Culture is a tricky thing. You may fall in love with some of the surface aspects at first, but the more you keep digging, the more you realize what a bottomless pit of wonderment it can be.
There is the obvious, like food and holidays. And then, there are the things you keep discovering day after day, such as a sense of privacy, what to say in which circumstances, the family customs, etc. Some of it may make you fall in love with the culture all over again. Others still don't make complete sense to me, many years later. And then, there are the things I keep discovering despite my relative familiarity with the country and its people.
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I was a Francophile long before I married a Frenchman (lucky me). By now, I have had decades behind me spent loving France and French things. I even lived in France, and I have French friends and friends that live in France. That’s plenty of opportunities to experience, observe, read about, admire, laugh, or lament about French culture.
This is a collection, somewhat of a mishmash of some of the things that stand out to me. Some of them will help you understand the French culture, some of them will have you scratching your head! I will continually be adding to it, so stop by from time to time and let me know what your own experience of French culture is – the good, the bad, and the ugly!
Eating & Drinking in France
If there is a thing the French are known for – and rightfully so – it's their food. Therefore, it is not entirely surprising that it is a significant aspect of their culture, with its do's and don'ts. More than sustenance, food is an art, a way of life, and something that is taken very seriously. Get two Frenchmen or women together abroad, and I guarantee that the first thing they will talk about is food.
Here are some uniquely French food-related things you may want to know more about.
If you travel anywhere near the South of France, you are more than likely to encounter Pastis. This tasty drink is synonymous in most French minds with the holidays, lazy afternoons spent playing Petanque with the locals, and cicadas singing in the sun. That's a bit of a stereotype, as a lot of “Northerners” (aka, pretty much anyone living above Provence) also drink it!
In 2003 there was a quirky movie that came out called Le Divorce with Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, and Glenn Close. It is a great chic flic that gives you a peek into life in Paris. Of course, it is has a lot of stereotypes, but as someone who lived in France, I can tell you a lot of stereotypes are based on truth!
In one of the scenes, the Parisian old-timer, ex-pat Glenn Close, meets pregnant Naomi Watts and her newly-arrived-from-America sister, Kate Hudson, at a bar/brasserie. Naomi orders a red wine and Glenn orders a “Ricard” and then explains to Kate what it is and how to drink it. It's a fun movie and a fun scene.
Ricard is a brand of pastis, an anise-flavored liquor, that was developed when Absinthe became illegal. It is a very popular drink. If you order one in France who will get a glass with the liquor at the bottom and a separate glass (or bottle) of water. Depending on where you are in France, the glass with the pastis will also have ice cubes, or sometimes you will get a third smaller glass with ice (some traditionalists don't want the ice). You then add as much, or as little, water as you want depending on preference and potency.
It is yummy. There is also a non-alcoholic version that is prepared the same way. You might be familiar with Torani syrups for Italian sodas and many U.S. coffee shops still use these syrups today to flavor their coffees. These same types of syrups are used by French people to make refreshing drinks.
You can buy these syrups at any grocery store, but as with anything in life, there are better versions than what you can get in the store. They become quite artisanal in their creation.
On one road trip that my husband and I took while we were living in France, we were about two hours from our home wandering around small roads taking in whatever we could find. We stopped at an olive oil tasting stand and sampled some oils. They had a little store that sold regional products and we picked up two bottles of syrup, one was anise and one was mandarin. We packed them up with our olive oil purchase and drove home.
We put the bottles away and forgot about them for a bit. A few weeks later we pulled the mandarin out and prepared a drink. The taste was unbelievable, I had not had anything that tasted like you were drinking mandarin, it was more than just a hint, but it wasn't too sweet. So being the techie people we were, we looked up the company on the internet and found out they were a little monastery called Eyguebelle three hours away who made the syrups.
So what did we do? You guessed it. The next weekend we got in the car and drove three hours (one-way) to the Drome region and found that little monastery and bought a whole bunch more. They had about 60 flavors as well as alcoholic varieties called Eaux-de-vies as well as lotions and soaps, etc. It was quite a place, all-natural, and made by monks! We made our purchases, walked around the grounds a bit, stopped for a lunch of scrambled eggs with black truffle, and then drove three hours home with the biggest smiles on our faces.
We brought the syrups to the U.S. with us when we moved back, and I am telling you it was like liquid gold, a very precious item!
So if you ever find yourself in France, give it a try, order a Ricard and enjoy it! And if you are EVER near Drome, go to the Eyguebelle monastery!
