Note: This article was originally written in June 2011. It has been updated.
In 2013, 84.7 million people visited France, the most popular tourist destination in the world. This summer, once again, millions will flock to my homeland (the size of Texas, with a population of 65+ million.) As always, Paris, Normandy, the French Riviera and Provence will be favorite destinations for American tourists.
A native French language instructor specializing in travel preparation for the last 15 years, I have met many travelers and helped them plan their trips to Europe. My two most popular programs are travel workshops I teach quarterly at local community colleges in the Seattle area. My students and I spend a whole day together, as I guide them through a fast-paced French Survival course in the morning, followed by a three-hour orientation tour of Paris in the afternoon. Even if we focus on learning essential travel expressions and discovering major Parisian neighborhoods, we also discuss cultural differences between the French and the American cultures. By the time we wrap up at the end of a busy day, they know what to say, when to say it, and why. They also know what to expect and how to adjust their attitude accordingly.
An informative 6-hour fun-packed program (not for the faint of heart!)
My students are hard-working: Take a look at this well-annotated notebook
I am always impressed by the students’ motivation, open-mindedness, and their genuine desire to understand the French. I love that some of them keep in touch and send me feedback (ranging from positive to enthusiastic) after their trip; telling anecdotes; or explaining how they were able to use some information we discussed in class. One of the things I am happiest about: When they return, most rave about the French and their hospitality.
This is a far cry from familiar clichés commonly heard on this side of the proverbial pond. “The French are rude and arrogant.” “The French hate the Americans.”
I know these clichés are a reason why my students signed up for the travel workshops in the first place. They are a bit anxious, you see. What if the mean French don’t like them? Back in 2003, a few people actually asked me: “Should we pretend to be Canadians when we land in Paris?”
When I hear this, I realize how much damage has already been done by the media in this country. I hate to debunk some die-hard myths about the French, but after 19 years spent in the United States and annual trips back to my homeland, I can declare with absolute certainty:
1. No, the French do not hate the Americans. They may have disagreed with American policies over the years, but many are sophisticated enough to make a difference between the American government and American citizens.
2. French bashing is more common in the United States, than American bashing is in France. Illustrations…
The French as cowards ( a familiar theme)
This laughable campaign originated in the U.S. Congress in 2003
It is never a good thing for an American politician to be associated with the French
Did his remote French roots cost John Kerry the presidential election?
In the spirit of fraternité (fraternity,) as listed in the French Republic motto, “Liberté, équalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity,) I decided to help all Americans who have decided to visit France this summer, especially those who have never taken my travel workshops, les pauvres.
First I will start with common mistakes made by some visitors.
1. Not learning basic French greetings. The single most important word in the French language is a greeting, bonjour. Read more about this essential word here.
2. Assuming everyone in France (and in Europe) speaks English. Some people may. The question is: How do you make them want to? My students know the answer to that question and usually don’t have problems communicating with locals during their travels.
3. Being interested in discovering France while still expecting French culture to be similar to American culture. Hint: It is not.
4. Visiting Paris and thinking all French people are like the Parisians. In fact, a lot of blogs written by expatriates living in Paris start with: “The French…” Do not generalize, folks. After all, would Americans consider New Yorkers to be representative of all Americans?
5. Trying to cover too much ground in too little time. Understandable, since most American visitors do not enjoy the generous French paid vacation system. Still, by trying to do too much, they rush and expect everyone around them to rush also. Hint: French time and American time are two very different things. Forget American efficiency. In France, everything takes time.
To avoid further aggravation or cultural misunderstandings, here are French Girl in Seattle’s exclusive France facts, the secret to a successful visit to my homeland. This is the list the French Tourist Office does not want Americans to read. Read it, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Food/Eating out: Things American visitors will not see or do while in France.
Eating Mexican food. Eating pumpkin-based dishes. Eating an American style breakfast outside of Paris. Drinking drip coffee with your meal. Ordering bottom-less drinks or ice-cold drinks (you will be able to count the ice cubes in your glass.) Over-tipping at the restaurant (a 15% service charge is always included.) Rushing through a meal (French waiters won’t be rushed.) Eating large portions, especially when ordering une entrée (a first course, or starter, in France.) Asking for a doggie bag (still a major faux-pas, even if things are changing.) Asking for split checks. Calling the waiter/waitress by their first name (or calling anyone by their first name unless they request it first.) Having dinner before 8:00pm (restaurant will be closed until then.) Being interrupted by other people’s loud voices in restaurants and public places. Being interrupted by your waiter (he will only come to you if it’s absolutely necessary.) Seeing your check magically appear on the table without having to ask for it (see previous note.)
