Living in France for six months was a wonderful experience and full of many fond memories. It is absolutely on my list of places I would revisit in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.
While I had been out of the country before, this was my first time being to a European country. French culture in particular had some genuine surprises that I wasn’t expecting and others I expected to be worried about that turned out weren’t an issue at all.
So, for anyone thinking about traveling to France I thought I’d write up an article talking about the parts of French Culture I wish I knew more about before arriving.
Faire La Bise (AKA The Kiss Greeting)
This is the one aspect of French culture I was most nervous about, I struggle to greet new people on the best of days, let alone when they’re trying to kiss my cheek. The traditional French greeting is to kiss a person on the cheek simultaneously, a quick peck of hello. Having grown up in the United States this was not something I was accustomed to and I was nervous about how to handle it with strangers I’d never met.
Turns out it wasn’t that big of a deal. The general idea is that the French understand outsiders aren’t accustomed to this greeting and are ready to give a handshake, not necessarily a firm one but I’ll take a floppy handshake over brushing beards with a stranger any day.
In the uncommon event that you meet someone who expects to greet you this way, basically anyone over the age of forty from my personal experience, it’s just a loud kissing noise made next to the person’s cheek and not an actual kiss.
I don’t know whether this is a greeting that’s losing steam with the new generations, but it’s not that common and we only experienced it at a church we attended where members wanted to make us feel welcome.
Now a warning to people traveling to France is that old folks are hit and miss with this. I had a few older women who couldn’t have cared less if I felt awkward about the greeting and in their minds it was just the way you greet people and that was it. So be cautious amongst the elderly.
Private and Reserved
Given how intimate their traditional greeting is it’s surprising that generally as a people they are more reserved and keep things private. It was interesting to get strange looks for smiling at strangers and then see them light up when a friend or family member is around.
In the United States, especially in the Midwest we throw smiles around like candy at a Halloween parade. It’s what’s expected when you are greeted by anyone in customer service, the lobby of any business, or when meeting people for the first time. It’s so commonly used that we tend to think something is wrong with people or they’re rude if they aren’t smiling.
The French however reserve that warmth and open friendliness with people they have already developed a relationship with. Given the dramatic differences in culture this has led to quite the misunderstanding between the French and Americans.
I can’t tell you how many times I was warned by people before going that the French are arrogant, rude, or cold because they don’t smile or refuse to open up to strangers. By contrast the French think we’re bizarre because we’ll smile and be friendly with anyone, regardless of how rude or off-putting that person might be.
The French appear rude to Americans because their culture is different, not because they’re nasty people. Don’t take the opinion of someone who only spent a week in France and failed to develop a real relationship with anyone there, the French really are nice, it just takes a while and some effort for them to open up.
I know I made this point clear before, but I want to reiterate just how nice the people were when we lived there. The gentleman who was renting out the apartment we lived in spoke enough English to greet us and ask how our day went, translating important legal documents necessary to rent the place was well beyond his abilities and our French was nonexistent. Instead of getting frustrated by the inability to properly communicate what we needed to do, he was patient and understanding. With laughter, wild gestures, and a friend who had a basic understanding of French we were able to get him what he needed and learned some valuable information about the neighborhood.
In a matter of weeks, we developed a camaraderie with a local shop owner and wanted to have lunch there for her company as much as the wonderful food she made. Blurting out a word or two in horrifically pronounced French brought forth warm smiles and patient individuals who would try to teach us the correct way to say what we were trying to say.
It definitely took more time for people to open up to us and it was harder to generate small talk, especially without being able to speak the native tongue, but the majority of people there are genuinely friendly and kind. It just takes some time and effort.
My only complaint with the culture was how common smoking is there. Every third person on the street, in the cafes, waiting for the bus, etc. had a cigarette in hand and reeked of tobacco. The legal age to buy cigarettes in France is 18, but there is no minimum age, as far as I can tell, for underage kids being able to smoke.
I don’t want you to perceive the country as a giant smoke-filled casino with everyone walking around dropping empty cartons and butts behind them. Honestly the people were very respectful around others and the litter was very minimal for all the smoking that happens there.
The Food is Amazing
I know many of you are going to read this and say, “well duh” but here me out a minute. Any depiction I’ve seen of French cuisine has been about the fine wine, the cheeses and maybe the occasional piece of French bread with plates of ratatouille. Considering I don’t drink alcohol, French bread isn’t something I get terribly excited about, and ratatouille is basically pasta without pasta, I expected to be munching on cheese the whole time wishing I had a burger.
I was blown away by how good the rest of their food was. Their bakeries are filled with incredible delicacies and pastries that I haven’t been able to find substitutes for. My wife went absolutely crazy for their macaroons with all the flavors and varieties.
King of it all were the paninis, sandwiches made with skinny loaves of French bread, and packed with incredible cheese and slices of well-seasoned meats. Speaking with a lady who owned a panini shop she was using recipes for things that originated from ancestors several generations back. The food is a source of pride for the French and they have every reason to be proud.
France was an amazing place to go and I highly recommend giving yourself more than a week and venturing outside of Paris to get the full cultural experience. Yes, the people can be chain smokers and seem initially off-putting to those accustomed to smiling strangers, but the French are some of the friendliest people you could ever meet and have the most incredible food you could ever taste.
If you have the opportunity to travel I would strongly advocate putting France near the top of your lists.
Author: Benjamin Baker
After serving abroad in a religious capacity for two years Ben has felt the pull to travel and explore ever since. This desire was further fueled by his wife Maddie and the two have traveled to many places over the last few years. Ben’s hope is that by sharing his knowledge and experiences obtained while traveling that others can improve their lives and the lives of others through travel. Check out additional articles written by Benjamin.