20 Things to Know Before Traveling in France

So wait, that’s it? France is over? Let’s reflect:

We’ve hitchhiked, gotten into the world-class festival les vieilles charrues for free, worked on five different farms, cooked for groups, butchered rabbits, been taken in by random strangers, eaten cheese every day (literally?)…

I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. Three months (nearly), 14 different households, 2,236 miles, a lot of learnin’, and a whole lotta new friends.

The countless people I’ve met on this voyage have begun to roll themselves into some single entity in my mind, bending and shimmering until I can’t quite pick out who was who and when was where. I wonder what this amorphous creation will be at the end of this food journey, and if the memories will ever stop adjusting and brightening themselves.

chowgypsy france
Clockwise from top-left:...just kidding.

When you come to a country with a smile, attempting to speak the language and open to their culture, you will be taken in with open arms.

Indeed, I’m still no expert on France and French culture; I don’t think any amount of immersion would put me quite in that position. I don’t think the French would allow that. 

But I’ll tell you what: I did learn a thing or two on what you should know about traveling in France. Some things are minor, some major, but all are interesting, some are fun, and many might even be useful.

20 Things to Know About Traveling in France

1.   The Cheek Kiss. I cringe thinking of the times I went in for the kiss, realized mid-stride that the other person maybe wasn’t going for it, then lost my nerve and artlessly swooped past them, leaving an awkward gust of wind upon their cheek.

I was just going to fetch that rock . . . on the floor . . .there.

Kiss or handshake? Wait for the other to make the move. Save yourself the worry. If they want to faire la bise, offer your right cheek (like your right hand), then your left. Sometimes they’ll just keep going, so pucker up (or stand limply) and follow their lead.

You don’t even have to make cheek contact, as we’re going for more for sound effects. Be prepared for some really uncomfortable moments of figuring out who’s going to which side. This can get personal.

Or, play the sweet cultureless foreigner card and skip the fiasco all together. Want to not play that card? Read Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French.

2.    Speak French first. How would you feel if someone barreled up to you in your hometown and began presumptuously speaking to you in a foreign language? This happens a lot in France. Know enough to say basic greetings and to ask whether the person speaks some English. Want to get started? Pimsleur's French Conversational Course is pretty great.

(Also: French schools spend little time on conversational English, focusing more on reading and writing. Therefore, many French lack English-speaking confidence. Once they see how terrible your French is, though, they'll realize that they have nothing to be ashamed of.)

3.    French people do not mix food. I think meal courses are served separately just to spite me, as though they know that I will want to put the fresh tomato atop my steak or take a bite of soup after the salad (the horror!). Why anybody would resist a cheese and salami combo, I don’t know, but you’re a guest, so eat the salami as an appetizer and the cheese as a dessert, damnit.

When everything is served at once, you seldom see people mixing food together on the plate. But do what you like, raised eyebrows be damned. Intrigued? Check out Mastering the Art of French Eating.

4.    Know your regions: France is small, but the personalities within it aren’t. There are 22 regions within France—culture, dialect, cuisine, and weather all vary notably. Where to begin? Rick Steves France 2017.Learning is fun!

5.    Forget eggs and bacon. No pancakes, either. Don’t even think about fruit and yogurt (that doesn't happen until after dinner). You have two choices for breakfast: bread or pastries. If this makes your mouth water but your delicate body image fret, come prepared.

6.   Always greet with titles, unless you’re on familiar terms with someone:
Monsieur (miss-yure)=Mr.
Madame (mah-dahm)=Mrs./Ms.
Mademoiselle (mah-deh-mwah-zelle)=Miss

7.  There is a different way to speak to a person based on age and the relationship you have with him/her. It’s like the difference between saying “hey, you” and “excuse me.” This can seem daunting, so when in doubt, make sure you’re using the polite form. See this page for a primer.

