Prepare for France… she may still surprise you!

This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated. 

Le Teacher:  “... And don’t forget: Say ‘Bonjour’ whenever you enter a public place. Say it as many times as it takes, five, ten, twenty times a day. A big American smile won’t cut it. Say ‘Bonjour’ first to get help in France, or be prepared to deal with the consequences!”
Le Student: “The consequences? What consequences? Oh, right. The French HATE the Americans, right?”
Le Teacher:The French do not hate the Americans. The French hate anyone who does not say ‘Bonjour’ before asking a question. That includes other French people.” 
Le Student:So, first I say ‘Bonjour.’ At that point, they KNOW I am an American. So I might as well continue in English, right?” 
Le Teacher:Not if you expect an answer. How about trying one of the short questions we have been practicing for the last three hours? ‘Je cherche…’ ‘Où est…?’ Or, if you must, ‘Vous parlez anglais?'”
Le Student:I can’t take this anymore. Why did I sign up for this class again? And on a Saturday morning?!
Le Teacher:Sorry. You might as well get used to lousy customer service before you land in Paris. No refunds!
C’est la rentrée, and in a few days, this French teacher will be happily reunited with her [adult] students. The highlight of the fall teaching season will be, as it has been for the last ten years, the travel workshops I teach at the local community college: Two of my most popular programs are: Survival French for the Traveler and When in Paris, do as the Parisians do.

(Notice the warm welcome to entice workshop participants in…)

My students are brave people. They spend their money (and three to six hours during a busy weekend,) on non-credit travel workshops to LEARN more about the French, their language and culture before they actually board that big airplane at Seatac airport. 
Brave, and open-minded too. I try not to scare them, but I want them to be prepared, so I throw a lot of important cultural tidbits at them (“The French love their language so much they use taxpayers’ money to finance a bunch of old people named ‘The Immortals'(1) whose main mission in life is to find an instant French translation for all foreign words entering the French language.”) Then I teach them three hours’ worth of essential words and phrases to help them survive during their trip (“Où sont les toilettes, s’il vous plaît?’ “Je cherche Starbucks…” “Je voudrais un Kir Royal, s’il vous plaît!”

Being mindful of not overtipping…
(A 15% service charge is always included in French eateries)
Deciphering French menus…

This is the boot-camp version of your French conversation class. Students laugh (a lot) learn (hopefully) and they leave the classroom energized but exhausted and ready to pop in some Advil.  My students leave prepared. They know the importance of greetings in French life. They know a French meal will likely start with the age-long apéritif ritual but may end with un café gourmand or un trou normand, (with very different outcomes.) They realize customization, substitutions, and returns are not popular concepts in my homeland. They learn how to line up like the French (stick to the guy in front of you so people won’t try to cut you off.) They learn that Cool! and Sympa! (great, nice) are compliments, while Quel beauf! (a loser,a person with questionable taste) is not. They can get rid of pushy sales people with a nonchalant: Je regarde, merci!”(I am looking, thank you!) They use Ceci, s’il vous plaît... (This, please…) whenever they do not know what something is called. They understand the waiter will not bring the check unless they ask (beg?) for it. They learn about the elasticity of French time. 
Prepared; or so I thought.

As I was going through hundreds of photos I took while traveling in France this summer, I noticed traditional (even mundane) sights found commonly in my homeland. Over the years, I have made a point of introducing my students to some of them during the travel workshops. For example, they know that every French village, or town, has one of these…

 La Mairie (city hall)
The main square..

They recognize basic words…

Please, come in… 

Some signs are self-explanatory and easy to guess…

… while others are trickier. Some cultural background comes in handy to decipher them.

Les Soldes (sales) are government-regulated
and only happen twice a year…
Good wine can be so cheap in France…
even cheaper when the second bottle is 50% off…
It is prohibited to step on the grass in many Parisian gardens, such as
the Palais Royal…
Time to brush up on the metric system…
Small size produce can be purchased in a “barquette” (small container)

In the end, I can spend hours, (and even days) explaining how things work in France to my students, and it would not be enough. There will always be a rule or a custom we have not discussed, that will throw them for a loop when they first encounter it, and then what? Can you guess what these signs mean? (Answers can be found at the end of this post.) 

