Planning to visit France? French culture and lifestyle won’t be what you’re used to, but these quick tips will definitely make your stay more enjoyable.
If this is your first visit to France, you’re bound to be excited.
After all, France is one of the most-visited countries in the world, and the second largest country in Europe. Perhaps you’re thinking of romantic Paris with its chic shops, elegant folk and coffee shops but France has much more. The diversity of its landscape will amaze you: from the beaches in the South of France to the 7 beautiful mountain ranges, the Provencal villages and the dozens of rivers… the list is endless. Here’s how to make your trip fab.
Take the high-speed trains if you intend to travel from city center to city center.
Fast, comfortable, smooth and roomy, it’s so much better than flying and you’ll be right in the heart of the city as opposed to arriving at airports 20 kilometers or so away. The TGV (Trains de Grand Vitesse) can travel up to 300 kilometers per hour, and are a relaxing way to cover a lot of territory in a short time.
You can travel either first or second class—seating is classier in first class, but a little more expensive. Book ahead and you won’t break the bank. Don’t board without a ticket though as it will cost you more, and it’s embarrassing.
What you see on the label and on the bill is what you pay.
Shopping is more carefree and relaxed in France: the sales price has already been added on, so you don’t have to calculate your final price—great news for American and Canadian shoppers.
Your restaurant bill will include the service charge, but if you’re happy with the service you can leave a few euros for a meal and a few centimes in a café. There is no fixed rate but think 10% if you really appreciate the service.
Some not so good news for shopaholics: 24-hour shopping does not exist anywhere in France. Most shops, stores and supermarkets are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Slightly annoying too, you can’t count on getting your daily bread and picnic items at lunchtime as a two-hour beak for lunch is standard in most areas.
Wining, dining and hanging out in cafés is all done at a leisurely pace in France. Do the same and you won’t feel like a tourist. The French don’t snack or pick up a cup of coffee and have it on the go; instead they sit in a café, relax, sip and really enjoy their coffee.
Mealtimes are also at specific times. You won’t see French children running to the fridge to prepare a snack between meals – only the mid-afternoon one when they return from school.
Food is a passion in France: cooking is highly refined and varies depending on the different regions. If you’re going to be visiting different regions in France, make sure you find out about the local dishes and, of course, the wine.
If you’re down south in Marseille, for example, try bouillabaisse—the classic Provencal seafood dish—and if you’re in Burgundy, don’t leave without having Beouf Bourguignon and coq au vin, the best known examples from the region; the quality of beef and wine is first class.
If you’re having these superb dishes in a restaurant though, don’t ask for a doggie bag. The French might like their dogs, but don’t do doggie bags.
It’s usual to greet shopkeepers when you walk into a shop, especially if it’s a small one; a simple Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur and, on leaving, Au revoir will suffice.
Don’t be surprised by the French kissing each other on the cheek. It’s a sign of respect, affection and an art that you might not get right straightaway when your new friends meet and greet you. Men will usually shake hands, but women will kiss each other and men will kiss women.
The number of kisses on the cheek can vary from 2 to 6 depending on the region. The thing to do is to go with the flow: let the other person take the lead, keep your lips sealed and hold your breath if you want to avoid garlic fumes.
Be prepared. This will most likely be a two to three-hour affair with different courses. Your hostess will first serve an aperitif, a cocktail to whet the appetite and some light snacks.
Then comes the entrée (starter), which could be soup, some sort of salad or pâté followed by the le plat principle (the main course).
If you’re a dessert fan, you might panic when your hostess produces the cheese platter instead of dessert. This is normal: the cheese course comes before the dessert in France, so make sure you leave enough room for your favorite course.
Enjoying food is a top priority in France, even if it’s the simplest kind such as a baguette and cheese.
Traveling to France doesn’t have to be overly expensive either. Visitors to France say that if you choose your ideal destination with care, plan it well, mix and mingle with the locals — it’s bound to be fun.
Alice Alech is a writer and author based in France. She is keen to promote good healthy living and writes on nutrition, wine, food, and lifestyle. She is a coauthor of the book 7 Wonders of Olive Oil.
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