaurants, many establishments work around this by enclosing their outdoor terraces, on which smoking is legal. Marijuana is not legal, but seems to be fairly common in some places.
This Ferris wheel has nothing to do with smoking, but I like it!
10. Window Display Prices
This is one of my favorite things about France. I am not sure if it is regulated by law or just common practice, or if it is universal in Europe or just here, but all window displays in French shops will display the prices for those items. It is so nice to get an idea of the price range of a store without having to go in! Note to the US: do this, please.
11. Muslims are Not Terrorists
I wish this one didn’t need to be said, but sadly it does. When I told people I was going to spend three months this year in France, they told me to be careful as a Jewish guy. France has a large Muslim population from its former colonies in North Africa as well as more recent refugee immigration. As with most people in the world, 99% of them are wonderful human beings who want a good life for themselves and their families. Don’t be afraid when you see Muslims, or pass by a mosque.
Almost as importantly, the Muslim communities have enriched French life, especially for tourists. Kebab shops are all over, and are awesome. Tea houses, couscous eateries, Tunisian pastry shops, these are all wonderful and should be actively sought out, especially in Marseille if you visit there. (Tip: you should visit there.)
12. Admission of Wrongdoing
This one is rough for me. French people seem to be incapable at times of admitting any wrongdoing, whether it is bringing the wrong order at a restaurant and insisting it is what you ordered or refusing to acknowledge that the Vichy government in France during World War Two was elected by the people in light of the atrocities committed.
At the history museum in Bordeaux, I was struck by an exhibit on the slave trade, the mechanism by which the city became wealthy. This exhibit insisted that selling of slaves only accounted for 5% of the income, and that because the rest was from goods produced by slaves, it wasn’t so bad. Yes, France, it is just as bad. But doing bad things in the past isn’t the end of the world as long as you learn from them. And admit to them. (Take it from a society that wiped out its native population, put the remainder on reservations, and kept to slavery longer than most other cultures in the world, let alone the governmental overthrows we have been part of or any other number of things.)
At the end of the day, France is an incredible country, and one of my favorites I’ve visited. The people are largely wonderful, the place is beautiful, and the food is amazing. It is worth visiting, but these are just a few things to keep in mind before you do.
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