What happens in Gorbio [almost] stays in Gorbio…
Palais Royal, Paris
Nice, Vieille Ville
Marché Saleya, Nice

And then I realize that it is ok. I can’t possibly prepare my students for every situation they will encounter while visiting my homeland. At some point, they will have to improvise, and go with the flow. Isn’t this what traveling is all about? Discovering a new culture; seeing different things; being surprised and challenged? What an adventure! Isn’t this worth feeling off-kilter once in a while as we are learning new rules, and a new way of life? 

And truth be told, la Belle France, so traditional, so familiar to so many people, so predictable, is so good at playing hard to get; at shaking things up. France is never boring: Just when you thought you had her all figured out, she may still surprise you. C’est très bien comme ça (that’s a good thing.) 

A bientôt.

Artisanal buns for Frenchi-fied hamburgers…
Nice, Vieille Ville


All photos by French Girl in Seattle

Please do not use without permission.

(1) Refers to the members of the venerable Académie Française, a true French oddity, created by the Cardinal of Richelieu in the 17th century.

From the photos in the last section of the post:

Il est formellement interdit de monter sur le toit sans autorisation.” It is strictly prohibited to climb on the roof without authorization (Read more about “interdit” and other negative words in the French language here.)

Mercredi 20 juin. Ouverture de 14H00 à 19H00. Merci. Cyril (…) J’arrive à 14H30.” Wednesday, June 20. Open from 2:00pm to 7:00pm. Thank you. Cyril (…) I will be back at 2:30pm. Because he can 🙂 

“Toiture fragile. Danger.” Fragile roof. Danger.

“Toucher avec les yeux. Merci.” Touch with your eyes only. Thank you. (In many French shops and boutiques, it is not appropriate to touch the merchandise without asking for a salesperson’s help first. This goes for children AND grown ups too!) 
Last photo:

“Bonjour Facteur.” Good morning, Mailman. (Bonjour. Bonjour. Bonjour. Arguably the single most important word in French life.)

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)


  • Oh this is just wonderful, Veronique! And guess where I’m going for lunch today? Le Restaurant Beausejour in Gorbio! I love all those signs, especially, ‘toucher avec les yeux’ and ‘bonjour facteur.’ Fabulous. What a superb account, with photos of ‘how to’ in France. I’ll have a glass of wine for you at lunchtime, dear Veronique. Bises. Jilly xxx

    • How lucky are you, Jilly! I would trade the measly sandwich I am about to have for lunch for that delicious meal you enjoyed au Beau Séjour, as I know how delicious their dishes are (and food presentation, ah… don’t get me started…) I hope you enjoyed that glass of rosé! I could picture you sipping it 🙂

  • C’est vraiment amusant de voir la France “de dehors”!Comment choisir ce qui pourra servir ou pas? qu’est-ce qui est si different , ou si important? Le fait que tu sois loin doit t’aider a avoir ce regard, car vu d’ici, tout parait “normal”! :o)Par ailleurs, ce qui est normal au sud l’est-il dans le nord du pays, et inversement? pas sur..
    Je suppose que le même genre de cours serait valable pour des Français voulant aller aux USA, et à qui on expliquerait comment ça se passe là-bas?..
    c’est passionnant tout ça!L’ouverture aux autres , la decouverte, je ne pourrais pas m’en passer.
    PS: ouvert un nouveau blog juste pour le plaisir :

    • Tu soulèves de très bons points, Marie. En trois heures seulement, il faut être sélectif et aller à l’essentiel, en espérant qu’on ne fait pas fausse route, bien entendu. Je suis toujours très impressionnée par la capacité de mes élèves à s’ouvrir l’esprit et à accepter les conseils avant leur départ pour la France. Je me trompe peut-être, mais je me demande si des cours de préparation similaires (sur les USA) marcheraient autant en France 🙂

  • After almost 40 years in Paris, I should know most of this and be able to talk the language fairly correctly, but reading this (and the post from last year you refer to) makes me wish to join your classes! I almost envy your students! Bravo!!

  • Véronique, your classes sound such fun and I’m sure your students look forward to them. Great preparation for a visit to la Belle France. I loved this post – so many memories and so much made me smile (Bonjour facteur – so cute!) I like the way everyone says bonjour on entering a shop and I wish we had this custom in all shops in the UK!

    • Bonjour miss b. These travel programs are a lot of fun indeed, and they hardly feel like work to me. I try to keep it light and entertaining for the students. That is the least I can do since they come to me over the weekend!

  • Bonne rentree, Veronique. Tes eleves ont beaucoup de chance. Tu leur apprends la France, mais aussi et surtout, tout ce qui fait sa specificite et son charme par dela les regles. C’est super!

