After living in France for months this year with my four children, which I will write more about soon, I’ve come to see that the French really do have a particular way–let’s say, often a very particular way–of doing things.
I’ve traveled and spent a lot of time in France over the years. There was that hot August month in Paris solo with my four kids, that time roadtripping along the Mediterranean after walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain (oh, how they were sooo tiny then), those times crewing and cheering at various UTMB trail running races, and that time hiking the Tour de Mont Blanc with the kids.
I thought these travel experiences, combined with what I had gleaned from my family’s French roots and my high school French teacher (who was unmistakably French in every possible way) imparted a decent education about France and its culture.
Pas Possible! How Wrong I Was and How Much I Have Yet to Learn
After living in France, I’ve learned this: there is so much to learn. Just when you think you’ve figured out something or you think you know something, you probably don’t.
If you stay in France long enough, some the things you’ll learn will surprise you, put a huge smile on your face, annoy you, drive you nuts, and perhaps even blow your mind.
Here are 13 things the French do:
1. Forget About Clothes Dryers.
In France, what you’re going to wear for the week requires pre-planning. France is big into energy conservation. Hanging your clothes on a line dryer or drying rack is how you’ll dry your clothes. After the sun has gone down or on damp days, you may find your living room (salon) or kitchen overflowing with freshly washed, hung laundry. Clothes dryers just aren’t popular for energy reasons. You’ll find drying racks for sale in grocery stores, sometimes near the wine, if that says anything. 🙂
2. French Bureaucracy…The French Have a Thing for Paper.
Despite France’s eco-conscious push, it may come as a shock to know that France loves paper. Well, at least the government does. France even has its own standard paper size A4, which is slightly longer and skinnier than the American standard 8×11″ paper.
The first big purchase I made in France was a printer. Why? Because France requires many things to be printed, from visa forms to copies of electricity or Internet bills to medical authorizations to banking application materials. And on A4 paper. France simply doesn’t do the electronic thing like many other countries do; in fact, online banking seems like a “new” concept in France. French are big into presenting or keeping dossiers, folders containing your personal documents needed for various applications, such as applying for an identity card, an apartment, or even for registering your child for a short sports program. Even some banks insist on sending monthly paper statements. My kids were floored when we made a trip to the local Prefecture (government office) and saw a giant wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling paper filing system behind the main desk. They asked if this is what the 80s looked like when I grew up. Hmmm…. 🙂
3. Pass the Cheese.
When you get invited to someone’s house for a meal, there will be cheese. The French do cheese. And they do it at the end of dinner. In the Alps, one plate of five, local cheeses is typically presented, including the region’s specialty (in Savoie that’s usually Reblochon).
4. Forget Tampons on Sunday.
Unless you’re living in a tourist town, you’re going to find that most stores are closed on Sunday. That’s slowly changing. In some places, such as in Paris, there are efforts to create automated stores with zero human register checkouts on Sundays (similar to Amazon’s zero human interaction store in New York’s Lower Manhattan), as a way to meet consumers’ shopping needs within the framework of existing government regulations which are designed to give employees a rest day and to give people family time. Chances are though, if you didn’t plan ahead for the expected or unexpected, you’ll be out of luck in France. I love French culture and France, but I really wish stores were open on Sunday. And I’ve also got to believe that I’m not the only woman raising daughters who feels this way. 🙂
5. Kissing Strangers.
There’s a lot of kissing happening in France, thanks to bises. That’s the double (or depending on region, one, three, or more) cheek-to-cheek air kiss greeting. But it’s not like strangers walk around France rampantly kissing every person in sight, although I’m sure there are some who wouldn’t mind doing that. Instead, these little kisses are part of a formal exchange, usually among people you know, people you are being introduced to, especially by someone you already know, colleagues, or with someone with whom you share a mutual connection (such as a good friend of a friend). Coming from the USA, where handshakes or hugs rule, getting into the bises flow can be a bit intimidating or awkward at first. However, like with everything else in France, give it time and you’ll soon be a pro–and look so damn French, too.
6. Convenience Store Meds.
Got a headache? Carsick? Nope. You’re not going to find Ibuprofen, Tylenol, or anything like Tums at the convenience store or Autoroute aire. In France, medication is closely regulated and you’ll only be able to pick up medications, including everyday over the counter meds, at one of the zillion of pharmacies around France. I recently read that there’s even a proposal brewing to put medications like Ibuprofen and paracetamol (think Tylenol) behind the counter at French Pharmacies, so they are even less accessible. Go figure. As a side note, you won’t find candy or chocolate at a French pharmacy, except for throat lozenges or cough suckers, but you most definitely at a convenience store.