La Méjeonne – 26230 VALAURIE
Tél. : 04 75 98 03 80
website (in French): www.eyguebelle.com
But don't be sad if you are “only” going to Paris. We found a store that carries Eyguebelle and it is in a beautiful part of Paris. The store doesn't have a name that I can find. The best directions I can give you are:
Follow the directions for Chez Julien, a very famous restaurant located at: 1 Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe (75004, 4th arrondissement)
The cobblestoned street to the left of Chez Julien is called Rue des Barres
Walk up that street leading to the Église Saint-Gervais (church)
The church has a store that carries religious and monastery products including Eyguebelle!
Diabolo Menthe or Grenadine
If you are sitting out on a terrace in France in the summer you may see people drinking bright green (menthe or mint) or bright red (grenadine – originally pomegranate, now mixed red fruit). My mother-in-law drinks that mint one because she is not big on alcohol and these drinks are made with non-alcoholic syrups. The syrup is mixed into sparkling water (usually Sprite or Perrier) lemonade, and even milk. You can also add the syrups into panachés as well!
Before I was low carb I drank TONS of panachés! This is a light beer mixed with a carbonated lemon-lime drink or French lemonade (like Lorina). Outside of France, it is called a shandy. I still cannot resist ordering these when we visit Paris in the summer, but I don't feel guilty because of all the walking we do!
The French often start a meal out at a restaurant with a cocktail. When I first started dating Mr. Misadventures he would order Kir Royales for us. This is crème de cassis (black raspberry) topped with champagne. A traditional Kir is this dark red liqueur and wine. The champagne turns version is fancy 🙂 These days I prefer my champagne just straight up, but from time to time, I will still get a Kir Royale.
On any given Friday afternoon in Switzerland or France, you will likely find office workers gathered around having an apéro. I think the closest relative to this on the American side would be a private happy hour. Also, as soon as they leave work, the French like to gather around for more apéro! Either at a local café or someone's home or if the weather is nice, outside.
The drinks vary by where you are geographically, but in my experiences in Switzerland and Paris, it was usually champagne or a kir royale. Other parts go for martinis, pastis, fruit juice, or Lillet. It is served with salty appetizers like chips or nuts or salty crackers or olives and it is usually one single drink.
When you go to a French home for dinner, the meal usually begins with an apéro as well. What should be, in theory, a simple pre-dinner drink often ends up in an afternoon feast of cheese, olives, charcuterie, crackers, etc., that can accompany hours of lively discussions. If you are invited to a French home, be aware that the impressive display of food and drinks that are waiting for you as the hosts finish putting the last touches on the meal is not even the first course!
It is a moment for chatting and relaxing before a more formal dining experience. It is a moment of levity and camaraderie. To relax and get ready for the main event.
For anyone with a sweet tooth, a café Gourmand is probably the best way to end a meal. And if you never know what to pick from the fabulous dessert menu, it can be a Godsend. If it is on the menu, follow my advice: go for it! You really can't go wrong with it.
My husband and I are gourmands, or as we call ourselves, greedy gourmands. If there are 4 things on a menu, we want to try them all, if there are 8, the same! We love food and experiencing food throughout our travels. I think that food is one of the greatest joys in life. It does not just represent sustenance or energy but so much more: pleasure, taste, joy, laughter, sharing, etc.
So while traveling in France, my husband and I almost always partake of the café gourmand. When a regular-sized dessert seems too much of a commitment, but just an espresso won’t cut it, we get a café gourmand. It is an espresso served with a plate of miniature desserts. Normally it is 3: a small moelleux au chocolat (warm chocolate cake or brownie with warm pudding inside), crème brûlée and a clafoutis (like a little cherry pie) or macaroon.
So you can order an extra espresso and share one between two people, or you can join the greedy gourmand club and eat it all to yourself!
Carte du Jour
Eating out is one of the major expenses of any trip – especially for a foodie like me! Therefore, I have a big appreciation for the Menu du Jour, which often offers two or three courses for a fraction of the A la carte equivalent.
The exchange rate between the dollar and the Euro plus that nasty VAT means that everything you buy while in Europe is more expensive than “back at home.” When traveling anywhere in the world eating in restaurants for all your meals can cost you quite a bit from your vacation budget.
We never eat breakfast in the hotel, unless of course it is included in the price of the room. Most hotel breakfasts are outrageously priced and the quality is usually not that good. Instead, we will go to a local bar or cafe and have their “petit dejeuner” which consists of coffee, orange juice, and either a croissant or a half of a baguette with butter and jams. Some places give both a croissant and a baguette. The price is usually around 10 Euros (I’ve seen it at 7).
