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.