When we arrived in France six months ago, we knew there would be a learning curve involved as far as the cultural differences between our two friendly countries. Prior to moving here, we had traveled to France on many occasions, so we were aware of some of these. However, there are a few that we have learned since our arrival that we have found quite curious, a few even puzzling, but hey, when in Rome!
We now understand the ubiquitous shoulder shrug so commonly used by the French. It is used to indicate “it’s France”, “that’s just how it’s done here”, “c’est la vie”. For example, we were ordering lunch in a bistro shortly after arriving here and asked for carafes of wine and water; the waiter said “un pitchet de vin et une carafe d’eau.” When we asked about the difference between a pitcher and a carafe, he looked at us, smiled, and did the famous shoulder shrug; “it’s France” he said.
None of these are right or wrong, rather they are simply different ways of doing things. Here are a few of the ones that stand out for me.
It is a well known fact that the French have excellent manners. They always greet a proprietor when entering a store or place of business. And when leaving a business, the proprietor will always say “merci, au revoir, bonne journee”, which you are expected to say in return. Sometimes we even mix it up a bit and say “bonne après-midi” or “bon week-end” for variety. Just recently we talked with a shop owner who was quite shocked at the number of foreigners who enter her store without saying “bonjour” or even acknowledging her presence. We are often greeted with a quiet “bonjour” when sitting in a restaurant and other patrons pass our table. I like this particular custom, the US is too casual, in my humble opinion.
There are so many differences here; first off, if you don’t arrive at noon or shortly after for lunch you will be turned away with the famous “shrug”. The majority of restaurants offer a “menu du jour” or daily menu which includes three courses. You’ll have at least 90 minutes to enjoy your gastronomic experience, which for most people includes an aperitif and wine. There are no bread plates; you set your slice of bread directly on the table. Tipping is not expected, like it is in the US, and it’s perfectly acceptable to occupy a table for hours after ordering only a coffee or tea. And the majority of businesses close during the lunch hours, so workers can also enjoy a leisurely meal. In France, there is actually a labor code that prohibits workers from eating lunch at their desks! In the US, it is considered completely normal to grab a sandwich, burger, or salad and sit at your desk to continue your daily work; l’horreur!
Bread is always served with the first two courses; always! We were enjoying lunch at Bistrot St Julien recently, not far from our home, on a busy, summer day. There was a woman sitting at the table next to us, and a man sitting at the table next to her, both on their own. The server brought the woman her lunch and hurried away. Shortly after receiving her meal, the woman tried to get the attention of the server, but to no avail. Instead, she simply tapped the arm of the man at the next table, who had already finished his meal, pointed to his bread basket, which he readily handed to her. I can’t imagine this happening in the US!
3. Grocery Stores
At the grocery store, you’re expected to bag your own groceries. Stores have reusable bags for sale, but paper and plastic bags are not available like they are in the US. I’ve also noticed that many people do not bag their groceries, they just load them back into the cart, wheel them out to their car, and toss them in the trunk. The shopping carts however, are big, bulky, and hard to handle, and they slide rather than roll. C’est difficile pour moi.
4. Courant d’air
The French keep their doors and windows shut, which means that rooms can be quite hot and stuffy. They seem to have a fear of drafts, or courant d’air, thus the use of AC or even a fan is rare. On our recent trip to Paris during a heatwave, we entered several stores that were completely stifling, to find that the doors and windows were shut tight, even though there was a nice breeze.
We visited Bayeau in July when it was also quite warm; we left our hotel window open since there was a nice breeze. When we returned, we found that the maid closed it while we were out. However, France is well known for outdoor cafes; I find this quite confusing.
5. Clothes Dryers
Most French households do not have clothes dryers, but have clothes lines instead. I believe this is the case in many countries around the world, except the US. It is much more energy efficient this way, and lovely to have your clothes smell so fresh.
The refrigerators here are quite small which means we have to shop more frequently than we did at home. They refer to large refrigerators as “Refrigerateur Americain”.
Waiting in line at any type of establishment is expected, and just part of life here. At most stores in the US, if the line at a checkout counter gets too long, the clerk will call for additional help. Not in France; you’re expected to wait. We were at a grocery store recently and the woman in front of us left to get an additional item just as the clerk had finished ringing up her large order. The line was long, and we all waited at least three minutes for her to return. When she did return, she didn’t apologize for making us wait. I do have to disclose that the clerk rolled her eyes while we were waiting, so maybe this was a bit excessive. However, a lesson (or daily lesson) in patience is a good thing.
In the US, it’s common to go 5 – 7 miles (or more!) over the speed limit without getting a ticket. But in France, if you go even 2 – 3 miles over the limit, you’ll receive a ticket. There are cameras set up along the roads that are used to measure your speed and if you go over, a ticket will be mailed to you. In the US, this is quite uncommon, most tickets are given only when you get pulled over by a police officer. It is much safer for officers not to have to pull people over. In addition, the majority of the cars here are quite small and get great gas mileage. This is a good thing since gas is very expensive and the roads are quite narrow. You won’t see many huge SUVs here!
These are just a few of the differences that stand out for me, there are many more, and as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, there are no right or wrong ways, just different ways to do things. I have embraced most of these and appreciate that some are even environmentally friendly. A few I still struggle with, like the stuffy rooms and small refrigerators; I do miss my big refrigerateur americain.
Oh, and one more thing, as I mentioned in last week’s blog, theTravelsketcher and I went to Laval to get our COVID boosters. After receiving the injection, the pharmacist put a piece of medical tape over the injection site. In the US, you’d get a bandaid – maybe even a Tweety Bird bandaid. We thought the tape was odd, but hey, it’s France!
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments, so leave a message if you’re so inclined.