8.   Most European countries don’t drink huge cups of coffee like Americans, aka “brown water” or “dirty sock juice.” After living in France, it's hard not to prefer the smaller, more concentrated European style. When you saddle up to order, a normal “café” has one shot of espresso, and large ("grand cafe") has two shots.

See this blog for more coffee ordering tips. You can find a good coffee in nearly every café in France—no Starbucks necessary (and what are you doing going to an American franchise while in France, anyway??).

9.    Don’t miss out on the Menu du Jour, wherein you get a drink, appetizer, entrée, and dessert or coffee for a great all-inclusive price. Usually there’s a choice for each course, so it’s easy to find something you like. Why America hasn’t adopted this tradition, I’m not sure.

10. France excessively tolls its roads. If you plan on renting a car, see my post on cheap travel in France for more information on how to plan for and/or avoid this.

11. The sandwiches in France are for the birds. Don’t give me one thin slice of cheese and ham with a couple tomato slices hidden within a billowing baguette. I’m an American, damnit, and I’m angry, and I want my deli meat layered with my cheese overhanging and a pile of tomatoes, lettuce, and red onion holding on for dear life.

Don’t waste your money. Buy your own sandwich material and do it right.

12.   Find markets! One of the greatest things about France is that even the tiniest towns have their Saturday markets—fresh food is just that important to them. You wanna be ready, like really ready? Get the book Markets of Paris . Stat!
french markets
Vienne's Saturday World Market

 Getting around by trains is easy, but expensive—sometimes more expensive than flying. Your best bet (which is also the most fun and comfortable), is carpooling. Don’t fret—it is carpooling with strangers, but peer reviews and user profiles make this a trustworthy option. See my post on cheap travel in France for more information.

14.  The French very much take siestas. Cool idea, but often inconvenient. From 12-2pm, don’t go shopping. It will end sadly. Furthermore, Sunday is a day-long siesta and for many stores, Monday is too. No groceries. Just read the store hours in advance, and adapt.

15.   Avoid anything that uses pictures in the menu. This is rule for nearly all restaurants and cafes on earth. Tourist trap alert. They’ve given up on the locals who already know what the food is (and how bad it tastes), and now they hope to fool you based on probably-misleading photos. The only exceptions to this rule are the restaurants in China Town because they know that all non-Chinese are truly clueless to the items.

16.   Hitchhiking, or “autostop” is accepted and smiled upon in France. Usually. Write your destination on a sign and write "S.V.P" at the bottom (s'il vous plaît). Good luck.

17.   Servers don’t expect a tip. This explains why the service typically isn’t great. If the service is good, however, a 5-10% tip will not go unappreciated.

18.   Meals (lunch and dinner) are typically eaten later in the day, with dinner at earliest not until 7:30pm. Additionally, they tend to take longer, as the French prefer serving separate courses rather than hucking everything on the table at once. Pack a snack in that fanny pack.

19.   The standard size for a beer in France is 250ml (half a normal American bottle). These tiny bottles and glasses of beer kept showing up in refrigerators and bars all across France, as though they could have any sort of impact upon a typical American appetite. It’s like beer for babies—which is wrong in more ways than one.

small french beer

20.   Biologique=Organic. While it’s great that most of France’s produce is local, it’s still sprayed with pesticides. France has an impressive amount of organic/natural stores. Here’s a great link from My Mélange on organic shops in Paris. My favorites were Bio Generation and Naturalia. Most stores have biologique selections, though.

If you want to know more about navigating the culture without seeming like a bozo, the best book is Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French, and French Kids Eat Everything is a blast, too. Not jsut kid stuff.

If you’re wondering how I’ve done on the language front, I’ve progressed from haltingly speaking a nonsensical French to confidently blabbing in equally nonsensical French.

Here’s an example sentence, translated from my French into English: “I have he has make clothes to go.”

Basically, nothing I say ever makes sense. But we all get a good laugh and continue living.