For lunch, we will grab a sandwich at a bakery, or you could grab a crepe or kebab from the street. They are all filling and excellent! You can also eat at many high-end restaurants for lunch and pay much less than you would for dinner and still get a fantastic meal. If you do that, then you can switch my suggestion and have a sandwich for dinner, believe me, a meal at one of the fine establishments will fill you up and you may even skip dinner all together!
For dinner (or even for lunch) you can’t go wrong with the “carte du jour” it is the special of the day and usually costs less. Or there is the “menu du jour” which will allow you to select a starter, main course, and dessert from a set list. It is a lot cheaper than if you ordered three individual courses.
In Paris, my husband and I like to eat at brasseries, as well. They are less expensive than most restaurants and are open non-stop as opposed to some restaurants that have dinner hours that may start at 8, etc.
If you follow these guidelines you might have enough money left over to buy some of those Eiffel Tower souvenirs that are sold everywhere!
Relationships in France
Relationships between people are never easy to navigate, but it is a whole different ballgame when you throw in cultural differences. Being married to a Frenchman, with French friends (and in-laws!), is something I am very much aware of. It is not necessarily good or bad.
It is different. It takes some time to learn how to navigate those differences and how to approach various issues. Here is my take on what I have learned so far about how the French interacts with each other.
La bise. A specific kind of kiss that you see French people (as well as many other European nationalities) do in greeting (and in departure). It is the most French way to greet someone, but it can be a tricky business to navigate. Who do you kiss? Which cheek should you start on? How many times? Don't be too scared of getting it wrong, though.
The French themselves may have had a lifetime of practice, but there are still plenty of awkward moments when they meet each other for the first time, and everyone just laughs it off.
Although I lived in France in L’Ain, where la bise consisted of two kisses, I worked in Switzerland where it was customary to do three. The office was international with people coming from many countries, but at least in there, it was understood that the “home team” quantity of three presided.
However, when I went to sales and marketing meetings it was always hilarious to see the dance of the air kisses when one country had one or two more than “usual.” I tripped on this constantly.
I had an e-commerce vendor in Barcelona who I would visit several times during the year. Turns out unlike most of the rest of Spain where people kiss twice, the Barcelonians did three. When I met them for the first time and spent the afternoon with them, I parted their offices with kisses. I went in for two on the first person I exchanged kisses with, and they went for the third nearly kissing me on the mouth as I pulled away!
Paris is a two-kiss city unless the person you are interacting with sticks with their “origins” (a lot of people in Paris aren’t originally from Paris) and throws you off with their regional number. So although my mother-in-law lived in Paris for thirty years, she insists on four kisses as they do it in Poitou-Charentes!
Here is a map so you can see just how crazy it can get. It details the number of kisses (up to 5!) in the various regions of France.
Funnily enough for an American, these kisses feel very intimate while the French feel our American-style hugs are far more so! Interesting, huh?
Romance – He loves me, he loves me not
Ahhh, love. It is the universal language, but we don’t all speak it the same way.
As part of a multicultural couple, figuring out the intricacies of love can be quite an adventure. Luckily enough the French are as intriguing on this topic as they are on everything else in their world, meaning there are many shades of gray and many levels of nuances. I am sure it is something that I will spend the rest of my life trying to master!
French children are raised to challenge, question, prod…not take things for granted or accept the status quo…
Love is a living thing, not something that is chased, captured, and placed in a box. It needs to be fed and nourished at all times lest it slips away. It must be challenging as well, which can keep you on your toes (believe me!).
A few years ago I read a new book by Debra Ollivier called, “What French Women Know.” I know. It was a total cliche to be reading that book on my Air France flight to Paris, trust me. I took the book sleeve off. Not that I was embarrassed to be reading the book, but rather to be reading the book at that precise moment.
Because of course, I try to play the sophisticated lady, striving as always to somewhat fit in while in Paris, so I can’t be caught dead overtly studying the very thing I am trying to emulate! Ssshhh, it’s my secret!
Okay, I digress.
This book is fabulous, one of the best I have read on this topic, and I have read many, many books on this topic! In her chapter on Mystery, Ms. Ollivier reminded me of something very important to the French psyche, the infinite possibilities of love. I remember receiving flowers from my husband while he was on a business trip and I was home ill. We had not been in France long, and while I wasn’t feeling homesick, I was sick and felt a little lonely.
