10 Do’s and Don’ts for Travelling in France
Avoid a dangerous French faux pas with these helpful hints
When you start a Google search with the phrase “The French are…”, you get two top results. The first is a famous lyric, “The French are glad to die for love” from Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The second is the common stereotype, “The French are rude.” Both have a hint of truth to them.
The French are a rather passionate people, highly opinionated and quite proud of their nation’s rich art, cuisine, culture, and history. And rightly so – from the Impressionists to the Enlightenment thinkers to that buttery croissant, France is a delightful adventure within itself. With its variety of regions, large cities, alpine mountains, gorgeous coastlines, marvelous chateaux, fruitful vineyards, and charming medieval villages, France is a must on any European itinerary.
But the French passion often results in somewhat abrasive behavior, especially when a tourist commits a common faux pas. So make sure to review these 10 do’s and don’ts before you travel – and enjoy the heart of western Europe.
1) Discuss French politics and current events unless you are up to date. The French take these matters quite seriously and everyone has their opinion – which means if you have an ill-informed one, that seemingly nice Frenchman next to you at the bar will educate you. Even if you major in French Studies, make sure you emphasize that your view is that of an outsider, and stray from bold criticism of anything French.
2) Complain about how long it takes to get your cafe order. French cafe culture is drastically different from the American coffee culture. Whereas in the US you grab your coffee and go, in France you must linger over your coffee, sit outside the cafe, watch people pass by, and enjoy the moment. Also realize that “coffee” in France has hundreds of variation, none of which are the kind of coffee you get at Dunkin.
3) Assume everyone speaks English. Surprisingly, a lot of French people do not speak English. Unlike nations like Germany and Denmark, English is not as highly stressed in France, and the French covet their language. Unless you are at the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower or anywhere where only tourists go, chances are you’ll have to speak some French.
4) Wear shorts. Although teens in France do wear shorts in the summer, sophisticated French women will either wear skirts, dresses, or lightweight long/capri pants. Short shorts are considered a bit crass, and some restaurants won’t let you enter their dinner service in such casual clothing.
5) Refer to superiors by their first name. The French system is rather hierarchical, and students should refer to anyone older than them as madame or monsieur, or by their appropriate title. Never use the “tu” form of speech (the French equivalent of a casual “you”) – instead use the “vous” form in phrases such as “s’il vous plait”, “avez-vous…”, and “Je vouz remercie.”
1) Learn key French phrases. Piggy-backing off of #5 of the don’ts, it is crucial to learn key French phrases, especially ones for politeness. When entering a store, always greet people with a “bonjour”, make sure to thank them with a “merci”, and always say some variation of “au revoir” on the way out. Politeness is incredibly important in France.
2) Dress well. Ripped jeans don’t work. That old camp T-shirt doesn’t work. Your university sweatshirt should be left for lounging around your hostel. You don’t have to dress fancily, but do dress well. That means a clean pair of jeans, a cardigan, comfortable but well-maintained walking shoes, a classic dress. Classic style trumps the latest trends – so leave the sequins at home and bring your best basics.
3) Order multiple courses. If you are out at a restaurant, make it a full meal. French culinary culture is a world of its own, and meals are meant to last several hours to allow you to savor the flavors and appreciate the culinary excellence of the chef. Drink the wine and be adventurous – escargots are actually quite delicious.
4) Bring a gift for your host or hostess. If you are fortunate enough to be invited to a French home or have a host family, bring a gift. A good, thoughtful gift. A mug with your university logo won’t cut it – make sure it’s classy and practical. For dinner, a good bottle of wine or a vase with flowers are classics.
5) Stray off the tourist path. Sure, there are some iconic things you must see: the Eiffel Tower, Monaco, the D-Day beaches. But France is at its most charming in its villages and towns, where locals actually do know their local baker and life moves at a slower pace. A true immersion in France is not complete without discovering your own tourist-free nook.
Keep these general guidelines in mind when traveling in France, and you will get along with those pesky Frenchmen in no time. But beware – you might fall in love with the country and never leave.