7. Bread Makes You French.
I’ve learned that if there’s one way to look French (it might even be the secret to becoming French!) it’s to make an effort to get serious about bread–namely, baguettes. The French are particular about their bread. There’s a bakery in nearly every little town in France. The French buy baguettes, often a fresh one or more, every day. They can distinguish quality baguettes from low-quality ones from a kilometer away–well, just kidding about that, but seriously, locals won’t hesitate to tell you where to buy the best baguette if you ask. And you should know, at least my kids will tell you, don’t think a baguette found at a big store like Carrefour is the same as a real, fresh, hot baguette made at an authentic boulangerie. So, buy a baguette. Walk proudly down the street with a baguette sticking out of your backpack or side tote. The baguette will make you look French and feel French. D’accord?
8. French are Lovers of Wine, Romance, and Hearts.
The French love hearts. Little hanging hearts. Hearts carved into wood. Hearts spray painted on buildings or tagged on walls. Hearts marking the Salle de Bain. Chalet Hearts. Alps Savoie Red Hearts on Curtains. The French decorate with hearts. They heart hearts, especially in mountain regions where the heart is part of typical decor.
9. Buy a Cafe au Lait, Stay All Day.
It’s generally the French rule that if you buy a beverage, an espresso, a cappuccino, or order food, you’ll be pretty much left alone for as long as you want to stay at a cafe or restaurant. French servers don’t seem to care at all whether you stay ten minutes or three hours. In fact, it’s common to see French people gathering and talking on street cafes well after their glasses or mugs are empty. So, find a sweet outside cafe, grab a good book, order a cafe au lait, and sit back and relax–and of course, soak up everything French around you.
10. Walking or Hiking is For Everyone.
No wonder French people look so good. They spend so much time outside, walking, hiking, biking, and simply moving. It’s common to find whole families, even with tiny children, hiking in the mountains. It’s common to see people of all ages, too—if my grandmother lived in France, she would fit right in walking everyday on the streets and on the countless paths or trails.
11. Duvets are King.
The French love duvets and duvet covers. Chances are pretty good that you’ll find a duvet on any bed you come across in France. As a little FYI, bedding is sized slightly differently than in the USA, so if you’re thinking about moving to France and bringing your mattress, you might have a tough time finding sheets that fit. Duvet covers can be a total pain to put on. I’ve yet to figure out how the French master this with just one person. I always need a kid or two to assist me. But, duvet covers are practical and eco. They work like a sheet. You just have to wash the cover when you want to change it, and you don’t have to worry about the insert (or the batting or stuffing becoming clumpy with washes). You can also easily change the look of a room by buying a new cover. Be warned, not all French duvets have the same way of closing after you’ve inserted a duvet insert, which I know is frustrating to some. Some have snaps, tiny buttons, ties, occasionally zips, flaps that tuck, and sometimes gasp…nothing at all, leaving the insert visible.
12. You Don’t Eat in Your Car.
In France, you don’t eat in your car. Period. You just don’t. That’s so-not-classy. It’s common to see people in France set up multi-course picnics on the side of the road, at gas stations, along the highway at the Aires, on curbs outside of convenience stores, and along walking paths. But never, ever, ev’ah do they seem to eat in vehicles. So… if you happen to be in France and walk by a parked car and see crumbs everywhere in the back seat and wrappers chucked on the floor in kid-fashion, you’ve probably found my car. 🙂
13. Screen-Free Windows.
The French are screen-free fans. They don’t do screens. In France, people and young people spend far less time staring at their screens in public than in the USA. I’ve learned screen-free also extends to windows–and I’m not talking computers! You won’t find screens on house or apartment windows in France. Maybe people just don’t worry about bugs or flies in France and think maximizing Fresh air is a more important goal. Maybe screens interfere with popular shutters. IDK, but I love keeping my screen-less French windows wide open.
So Much to Learn
France is a great place to visit for a short or long term stay. There is so much to learn about France and the French way of doing things. There is a steep learning curve to acclimating to French culture when you’re from the United States. In many ways, the pace of life in France is so different, as is the quality of life. While it’s not all bliss, as no place is perfect, it certainly is a country that does things its own way–and that’s something that will keep me fascinated for some time.