  • i was on the fly before-we are having terrible rains and one of the cats was mia-so i could only write a few words-what a delightful read on this not so delightful day-gosh i wish i lived close, i would take all your classes!! there is something to be said of learning from a local(as the french side could learn from you about our crazy usa ways-you are so versatile and i admire that so)my former instructor at the alliance was french and i simply adored her!!! her method of instruction, her patience, her humor, her kindness -i could go on-but i will be with new instructors as i am returning to a former level(was very lost as i said before)and need the pronunciation too-i wish you a good semester/session and am truly a titch envious of your students –i can only imagine how lively you sessions must be-until next time -have a nice week!

    • Bonjour g. Have you found the kitty at least? No rain in Seattle for the last 45 days – almost a record, can hardly believe it! – Thank you for stopping by, as always, and for the kind words. I wish you lively, funny, patient, and above all very competent French instructors at l’Alliance in the fall. Let me know how your classes go, ok?

    • found the kitty-bubbles(his shortened name-a history you would not believe)-he was soaked and once inside he selpt the day away in his little blanket nest -thank you for asking-this rain is killing me and the cats too! i cannot believe 45 days no rain-it is like an extended summer for you guys up there-i am glad to hear it- i love the sun as you know-good for the spirit- good for the soul!

  • Oh my gosh, I think this is my new favorite of your posts!! I laughed out loud twice!
    Merci, Véronique!
    PS. “Charbon actif” dans le pain pour hamburger? Quoi?! C’est pour mieux digérer ou quoi?

    • Eh bien merci beaucoup, Heather. As for the charbon actif, it’s got to be included to help with digestion… why else would you make bread turn BLACK? (there was a scary looking loaf next to the bun that does not show in the photo.) I must confess I was not too anxious to try that one! Stop by again soon…

  • Your classes sound wonderfully instructive, Veronique. But lucky me, I have a built-in French teacher. My son. He corrects my language and cultural cues all the time. His grad degree is in International Relations 😉 and by nature is very polite.

    While interning at ABC News in Paris…he met JFK’s former Press Sec (now deceased) several times in the office. Pierre Salinger was married to a French women and thought my son was French! (he is a naturalized citizen).

    I LOVE French manners. And once was extremely flattered when a group of Americans approached me in Paris streets and haltingly asked in fractured French how to find an address. They were surprised when I answered, ‘But I’m an American!’

    Viva la France!

    • Bonjour Suzanne. Did your son study at Sciences Po. by any chance? Several cousins of mine have gone that route and majored in journalism or international relations. An excellent school I hear. I think you are ready to move to France if people are already mistaking you for a French person! 🙂

  • Chère Veronique I thought of you today as I drove through Rueil Malmaison on the way back from the dance supply store in Le Vesinet. A store that your students would not believe. At La Rentrée the line outside of little girls and their mamans rivals the line outside Louis Vuitton and inside once you have selected your purchases they are all written up by hand in a cahier grand carreaux before being carefully handed over to you. There are no returns bien sûr! Lat year I was taken aback and frustrated. This year we allowed two hours to buy two pairs of ballet shoes and enjoyed la différence. We are learning to embrace the elasticity of French time!! Love your photos today!

    • What a great story Nicola. If that is all right with you, I may use it during the upcoming France travel workshops to illustrate some “key concepts.” 🙂 Thank you for sharing that story. I do know the store you are writing about…

  • OMG, ma chère, clearly “les grands esprits se rencontrent” on this very subject. This brought back so many memories. I remember giving my students exactly these “tuyaux,” although without the beautiful pictures. Don’t forget to tell your students that “bonjour” should be followed with the honorific “Monsieur ou Madame,” where appropriate, to be absolutely correct.

    We must absolutely compare notes some day. If only we were “dans le même coin!” (et là je pousse un gros soupir!)

    Happy “rentrée.”

  • Put me on the list as well! I am fortunate to have a dear friend who lived in France for about ten years, after studying abroad. She speaks beautifully and French only is spoken in her American home. Her daughter is “definitely a French girl”- beautiful with perfect French manners.

    I love the signs you have shown and think that often signs in a foreign country are confusing. Often they do not translate well. Don’t even get me started on the road signs in Greece… Hard to drive and read at the same time!

    This is a fabulous post and your students are very lucky indeed!