Don’t panic. Just get a good phrasebook!
Dealing with French waiters: a rite of passage for first-time visitors
Shopping/Customer service: Things American visitors will not see or do while in France.
Expecting to be right as a customer (in France, customers are often wrong.) Getting a refund in boutiques if you do not have 1. a receipt 2. an interpreter 3. a very good excuse (you might still get an exchange, or if all else fails, a famous French shrug.) Entering a boutique, or asking a question without greeting the sales staff first (Bonjour.) Pulling things off the shelves. Letting your kids pull things off the shelves. Figuring out the sales tax (prices are net. Value Added Tax is already included.) Expecting stores to go on sale once a week/month (sales are government-regulated and happen only twice a year.) Waiting for the check-out girl to pack your groceries at the supermarket (she won’t, not for you, not for her French customers either.) Using ounces and pounds when produce shopping or cooking (time to review that good old metric system, folks.) Shopping on Sundays, at lunchtime, or late in the evening outside of Paris.
Driving: Things American visitors will not see or do while in France.
Turning right on red (this could get you arrested, or worse, sent to the hospital.) Riding on freeways for free (there are toll roads everywhere.) Eating while driving in cars (the French prefer to eat sitting down at a table.) Using a cup holder (hard to find.) Parking in front of a store or restaurant (think parallel parking and walking instead.) Driving pick up trucks or SUVs (not common.) Dealing with 16-year old drivers (18 is the legal age in France). Reading bumper stickers detailing the driver’s political views, religious beliefs, and personal information (cars zoom by too fast to read stickers anyway.) Using drive-through restaurants, coffee shops, banks, dry cleaners (there are none, outside of American fast-food chains.)
Priorité à droite: All traffic coming from the right has right of way
Accommodation (hotel/apartment rentals): Things American visitors will not see or do while in France.
Taking American space for granted (expect everything in France to be smaller.) Finding your hotel room on the 1st floor where you expect it to be (the French 1st floor is the American 2nd floor and so on.) Enjoying large hotel rooms/bathrooms/beds (there are none outside of 4-star hotels.) Finding a Bible in your hotel room. Living in houses with as many bedrooms as bathrooms. Systematically washing and drying clothing with an appliance (dryers are still a rare breed outside of major cities.) Expecting a wash cycle to last 20 minutes or a dryer cycle to last 45 minutes (appliances are on French time also.)
A French lavoir. Can you guess what this was used for not so long ago?
To some, all this may seem overwhelming. a no-go clause. That would be fine. The French (and the Europeans) visiting the U.S. for the first time may appear to be at an advantage. They have watched so many TV shows and American movies before coming over that they got to preview American life, but have they, really? Back in the early 1980s’ my grand-mother, who lived in a small town in Southern France, used to watch Dallas on TV. J.R., Sue Ellen, and the rest of the Ewing clan were fascinating to her. One day, she exclaimed: “Do all Americans immediately come back from work, rush to their living-room, and pour themselves a large glass of whiskey like J.R.?” I said I did not know but watched my first American host family closely the first time I visited (they did not, to my parents’ relief.) After that first summer in the United States, I learned a valuable lesson: There was a lot to learn from staying (and interacting) with natives.
During the 1980s this building was as famous as the White House
I am sure that even today, many visitors arrive in France expecting to see this:
Just as there are clichés about the French in America, there are die-hard stereotypes about Americans in Europe. We could discuss clichés, and the cultural misunderstandings they engender at length. International travel is the cultural stereotype’s worst enemy, but international travel is best approached with an open mind, realistic expectations about other cultures, and some preparation. So keep traveling, my friends. Keep visiting la Belle France. There will be friendly and welcoming people. There will be rude people. Some will speak English. Others won’t. France will challenge, surprise and puzzle you often, but I know you will have a wonderful time there.
