France

How to Blend in with the Locals (in France)

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:

FASHION

  • 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.

DINING

  • 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.

 a picnic at Versailles...

a picnic at Versailles...

OTHER

  • 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.

Formidable

When I left off last time, I was in the south of France. Well yesterday I traveled to Italy to begin my adventure here. Among the volunteers at Chateau la Merienne, it was decided to take a day trip to see Toulon, the city to which we had all taken the train. It had a beachy vibe, mixed with the urbanity of cultural pockets. This created a great place to wander, listening to many varieties of music spill out of windows and echo in the alleyways. There was a boardwalk along the port, where the locals were relaxing and gearing up to watch a rugby game. Toulon was worth visiting to see all sorts of people living a French Riviera lifestyle.

(I will add more pictures of Toulon later--I have had difficulties uploading photos recently)

On my last true day in France, I took a dip in the Mediterranean in wonderment at how warm the water was. The waves looked black with teal tips when I swam out as far as my arms and legs would carry me. I treaded water and floated in the center of the little cove for as long as possible, turning in circles, trying to memorize the mountains and beach.

It was definitely hard to leave France--its amazing how close you can become with people you live with for only a few weeks. But all the same, the boys drove me over the Italian border yesterday and I am once again on my own.

We set off early, after I had shoved all my clothes back in my bags. The plan was to get me to Ventimiglia, a town right across the border so I could catch a train the next morning at 6:30 to Rome. The drive was beautiful, though there were moments when I thought the wind might sweep us right off the road. We stopped in Monaco, excited to hit three countries in one day.

I knew Monaco was small, but at one point we were driving along the French side and I was able to see across the width of the country and to the Sea beyond. Monte Carlo was charming in a polished and pretty way. Walking around, the architecture was detailed and fancy. It reminded me somewhat of Paris, but with more mosaics and gold edges. You can practically smell the wealth of it, the yachts lined up in the harbor, each bigger than the next. We grabbed sandwiches and ate in the park near the center of town. Green everywhere, it felt like a pocket of wonderland. We realized just how posed it was when my friend sat on a rock and found it was hollow and plastic. Next we walked through a casino, simply for the experience. Green-lit and with a colorful carpet, the slot machines got more ridiculous as we walked through until we reached the 'Glitter Kitty' machine and decided to head back. With a bit more exploring all three of us decided that Monaco was fun to visit, but nothing more.

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Another half an hour driving and we were in Italy. Ventimiglia exceeded all expectations. Partially old crumbled buildings and partially modern cafes and pizza places, it sat right against a gorgeous stone beach. I know it is the same sea, yet the water looked brighter and more aqua than in France. The waves crashed here, though only around knee-height. The beach had very little sand, just rocks ranging from the size of my fist to pebbles no bigger than a pea. In the distance you could see the French coastline jutting out.

Next we crossed the small waterway that split Ventimiglia in half and then climbed as high up as we could go. Here the buildings were older and falling down. The tiny streets with their cobblestones and arches displayed underwear and dresses hung to dry. Up and down, they wound and led us to a church from 1100 that was bare of paintings. However, the house came in all colors: golden, cream, salmon, pink, lavender, and gray with shutters in many more shades than that.

Headed back towards the car and grabbed my first Italian gelato on the way. Then began the chase to find my Airbnb host for the night. This was the first time I had rented a room via Airbnb. My best tip would be to make sure all details like an address and meeting time are put in place a few days prior to arrival, while you still have plenty of access to wifi. There was some miscommunication between my host and I, as I realized I didn't have her full address. After find a free wifi hotspot and a few emails, we straightened things out and I got to my room. It was comfortable, with some great paintings on the walls and a small balcony. I said ciao to my friends from France and settled in with a piece of focaccia sitting on the balcony, listening to the scooters pass by.

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Now I am on a train to Roma. I stumbled to the train station while it was still dark this morning, forgetting my lunch on the mantle of my rented room. Dragged my bags up the steps, bought a much more expensive lunch, dragged my bags down some steps and boarded my train. In case any of you ever are hauling bags through metro and train stations, I have a bit of a strategy: if you can stack your bags, do so then face the stair rail and shuffle sideways up or down the steps, using one hand for leverage and the other clutching at the handles of your luggage. It may look quite silly, but with continued practice it can be an efficient skill. Currently I am facing another three hours of train with five already behind me. I must say that the TGV train I took in France was more comfortable and faster-moving than this, although my Trenitalia ticket was half the price for double the time. A frugal traveler must do what she can to conserve her funds, this means sacrificing comfort and gaining a leg cramp or two in order to spend a few unexpected nights in Rome.