  • Hello Veronique, This was a delightful French lesson . . . your students are blessed to have you.

    Thank you for the lovely compliment on my shabby french make-over.
    Have a great day, Connie 🙂

  • Bonjour Véronique !
    (le bonjour d’une Française qui vit en Floride…)
    Love your blog and love this fun post. Great photos and very useful tips. Each of them is so accurate !
    I will edfinitely be a faithful reader of your blog – which is listed on my blog roll.
    All the best et.. Bonne rentrée !

  • Touch with your eyes! 🙂 I actually knew a few without looking. Yay me! I love this post, Veronique. Thank you for sharing. And bonjour. I should always remember that when i comment here.

  • Bonjour Veronique, j’adore this post..particularly as I am feeling that extra little bit ‘French’ right now.. I’ve lost weight, bought a new French perfume (Yvresse, divine!) am reading The Paris Wife’ so you see this post is exactly what I need to read right now haha! I was also told when I went to Paris for the first time that the Parisians were very rude, I didn’t encounter that even once, perhaps because I threw myself into the situation and even though I know my accent is definitely not perfect, I tried and as you say they appreciated that. Good luck with your new semester starting, I would love to join your Saturday morning class, I can imagine that it would be so much fun. Looking forward to your next post, a bientot!

    • So you are in a French mood these days, Grace. The Paris Wife will do that to you… 🙂 I am glad you had a great experience when you went to Paris for the first time. Truth be told, most students send very positive feedback to me after their trips. I love reading their emails, when they tell stories of their travels in my homeland! I think there are nice and rude people everywhere, but it certainly is easier to feel “slighted” in crazy big cities like Paris where locals run around all the time! A bientot, Grace!

  • I am so glad I found your blog. I live in the Seattle area too 🙂 I read a few of your posts and will be back for more 🙂 I am your newest follower and would love for you to stop by My Dream Canvas.

  • Hi V.,
    It must be a real pleasure to take one of your classes…

    Were it not for an enthusiastic teacher from France in my first French class in college I might not be living here today…

    So Bravo to all good teachers of French ! Oh, zut, flute, j’ai oublié de te dire <>

    • Hello Natalie. I did see that fun post (and enjoyed reading all the comments that followed it…) France – and the French – come easy to me 🙂 I always have a hard time figuring out why so much needs to be said/written/clarified about the French and their way of life, don’t you? 🙂

  • Oh wow! I wish I could take your class and go to France!!! Your students are so lucky to have such a wonderful, caring, thoughtful (and tough) teacher!!!

  • Wow, I really wish I could take your class. It sounds SO much fun! It’s funny, yesterday I was just telling my friend that I honestly never gave much thought to France until I found your blog. And your posts have made me fall in love with the country. It’s beautiful, fascinating, and fabulous. France seems like a very magical place. 🙂

    • You would not doubt be the teacher’s pet Jenny! I know you would keep everyone entertained, in French or in English. I am glad I have piqued your interest about my homeland, and I sincerely hope you get to visit one day!

  • Can you come to the East coast for French travel lessons?! 🙂 What a fabulous idea and course. I loved saying the word “bonjour” but was never sure if I had the inflection right. Didn’t seem to matter though. 🙂 I also learned about not touching items in the boutiques. That’s a hard one not to do because I love to touch when shopping. 🙂 xo Great post!!!

    • Dear Lynn. If you can get a group going, I would love to fly to the East Coast to instruct my travel programs. I LOVE the East Coast where I spent most of my summers after I studied in Atlanta GA for a year in college. Not touching is VERY important in France. When he was young, my son was always reminded to “keep his hands in his pockets” whenever we entered a boutique! (He survived just fine and has not needed to see a shrink to talk about that experience… yet…) 🙂

  • Oh my goodness I got an ipad and I am having the hardest time with it. Its like learning a new language. UGH!! It won’t let me finish my comments. Anyway I loved your post! =)

  • What a great class to teach..There really is something around every corner in France..I am sure many places..Right the country..simply falling leaves..
    I bet you’re fantastic and the classes are full.

  • I laughed at this post. Just found it. I remember our first morning in Paris and we went to breakfast. The girl said “good morning” so my sister replied “good morning”. Lets just say service, table etc was not very good. The following 4 mornings we walked into breakfast and greeted everyone with Bonjour….the best service best table….and when wandering around Paris…everytime we greeted someone with Bonjour or said Merci….the service was brilliant. Manners thats all thats needed.

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