Some of the flowers were still alive when my husband returned from his trip and I remember taking one of the last ones and playing the “he loves me, he loves me not” game. My husband looked at me perplexed. The French do the same thing, but this is how it goes in France:
Il m’aime un peu,
à la folie,
pas du tout.
This translates to:
He loves me a little,
not at all.
Quite a difference, right? I love what Ms. Ollivier says about it:
“How unfair. While we American girls are struck in the absolutes of total love or total rejection, the French girl is already primed to think in nuances and in an infinite gamut of romance. While we lust after happy endings and closure, they’re comfortable with emotional subtleties and ambiguity. While we grow up thinking in black and white, they grow up inscrutably gray.” (page 50)
It is very difficult to learn to be comfortable with emotional subtleties and ambiguity, it is not something that comes naturally to me. I like cold hard facts. I like lists with checkboxes and closure. I admire the French for this skill.
It is why French was the language of diplomacy for centuries, the nuances and the grays. The legal treaties and agreements of countries and nations benefited from this kind of language which isn’t always the case for agreements between human beings, particularly man and wife, but alas, that’s what makes life more interesting, n’est pas?
The Flower Game
The first time my mother-in-law visited us in the U.S. I bought her a bouquet of flowers. A pretty one from our local grocery store. When I gave it to her, she gave me a strange look and I was quite taken back. Then Mr. Misadventures looked at the bouquet and whispered in my ear, “those flowers are only for funerals and cemeteries!” Mon dieu! The type of flower and the color makes a difference for French people – here is a list to help you!
NO chrysanthemums this is for funerals, cemeteries, and gravesites. (Don't make my mistake!)
My second favorite flower, carnations are not popular either. Reds especially, are “threatening.”
You can only give red roses to people you are romantically in love with. And only in odd numbers (but no 13). All-yellow bouquets mean unfaithfulness (not sure to whom you are not supposed to give it to? The girlfriend or the mistress!?)
5 à 7
If you think the French couples live happily ever after, along with their lovers and mistresses, think again. Although they don't shy away from a scandal, the repercussions are often very different from what stereotypes would lead you to believe.
Often known as the French Happy Hour (or l’apéro) this expression also has a seamier side. It’s known for the traditional hour(s) for the mistress in France. You can probably picture it: businessman leaves the office at 5:00 after a busy day and heads over to meet his amant (lover) at a discreet hotel for a drink and more…
Not a new concept for France, but still a reality? I don’t know but it can’t be far from the truth when services like Day Use (when they first launched that was definitely their target market, although now the demo is more travelers) are cropping up. Their site “lists all Parisian hotels offering luxurious rooms by the hour, at negotiated prices.”
Love hotels have been around in Asia in places like Tokyo and Seoul for quite a long time. A lot of young people live with their parents until they are married and these hotels provide a means to be intimate with another person. Of course, their hotels are used for traditional affairs as well.
The French’s attitude towards the affair is somewhat blasé because they are more open about it. There is the understanding that an amant will remain an amant and not take the place of the spouse. But I can tell you it does destroy many couples and many families despite what you see in French films.
There are too many aspects of French culture to sort in specific categories. So, here are some of my reflections on diverse subjects!
Rules of the road
Nobody is immune from road rage. Yet the French can make it even harder to resist a good meltdown with their simultaneous migrations towards the coast at vacation time!
The French get 7 weeks of vacation and work 35 hour weeks. A vast majority of French people take either the entire month of July or the entire month of August off. That means a mass exodus of Paris, usually towards the various coasts (or sometimes mountains). They all leave at the same time going in mostly the same direction. Picture that in your head. Crazy huh?
Even my husband, being French, cannot wrap his head around it, and when we lived in France, we never went out on the roads the first and last weekend of July or August.
The start of the last weekend in July and the first weekend in August, the highways and national roads will be jammed going both directions! One thing is for sure, there is no chance of speeding!
But even if they were, the French highways and European highways, in general, are much safer than American highways, even with the higher speed limit. The speed limit is 130 kph (120 in Switzerland) which is a little over 80 mph, but that does not mean it is unsafe. Barring some Parisian street traffic habits which are probably on par with New York, here are just some of the things to note about driving on the highway:
– People do not drive in the left lane, they use the left-hand lane only to pass.
– People pass only on the right, never on the left, so you can anticipate where people are.
– People use their hazard lights to signal to cars behind them that there is a slow-up in traffic.
– Trucks are not allowed on the road on Sunday.
– People slide over a bit to let motorcyclists go by. The motorcyclists do a gesture with their leg thanking you.