Absolutely Gorgeous

The other volunteers and I have managed to fit in some more explorations during our free time. We made it a mission to visit a place mentioned to us in passing--the Gorge of Verdon, supposedly the Grand Canyon of France. We thought it would be a simple day trip, wake up and leave by 10, grab gas for the car (a Kangoo, basically a old European mini van that is kindly provided by our hosts for volunteer use) and a picnic lunch. We were wrong in assuming, as life can never be simple. Five hours were spent before we reached the gorge which is two and a half hours away by car. When we first stopped for gas, we checked the oil as the dashboard had multiple warning lights on and we didn't know which were unusual for this cute, green clunker. After finally locating the oil and the testing stick in the European engine, we saw how low it was and decided to buy some more. In trying to find the oil we also found that some other parts looked a little funky, but since the warning lights were off when restarting the car we decided to soldier on. After about two hours of driving, we had passed through civilization and were bordering the secluded mountains and forests that surrounded our destination. That is when the volunteer driving the Kangoo interrupted our thoughts and French study sessions to point out a light on the dashboard that had been on for the last few kilometers. Pulling over, we popped the hood and looked under. Only one of the four of us really knows anything about cars and the look on his face when he saw the puff of smoke and bubbling canister told me that this would be quite a ride.

He told us the coolant had run out and the car was overheating. So we poured in some of our hiking water, let the engine cool off, and planned a route through the mountainous roads to the nearest town, still a couple clicks away. We drove as slowly as possible, all four sets of eyes watching the water temperature gauge. Upon finally arriving at the town and driving around looking for a gas station, I hopped out of the car and used my best French accent to ask where one was. I was given a sympathetic glance and told that this town didn't have one, but the last town we had passed through on the way to the Gorge did. Back at the car we poured in more water and I took over driving for a bit, slowing winding our way back the route we came.

We stopped once, at a garage with cars out front, but the only answer to our knocking and loud 'Bonjour!'s was the continuous barking of the watchdog. After driving another 20 or so kilometers with anxious hands gripping the steering wheel, we came to the gas station. People were there filling up their tanks, however the store portion of the station was closed. It was then that we realized it was a Sunday afternoon. In France, Sundays mean lazy days in which almost nothing is open in the mornings and absolutely nothing is open past noon. We emptied the last of our water into the radiator and decided to turn tail and do our best to get home in one piece.

I continued driving, my mind turned inward thinking about if the car would make it much longer and the missed opportunity of the Gorge. About two minutes down the road, my eyes caught on something and I was pulling into the parking lot as I fully registered the sign: TOTAL 24h/7j. It was a lone open gas station, our savior. We rushed inside and bought the biggest container of coolant they sold and a bit more gas, before turning back towards our initial destination. Thus, three hours after our expected arrival we pulled up to a lookout perch and ogled the small picturesque town built in the side of a mountain and the deep valleys that hinted of the Gorge.

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Drove just a tad farther before we saw a sign for a balcony. We made our way through the trees to the edge of a cliff that dropped off. The mountains on the opposite side sat sturdy and full in the flat gray of the sky. Edging closer my stomach gave a jump, as I looked into the gash of grey rock and tiers of trees. In order to see the water running bright, clear aqua at the base I had to get on my hands and knees, clutching the ridges of rock in front of me. One of the boys next to me gave a yelp, followed by the reverberating echoes that lasted for about thirty seconds. Soon three boys were calling out. Their voices threw across the canyon and spread their child-like wonder of this feature that made us all seem so small and young. We made it to the Gorge of Verdon and it was worth the trip.

We found the balcony (a proper lookout, unlike the previous precipice we clung to) and took in the repetitive, surrounding, hulky vastness that encased us. Then we took the bridge across the Gorge to a picnic spot to have our lunch at last. More exploring was done before I insisted in stopping at one of the nearby villages. Here's the thing about France--if you see a crumble of cobblestone and churches perched on a ridge, you should probably stop in. There are too many little villages and towns built on ruins that are too small or too interesting to be put in guidebooks and on websites. So we did just that and got out to walk through what was called Trigance. My gut was right about this one. Trigance was my favorite castle and old village so far. Though the inside of the castle was not open to the public, we spent over an hour walking the same handful of streets. Our faces tight with awe, eyes open wide and twitching in order to take it all in. Crooked lilac shutters, a tiny square with a fountain, a little boy playing in the streets, the dome of the sky overhead, the cats sulking in an alley, the view of the countryside that enveloped the town from the base of the castle--simply too much for the human body to contain.

Eventually we headed home, quite tired and satisfied with our journey, only having to stop and pour in more coolant once.

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