Understanding the French… a few tips for getting the most out of your travels

Since summer is officially here, and it is officially the most beautiful (and busiest!) time in Provence, I thought it would be a good idea to re-visit a few of the “travel tips” to keep in mind when coming to France. These are just a few of my thoughts, and you can certainly find many more useful tips from fellow travelers to complement this list.

When I first arrived in France, I have to admit that I was full of stereotypes. Having only visited Paris  (and a few other towns in the north) as part of a whirlwind “Europe tour” in my late 20s, I’d based all of my ideas about the French off those 2 hectic weeks.

As we shuffled from town to town, I remember feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Sure, the surroundings were incredibly beautiful and the food was knock-your-socks-off delicious, but I had a hard time getting my head around the culture. Just what was going on behind those pretty market stalls and at those lively bistro tables? I couldn’t speak a word of French and felt intimated by all the “classy” French ladies and gentlemen we saw – surely we’d have nothing in common, even if I was able to communicate beyond my meager “bonjour”. They certainly didn’t seem “overly-friendly” (and we Americans are definitely all about being friendly) so I stuck to my small group of English-speakers and my interactions with the French were limited to struggling to order food and / or buying train tickets.

I missed out on a lot, and now knowing how rich and interesting French culture is, it’s definitely worth “going the extra mile” to try to understand what’s happening around you. I hope these few tips will set you off in the right direction.

1. Learn a little bit of French before you travel – even if it’s only a few, useful phrases.

Call it saving face, or just plain shyness, but a lot of French people are often embarrassed to speak English (even though many have a very good level), and really appreciate your efforts to speak French with them. No matter how terrible your (*American*) accent is or even if they might not understand your first attempts to speak French… press on! You’ll be winning them over with every bonjour, si vous plait, and merci. Plus, being able to communicate, even a little bit, will certainly enrich your trip and hopefully lead to more of a cultural “exchange”.

2. France is not just Paris, big-city travel is not always the easiest (or the most polite!).

We had friends visit recently who, unfortunately, had a few bad experiences in Paris. I also had some brushes with rudeness in la capitale on my first visit, but subsequent visits have been nothing but pleasant (ok, save the lack of air conditioning on the metro, but that’s another story…). Paris is a big city, just like LA or New York; expect a touch of brusqueness mixed with busy people hustling about and you’ll do just fine. Then come to the South and lounge on the beach for a few hours, all will be forgotten.

3. Be ready to spend time getting to know the French. It takes awhile but once you’re “in”, you’ll likely have a friend for life.

The French will probably not greet you with a resounding “ciao”, slap you on the back, and then offer you a shot of Sambuca in your morning coffee (as we discovered during one memorable trip to Italy). They are often harder to get to know (on first meeting!), and the French culture calls for a good deal of formality which can seem stiff & rigid at times, but actually is incredibly polite. The formality is a sign of respect and shows how caring the French really are… I’ve come to love this aspect of living here and wouldn’t change it for anything. Even though it may feel a bit awkward in the beginning, try greeting shopkeepers with a Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur when entering and an equal Au revoir Madame / Monsieur when exiting.  You’ll be surprised by just how favorable an impression this can make…

4. The French aren’t rude, they’re just a bit reserved – a touch of cultural understanding goes a long way.

The French culture couldn’t be further away from my impressions during that first trip. Far from being rude, the French are kind, generous, and will go out of their way to make you feel at home. They’re just don’t operate on my “American” standards – meaning they are not indeed “overly friendly” to people they don’t know. Are they more private than Americans? Sure. Any less nice? Definitely not. As far as I can tell (in my 4 short years here!) the French “attitude” is about being genuine – until they know you a little better, they won’t necessarily be terribly open. A little hard to appreciate at first (as an American), but once you take some time to understand their culture, you might just find that the French are some of the most authentic people you’ll ever have the pleasure of getting to know.


Do you have any tips for traveling around France that have worked for you? I’d love to read your comments below…


2 thoughts on “Understanding the French… a few tips for getting the most out of your travels”

  1. All great tips Tuula! I had to laugh at the *ciao* and sambuca reference. It’s exactly why I am more drawn to Italy and Italians. They are very gregarious in nature, which is much more to my personality, so it just seems a better fit. Effortless.

    Though I still love the French, they are more reserved and perhaps harder to get to know, but I find them very funny and warm too!

    One other tip is to dress a bit better – still comfortable, but put together. Leave the fanny packs and orthopedic style white sneakers home 😉 And since my work often involves planning for market visits – I am always reminding clients NOT to touch the produce at the markets, which is very different from how those of us in the U.S. do our food shopping.

    Always love reading your accounts of life in France!


    1. Spot-on Robin, thank you for your comment! All the things you listed are great tips… especially trying to “dress the part” while you’re traveling…. fanny packs and all, ha ha…


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