As for now, a new chapter has begun in Israel. We spent last night doing one of my all-time favorite things: sleeping in an airport. I’m just kidding. Sleeping in an airport sucks.

But Israel’s is open for business 24 hours, which made it kind of nice. Knowing that I could buy a gelato at any given moment made me feel more safe/self-loathing. 

It's still hard to believe that not very long ago I was skiing in Jackson Hole. Sadly, that life full of friends and snow and the coolest pet cat in the world seems very far away.

Early yesterday, we parted ways with our devine hostess Sarah, and my parents took us the final stretch to the airport, ending the first European leg of our journey. 

A week with my parents and I didn’t even get tired of them. In fact, all this traveling away from the comforts of home almost has me wishing that they were following us to Israel. Did I just say that? Meggan, do you have a fever? Are you talking typing to yourself!? (But really, mom and dad, I’ll miss you.)

I sit on an excruciatingly terrifying bus ride as we rip and swerve over the desert roads, heading to the southern-most tip of the country: Eilat.

I have a feeling that things will be very, very different there.

What about your France experience? Leave a comment if there's something I should add!

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  1. useful...for a rookie!!
    I kid; this is a great beginners' guide :)

  2. Aha i laughed at your description of sandwhiches, as a half american, half french.
    I live in France now but did take a long time to get use to it, Paris has nothing to do with Orlando Florida but in the end you realise it's a wonderfull country with AMAZING FOOOD, there isn't a country IN THE ENTIRE WORLD where i have eaten better.

    1. I can hardly be surprised that you eat so well there, especially if you were cominng from Florida! When you know where to go, the food is absurdly good. I must say though, Turkey gave France a surprising run for its money!

  3. Hi,
    So funny !
    I'm French and your article gives me lot of smile !
    There is just one mystake on the 13. : not "faire la baise" but "faire la bise" ("baise" is to do sexual acts you know ^^ and "bise" is a small kiss)

  4. haha, WOW--thank you for the correction!!
    And I'm glad you liked the list :)

  5. Great list, and nice illustration about how do we greet in french. that is really nice story you put there in the point no. 13.

  6. Thank you! I had plenty of awkward moments like that, so hopefully this helps!

  7. Brilliant tips you share with us....some looks funny and some are seriously thinkable. We just planning for Next week France trip and i hope this will be helpful for us. I love to see that you share some beautiful pics also with this informative content.

  8. On food, this is really something I'd like you to discuss with the dog's veterinarian because the sister dog does have a medical issue. I can tell you that I have had this issue with my own dog. He has allergies and has been on a variety of specialty foods over the years, not all of them very appealing to him, and we have had food strikes.

  9. I'm going to France tomorrow and I'm so excited! I know some french and my husband grew up there so I think I'll be alright. Your tips will be a great help to me.

  10. Wow!!! very interesting post. I like the way you had written and used the picture in your blog. I never went to the France but some day I will. I really appreciate your article because someday I will need to know these things about France.

  11. Hi there !
    I know this article has been written a long time ago but I'd like to correct one tiny thing.
    17 : We DO expect tips actually. Difference is that, in France, service is included. You do pay us through the bill but the minimum wage is not that great unless you're the Manager so tips are very welcome.
    And I'll add that I'm so glad you said to "Speak french first". We have such a bad reputation (especially in Paris) when it comes to welcome tourists but tourists also have to ask themselves why. As you said, we expect them to at least know how to say "hello, do you speak english?" (in french, of course..) before they start asking for a million things very fast not even knowing if we actually do speak english. I work in restaurants for 5 years now, and I've seen coworkers not making the effort to speak english even if they do just because the people coming into the restaurant didn't make the effort to speak a few words in french. So now you know ! :)
    Have a nice day y'all

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  13. Hi thanks for sharing and like you we love France and especially the food and not east the wine, for transport we use fastcarhire

  14. Just to correct you you mean you live in Palestine

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