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To my wonderful readers– My apologies. I was going to “tweak” a few things in this post last night but the Blogger software has been temperamental the last couple of days. I have not been able to edit the story properly. I hope you enjoy this version anyway. Merci beaucoup– Veronique aka French Girl in Seattle
all I can muster right now is WOW and double WOW!! perfect the way it is…and ALWAYS enjoyable. i suspected you were a teacher(in france) because of your methodology/presentation-simply superb(truly) or maybe very agreeable to my style of learning…i think i would fly out to the west coast for one of your classes, really! now- i was so excited by this post, i have to go back and reread it(which i do often with your material), so you might see another comment…-g from the opposite coast
Thank you g. from Philadelphia, as always. You are welcome to join one of my French classes at the Studio any time 😉 Hope you come back soon. There is indeed a lot to read in this post. Would love to hear your take on all this. Veronique
each time i have been to france, i have never encountered the typical french stereotype people talk about. what i have come to realize, with any foreign travel i have done , is the country’s people will often reflect my mood-my temperment on any given day-say my nerves are short because of communication frustrations, i tend to go right to “oh gosh why don’t they speak english”-(well maybe because you’re in spain). if it’s a good day for instance-well rested and map reading has been spot on , my horrific spanish seems just fine. i hope that makes sense. and on the other end of that spectrum, i get irritated that every loud talking, short and sneaker wearing, impatient, temper weilding person is assumed to be an american. simply put all groups possess a little bit of the “offending” group…i was in the south of spain this feb/march and yes there were very loud americans, brits, french(did i just say that-but true), spainish and germans…my point is they are on holiday- everyone is excited -stressed-happy or something… so the volume is uped as a result and as for some of the fashions i saw, i would never dream of wearing any element of some ensembles, but i admire their own personal sense of style. if people want the comforts of home- then go with the familar- but i think travel is meant to take us out of our comfort zone stretch us a bit. i so enjoy reading it all from someone who experiences it from both sides. when are you going to france-i loved the december posts from the last vacation…personally i cannot wait to “hear all about it”! are you renting the same flat?well enough from me-as stated before another one straight out of the park. thanks again!-georgeanne(g)
I have travelled to France a number of times, and can say with confidence that you have captured the most obvious nuances of the French culture that an American might encounter. I have found the French to be nothing short of friendly, polite, helpful, but most importantly, authentic.
Unfortunately, some aspects of the Western culture have already permeated parts of France (Starbucks, McDonalds, etc) but there continues to be a strong sense of cultural pride throughout the country which makes this such a unique and charming place to visit.
Thank you for summing up a fantastic set of travel tips!
Merci for contributing g. It’s funny. I go to Spain often and, like you, have always seen “groups” behaving wildly. The French were among the lot, of course. What is it with people traveling abroad in groups? I guess you just clown around more for your friends’ benefit, or maybe because there is anonymity in large numbers. As for dress codes by the Mediterranean in the summer… Ouch. Painful, really. 😉
Great blog!! I was a little nervous my first trip to France, but it was wonderful! The people were lovely and friendly and we never felt like we were treated badly. Two years later I got to go again and thought maybe the first time I went was a fluke. Nope! People were just as wonderful, friendly and helpful.I can’t wait to go back….oh wait I am!! 16 days from today 🙂
To Anonymous– Thank you for visiting le Blog. I am happy you have enjoyed such fun and positive travel experiences in La Belle France. France is changing, that’s true, but it’s not always a bad thing. I remember the time when a lot of families did not have a personal computer (and let alone an internet connection) at home. The Minitel was handy, but I prefer the internet.
Kimbery– Thank you for your post. I am glad you enjoy going back to France on a regular basis. So do I, of course, but you already knew that 😉
As usual, a very interesting and informative post. As you know, I love Paris and other cities in France and have been a few times. I have always been treated well and firmly believe you receive what you put out in life, which includes France! The French appreciate Americans’ attempts at speaking French even if it includes pulling out your dictionary to find a word or two. I am looking forward to my next trip in September!
Cherie– Merci beaucoup. I totally agree with you. “You receive what you put out in life.” – This being said, you do bump into the occasional jerk, here in the US or in France. When that happens, I say just move on. One thing that never works in France is to try and set people straight. I speak the language fluently and don’t even attempt it. A favorite of mine is: “Merci pour rien.” Thanks for nothing. I use it here too now and then. 😉
FANTASTIC, FANTASTIC post! So well written and very true!
