Knowing French makes no difference after spending a little time in France and becoming attuned to the unspoken code of polite greetings. Every time someone enters a shop, office or waiting room where there’s already someone there, one will hear the bonjour messieurs dames and the au revoir or bonne journée messieurs dames as they leave. Once accustomed to these greetings, it will feel odd, even rude, to see someone come in without acknowledging the others. Then there’s the matter of air kisses. When meeting friends, acquaintances, and even co-workers in France, la bise is de rigueur. Mostly one air-kiss on each cheek will do, although in some regions it will be three and even four if it’s a special occasion or someone’s birthday.
When walking around a French town at lunchtime, there is a sense that everybody’s doing the same thing at the same time: taking a breather. Times are changing, but a sandwich at the desk is still the exception. There won’t be many people snacking while walking around either. However informal the food, lunch is a sit-down affair, usually two courses with a glass of something nice, followed by a café, and it isn’t unusual for a regular workday lunch to last about one hour. After getting into the French lunch rhythm, it just seems healthier, more effective, and good business for the restaurant and bistro industry.
The first trip to the wine aisle on a French supermarket or wine merchant is unfailingly an eye opener after coming to the cold realization that wine back home is overpriced. An affordable bottle of wine in France can be surprisingly decent, and there are labels never hit the international market because of choice or scale but are very good. The vendor will be more than happy to share some tips to discover highly drinkable bargains.
Far less informal than regular meals, the apéritif is the magical hour for socialising, relaxing, and marking the transition to downshift from work mode. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, and a glass of kir, a beer, a water with flavoured syrup, or even (gasp) a sugary drink will suffice. If the aperitif is at home, a few nibbles will be offered, and the get together can last anywhere between one to two hours, unless it’s an apéro-dinatoire in which case, it will extend into an informal dinner.
The order of service in the French gastronomic meal dictates that cheese will be served after the main dish and before dessert. This can be confusing to cultures more accustomed to cheese and crackers as a cocktail thing or cheese as a post-dessert platter. While the reason for this order is a matter of debate, the sequence is said to enhance the taste buds and prepare the palate for the sweet dessert that follows.
The French bof is so much more than an interjection, it’s an attitude to the vicissitudes of life. It is that gray area that’s not quite a yes, but not exactly a no. It could follow a simple question like ‘How was the movie?’ ‘Bof.’ or more life-altering decisions, ‘Are you going to fight for the promotion?’ ‘Bof’. If accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders, it could also mean ‘life’s too short’, ‘you win some and you lose some’, or ‘who knows’. It’s seldom defeatist; it rather denotes a wise pick-your-battles philosophy.
There is walking to get from point A to point B, and then there’s flâner, which is a certain meandering stroll a person uses who don’t have a particular destination to get to and are in no particular hurry to get there. Flâner is an art, particularly applied to Sunday afternoons, romantic, hand-in-hand promenades, or lazy wanders around the park.
It is part of French culture to pay great attention to detail when it comes to food, often with hair-splitting precision. At any wine-related event, people will likely come across the concept of terroir in relation to the combination of soil and conditions where the wine was made. Terroir is not just limited to wine. It can apply to anything from cheese, saucissons, livestock, or produce. In general terms, it is a way of recognising the link between the uniqueness of a product as a factor of where and how it is made.
While restaurants will offer simplified children’s menu, is not unusual to see families ordering the same dish as adults will have, just in smaller portions. Visitors may also observe that children are less fussy about food or overhear a little tot asking for mussels; that’s mostly because at home, they sit at the table to the same dinner as the parents—perhaps minus some very rich or spicy sauces—and school dinners including ratatouille or braised endives are par for the course.
It’s not by coincidence that Paris is the capital of fashion. Once in France, tourists may notice that fashion is not limited to the runway or glossy magazine. French men and women have a way of making the latest trends their own, following the latest style without obsessing or losing their sense of individuality. One way of doing this is by owning a few chic quality basics and having fun with layers and accessories. One example of this is the ubiquitous foulard. It can be tied in a hundred different ways, worn in winter or summer, and worn by all genders and all ages.
People can only grasp the true measure of the summer break in France if they happen to find themselves in the unfortunate position of needing any kind of official paperwork, formality, transaction, or another manner of functioning interaction with the French public or private apparatchick in August. Summer is made for sunshine, holidays, and long meals at fresco. Can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Elle est pas belle la vie?
Finally, perhaps the most interesting thing to learn when visiting France is to challenge the clichés, so keep an open mind while observing. Do French women really eat buttery croissants and cheese and manage to not get fat? Are Parisians really that rude? Are new mothers really happier and babies calmer? You decide.