Traffic deaths are down significantly in the last 5 years as well. This is due to several things. One is a huge campaign against drunk driving. Another is the addition of fixed and mobile radar cameras all throughout the country. Probably one of the most effective ways of reducing the number is that it is talked about all the time. The highway death numbers are released every quarter, like unemployment, and it is shared on the nightly news and discussed. It is top-of-mind.
Whereas you will enjoy July and August if you are visiting Paris because there are a lot fewer people, don’t plan any trips outside of Paris on the “red” weekends, as they call them in France – the first and last weekend of July and August – or trust me, you will be seeing red yourself!
France has established itself as the capital of perfume for centuries. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that it remains a strong indicator of identity and ceremonial – and one you should partake in if you get a chance. Everyone knows the power of perfume, but the French seem to know how to use it to their advantage. A French woman will change her perfume several times a year, usually with the season, to keep her man guessing. Of course, she will still more than likely has a signature perfume for those very special occasions.
And as the world has become smaller and smaller these days, it is very easy to buy French perfume anywhere in the world. Just go into any department store, or heck even Walmart sells Guerlain and Dior online, and for $50 you can pick up a French classic.
But if you ever have the opportunity to go to Paris, you can have a very special, very unique experience of buying a French perfume that is carried in very, very few places in the world. The perfume is a line of perfumes called Serge Lutens (after the designer), and despite the fact it is sold in the U.S. (but exclusively at Barney’s), the main part of the line is only available at a very special store in the Salons de Palais Royal in Paris.
Palais Royal is an interesting and beautiful place. The Palais-Royal, originally called the Palais-Cardinal, is a palace and garden located near the Palais-Royal theater in the first arrondissement. In fact, the famous and controversial writer, Colette lived there in the apartments above the courtyard. There is a beautiful park inside the courtyard, tree-lined and gorgeous. Along the courtyard, there are several restaurants, including the famous (and expensive) Le Grand Véfour, clothing design shops, the national museum for all the theater costumes, and the Serge Lutens perfume salon.
The salon itself is a wonderful experience for the senses and the perfumes themselves are so lovely you will be hard-pressed to decide on just one to purchase.
And here is the thing – buy one.
You can buy a $50 of eau de toilette from a department store, but it is an eau de toilette so it is “watered” down, mainly with alcohol, or you can buy a perfume that is 100% perfume for $75. That perfume will be original, unforgettable, and worth every penny of the extra $25 you will pay to own it. Not only that, but you will own something that will be a wonderful souvenir every time you wear it.
I picked up a bottle called Lily, my husband got one also, as they have fragrances for both men and women. Every time I put it on, I stop a moment, close my eyes and recall the afternoon that we spent in the infrequently visited palace, and I smile.
The Serge Lutens shop is located at the Salons de Palais-Royal at 25 Rue de Valois, 75001 in Paris.
For people who kiss that much, the French are also extremely jealous of their privacy – including when sending a mere postcard! I think this is a generational thing, something my mother-in-law does as I don't know that many people who even send postcards these days!
One December while living in France, my husband and I decided to take my mother-in-law to Rome the day after Christmas. We planned to do a quick trip to enjoy this festive city around the holiday. We had a great time touring various locations including the Vatican. The day after Christmas is St. Silvester and the Pope came out and addressed the crowd with a speech. He opened with a greeting in about a dozen languages, I was impressed. I also felt like I was seeing a celebrity, decided I was a poser as I am not a huge fan of the Catholic church, and concentrated on keeping warm!
We, of course, visited several other of the sites as we completed our 3 days. My mother-in-law picked up a few souvenirs and postcards along the way and on the last day when we arrived at the airport she began a search for envelopes and stamps. I thought she had completely lost it…I mean who buys an envelope for a POSTCARD? She was very upset because she couldn’t find any and that she was unable to send them to out. I was flabbergasted that she would not even consider sending them without an envelope. It was “no one’s business what she had to write”…while I was thinking.. “then why buy postcards?”
Turns out she wasn’t crazy. A few days later we went to visit Chamonix, a ski town in France where Mont Blanc is. We went into a souvenir shop to buy postcards and lo and behold if they didn’t come with envelopes! Throughout the next years that we were in France, I saw envelopes all the time!
Well, that's all I have for now, but that's plenty, and also the reason why people write whole books on French culture and customs. These are just a few things I picked up along the way, either by misadventure or by observation. And with more travels to France, visits from my belle-mère, and more adventures with the hubby I am sure there will be more to add!
How about you? Have you discovered French customs or traditions that surprised you, or you found interesting? Do share!
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