And I’ve recently gotten my French husband hooked on Dallas thanks to my dvd collections (I’m preparing him for our trip to Texas this summer… hee hee!)
Merci Sara Louise. I hope life is good in “Le Petit Village”… Off to France in a few days and working on one last post before I head out. This is going to be a good-humored one. Stay tuned et à bientôt!
I hate that people label citizens of one country as something, because it is not true. When I travelled to Argentina, I was told that they had the “Argentine Proud” and that they were pedant too. In the buenos aires apartments I was in, with Argentine roommates, I found no arrogant person at all. We have to get rid of the stereotypes and get to know the people by talking to them!
I agree Nikki. Thanks for posting. I guess it is somewhat comforting to hang on to stereotypes and adopt them as “universal truth” about other people. It is certainly easier than making the effort to actually go to a foreign country, do some research about it, and meet the locals, don’t you think? I have always wanted to see Argentina. Maybe one day.
All I can say is Excellent read! Bravo. So true. I just came back from souhtern France AKA Occitania. Only met one kind of rude man that talked bad about americans. One out of so many more that were super nice. Isn’t there always one in every group.
Welcome back Sandy. Yep, there is always one (or two) in every group. Occitania is where my family is from. Glad you enjoyed your visit there!
Well done blog, Vero. Bravo. It was very entertaining. You really should write a book.
-Jean Le Vigernon
Merci Jean le Vigneron. Glad you stopped by. Come back soon!
I really enjoyed your post. I wish all your comments were printed on a small brochure and given to all tourists going to France. One thing you could add is that when you get a drink you most often don’t get ice unless you ask, and sometimes they may ask “how many ice cubes?” It was very warm in Paris a couple of weeks ago and my husband who needed a really cold drink had to go to MacDonald to get one. Another thing I’d like to add is that most French people who don’t speak English won’t know if someone is American, Canadian, Australian, English etc. So if someone is not pleasant don’t think it is because they think you are an American, they don’t know from which Anglophone country you come from. Actually I was in the market and there were a bunch of school kids there speaking English – I had a hard time understanding them and asked – they were from Scotland. Also, I found on this last trip that many young people spoke English and were quite ready to help us with directions (I was speaking to my husband in English and they did not know I was French – they could not get my accent…) Also, there are many people wearing tee-shirts with English written on them – it is the style right now. I was trying to buy a tee-shirt for my grandson with something written in French, and I never could find one. It is true about Paris and the rest of France – it is like being in New York or a small town in a Midwest town – it’s very different.
Merci Vagabonde! I did forget about the ice cubes, didn’t I? I watched two American tourist ask for ice cubes once on the Champs-Elysees. The Parisian waiter (who was a bit of a smartaleck if you ask me) came back a few minutes later with TWO ice cubes on a small plate. He proceeded to place them on the table with decorum and a loud: “Voila mesdames.” I thought that was funny, but I am not sure the poor ladies agreed. 😉
Your blog is amazing, I would love to go on one of your tours, Im hooked now.
Merci beaucoup 1-2 Punch– If I ever organize tours around France, you are welcome to join anytime, especially if you bring some of the amazing recipes introduced in your blog!
Thank you for visiting my site “All Things French” I’m looking forward to seeing more of your travels around La Belle France!
This is lovely. I know that I am a little late coming to this article but I only just found it.
I am an ex-pat Brit married to a French man and living in rural France. I sometimes despair of the negativity of visitors. French administration is frustrating even for the French but I moved here because I wanted a slower pace. I got a slower pace so why complain.
This post should be required reading for all Americans and Brits coming to France.
Bonjour ! Great article. I wish someone had written this 20 years ago when we moved to ‘la belle France’ . We enjoyed 3 years of French living but too much of it was spent learning these basic facts. For example, no matter how badly you need the use of la toilette never forget to say ‘Bonjour’ before asking directions. Otherwise you could be reprimanded. The mistakes, the challenges, all worth it… best 3 years of my life! I’ve since returned on my own, staying a month at a time in a rented gîte or wonderful B&B, visiting dear friends. Je m’ennuie de france magnifique et les gens .
Thank you for stopping by! It’s always heart-warming for this French Girl to hear stories like yours. I am happy you look at your three years in France fondly, and that you return on a regular basis. Come back soon, here, or to la Belle France! 🙂