We French can be a strange bunch but then, this can be said of most peoples.
Still, there is a certain quirkiness that sets us apart, things we say and do that might lift an eyebrow or make you scratch your head in confusion.
For example, the fact that we complain a lot (we do!), or that we think we're the best (at pretty much everything). Or perhaps you've noticed that we can't laugh about ourselves, which may make you think we are humorless (we are not – we're perfectly happy to laugh about YOU – and everyone else).
Yes, most of this is true. Whatever it is, ours is bigger, better, smarter. (By the way, we're not the only ones who articulate our perceived superiority in this manner!)
So yes, there are plenty of stereotypes about the French and yes, many of them are true.
We do have our peculiarities and if you love France or are merely curious, then I'd be happy to tell you a bit more about us.
It may help you make some sense out of our country.
Our culinary history is a long one and there is much to tell about our preferred dishes and our table manners.
A bit like the stereotype of the Spaniard who always carries around a guitar, the idea that all French eat snails and frogs isn't quite right. Yes, those two dishes are popular in some parts of the country, but not everywhere and not for everyone.
Our specialties are rich and varied: bouillabaisse (fish soup) in Marseille, fondue in the Alps, choucroute (sauerkraut) in Alsace, oysters from Aquitaine or Brittany, Auvergne cheeses, croissants in Paris, Quiche Lorraine, cider from Normandy... This is a tiny selection from the diversity of French regional foods.
France is a rich and complex country so yes, we have our regional foods, but each department has its own specialties. And where there is overlap, each one of us is convinced we hold the one and true recipe.
We do have universal foodstuffs, however: wine and beer, the baguette, the croissant... and foods that have arrived with immigration, like pizza or kebabs. As you can see, were are not as homogenous as you might think.
It's not just what we eat – it's also how we eat.
While some rules of eating are etched in stone (and have been since Louis XIV inaugurated Versailles), other rules are simply to be obeyed because - that's what Maman said we should do. Table manners are taken seriously here, and a faux pas at the table can set you back, socially of course, but even professionally, if you happen to be lunching with a prospective employer.
It's so easy to get it wrong... picking up certain foods with your hands (some are acceptable, like frogs' legs, and others are not, like chicken thighs), or eating noisily with your mouth open (don't expect to be invited back), or wearing your napkin around your neck (is anyone staring yet?)
No one has to do anything our way, but visitors ask so often, "How can I fit in?" Adopting our manners temporarily during your visit is one way. Plus, it's fun to step into someone else's shoes for a while!
Used to emptying your wallet at the end of a meal?
You don't have to, because by eating, you've already tipped 15%: a service charge is included in your meal. French waiters and waitresses receive 'decent' salaries and do not live off their tips. That said, it is rather nice to round things up... but it's a gesture, not an obligation.
The only exception is when 'service non-compris' is mentioned on your menu. That means that in theory, you should leave a tip — because it is 'non compris', not included. In those cases I would leave 10%-12%.
If your coffee costs €1.80, go on, be generous, leave €2. If your meal is €18, you can leave €20. The more expensive your meal, the more you might leave.
But even if you spend €95, you probably wouldn't leave more than €100. An oversized tip won't make you look generous – just odd. A really large tip might prompt a waiter to chase after you thinking you've made a mistake.
Manners in general are considered important, at the table and beyond.
For example, if you walk into a shop or elevator where there are people, you must say Bonjour. It is simply the done thing. If you forget that and walk into your local boulangerie without acknowledging anyone, do expect to be ignored, or served most perfunctorily. You might even get cut off as you order with a pointed "Bonjour" from the saleslady. If not, the stony stares from fellow shoppers should alert you that some is very wrong...
Here's another example: speaking loudly. If I can clearly hear your conversation, you're being loud (we would say rude, but never to your face!)
Or if you call me by my first name before we know each other better (unless you're a millennial, in which case these rules go out the window - young people everywhere are less formal), or if you ask me a personal question - like how much I make (none of your business!) or how much my house cost (that too!).
France can be an obstacle course of manners but in the end, polite or not, we will forgive you because you are, after all, a foreigner in our land and we must be polite.
Our rules are no better and no worse than anyone else's but like it or not, when you visit, you may be judged as much by your manners as by your stature in society. We can be superficial that way... so I'll help you avoid all those pitfalls.
France has a health system that has been called the best in the world. It has slipped down a few slots, but remains topnotch nonetheless, something we witnessed during the COVID-19 epidemic, where the system somehow managed to hold together through a combination of robustness, good management, the commitment of health workers and pure luck.
Our health system is available to all, and we like it that way. We don't quite understand why anyone could prefer a private system of lower quality and greater expense... You get sick, to go to the emergency or to see your doctor. You pay either nothing or very little, and would never get turned away from care for lack of funds. In other words, income is not a major determinant in your health care, except for certain specialists, who are more expensive (but still affordable) – the kind whose waiting rooms look like a page out of Vogue.
If you are foreign, you can still get medical care – your own country health plan or your private health insurance (I recommend World Nomads as the best all-round travel insurance) will reimburse you. The problem will be finding care in English. In larger cities, this will be easier. Your hotel can find you someone, and your embassy or consulate can help. But if you're in a small town and have an emergency, ask anyone and everyone if they speak English. A nephew or colleague will probably be pressed into service for a bit of translation. Your health insurance should also have a hotline where you can reach an English-speaking doctor instantly.
France has plenty of wonderful department stores, like the Galeries Lafayette, which you'll find in many large cities. Trendy as always, France also has its share of shopping malls, although most pale in size when compared to their American counterparts.
But mostly, France has shops. We like to shop in our small-town businesses when we can, chatting with shopkeepers and getting that personal attention we cannot expect in large chain stores.
Just don't forget to say Bonjour to the salesperson, whether they are behind a luxury counter or a country fair stall.
While mores are changing because more women work, traditionally French women used to go to the shop every day to buy fresh produce and, of course, the proverbial baguette (except on weekends, when the men buy the baguette as an excuse to stop by the café for a quick drink with les potes, the buddies.)
Having a job outside the home means having less time to shop, and these days shopping is often confined to a Saturday supermarket excursion. Weekend markets, however, still allow us to feel connected to our roots and somehow we trust the fresh fish and cheese wheels and just-picked fruit from the market more than we do the cellophane-wrapped products on supermarket shelves.
For small purchases we still tend to pay cash, although most of us now have debit cards we can swipe for small purchases or use with a code for something larger. You may also be surprised at how many French still use checkbooks!
Everyone, but everyone, has a cellphone and we are no different: we are glued to our screens.
Long-distance calls across the EU are free, so we have even more reason to use our phones to chat with friends in other countries.
We still have a few archaic pay phones, but you'll need a smart card or a phone card to use them, if you can find them. A very few airports still accept normal credit cards, in honor of those foreigners who haven't planned properly...
If you're not European and you plan to communicate while you're here, make sure your cellphone is unlocked and get a local SIM card. If only for access to the Internet, you'll be glad you did. Or bring your laptop and tablet so you can access wifi, which is becoming increasingly common in public places. We may be steeped in history, but we aretrès modernes!
We French love our cars, and we may love our trains even more (when they happen to be going in the right direction or aren't on strike).
Driving in France can be a nightmare if you don't do it right, or a breeze if you do. You'll need to learn a few rules, some of which seem to make no sense at all.
Like giving way to anyone coming onto your road from the right, even if it's a tiny road... but there are plenty of exceptions so do yourself a favour and read up before you drive here.
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