The other day I was looking through old notes and files on my iPad and found a list I had jotted down in France. It contains notes on the culture and attitudes I found while living in the country for over a month, both in the capital and on the Côte d'Azur. Often, the French are seen by the Americans as sophisticated and chic, yet cold. But I did not encounter rudeness among the French (or at least no more than in any country). I was surprised that my not-great-but-not-too-bad French was tolerated at restaurants and on buses despite how proud and protective I'd been told the French were of their language. It should be noted that most of these guidelines will help you blend in with the locals in almost any European country. Following you will find my notes on how to respect French culture, how to live like a local, and not stick out as a tourist:
- Wear neutral-colored scarves or neutral with a small pop of color
This is very important if you don't want to be immediately identified as a tourist. French women rarely wear anything too flashy, although they often dress more formal than other people. Scarves are an important staple for both women and men in Europe, but leave the purple leopard print at home and bring something a little more elegant.
- Wear sleek or sporty sneakers; they are often bright colors (just make sure it's not a bulky net and rubber contraption)
It is always said that you can see an American tourist coming from a mile away with their big, white sneakers and backpacks. For Europeans, shoes--no matter how practical--should still be stylish. So the sleeker or funkier the sneaker the better.
- Dark jeans are everything
I took a couple pairs of jeans when I went to Europe, but the ones I wore most often were a dark indigo pair without any distress or light wash to them. This was most similar to what I saw on French women and were perfect because if I went into a museum or nice restaurant I never felt underdressed.
- Eat late in the evening
This isn’t true for all Europeans, but the French eat late, around 8 p.m. If you go out in France at 5:30, the restaurants may not even be open.
- Just sit down at a cafe, never ask for a table
This is paramount for not looking like a confused tourist. Unless it is an upscale restaurant, customers can seat themselves. I loved this custom, because it allowed me to settle at a table on the sidewalk with a pretty view of my surroundings.
- Have a glass of wine with every meal after 2pm
I certainly didn’t follow this rule while I was in France! But it should be noted that wine is customary with lunch, as lunch is often the largest meal of the day.
- Order a café au lait and sit on the sidewalk for two or three hours
Okay, okay--so this isn’t a rule per say, but it’s a very good tip that you should take away from being in France. There’s no better way to relax, people watch, or brainstorm. So thank me for the coffee and let your mind wander.
- Never rush a waiter or expect quick service
Good service in France can take a bit of time. It’s not unusual for a meal to last over an hour. Lunch is often the biggest meal of the day, so most working people don’t just eat a yogurt at their desk. And since the French love their food and are not scheduled to run from one place to the next, a slow, delicious meal at a café is the norm.
- Don't walk and eat or drink (even from a food stand)
This goes with the last point. The French don’t really believe in ‘fast food’. They like to sit and enjoy their food without rushing. When you’re there (or if you’re at home) try sitting down without a screen in front of you, and focusing on your meal and the company around you.
- Eat a fresh baguette or two. Repeat daily.
I don’t think I need to reinforce this point, but many of the French people I stayed with told me that the bread is so good because it is completely lacking in preservatives. I don’t know what it is--just that I wish I had some now.
- Don't talk to anyone on the bus; unless it gets super crowded and then complain and joke with each other
Just an observation from my time in Paris. The people are not likely to chat with strangers, but are certainly not rude or cold.
- Don’t be afraid to approach a French person if you need help or directions
They are happy to help if you need something. Most French people can speak English (if they want to) so communication is not a problem. And my advice for traveling in any country is that you would not believe how nice or helpful a person can be until you ask. I needed to call my host in Paris and tell her there were major delays on the Paris buses, so to go ahead with dinner. I simply smiled at the man across from me on the bus and in my best French explained I was a foreigner and asked to use his phone, and voilà, I made the call.
To see some more of my photos from France and hear about my travels there check out my posts on Paris, here and here. As well as my posts about living in the South of France and taking a crazy roadtrip.