10 Things You Didn’t Know About France
On today’s Join Us in France, the 10 things you didn’t know about France, even if you’ve visited before. From restaurant etiquette to beach attire, French people behave in surprising ways sometimes. Why are there dogs everywhere? Why are children allowed to take the metro by themselves? Why do restaurants close on Sundays? French customs and culture help explain many of the things you will experience when you visit France as you will see in this episode.
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10 Things You Didn’t Know About France
1. Tipping. Who Do You Have to Tip and How Much?
[2:10] The word for tip in French is “pourboire” which literally means “to pay for a drink”. If you leave enough tip to pay for a cup of coffee or beer, you’ve been a nice customer. French waiters do not rely on tips to live, but they’re not living under a rock, they know that Americans tip, so once they’ve got you pegged as an American and you don’t leave any tip, they will be disappointed. But if you want to do as the French do, read on!
[2:53] Cafés and Restaurants: If French people are going to tip at all, they will tell the waiter to keep the change “gardez la monaie” or they will leave a few coins behind on the little tray they use for payment in France. This is not seen as insulting even if what’s left is only a few cents.
[3:40] You cannot add a tip to a restaurant credit card receipt like you do in the US, have some change with you for that purpose. How much? It also depends on how much you spent to some degree. If all you got is a coffee, you can leave a 20 cents tip. Honestly, you can! If you got a meal and the service was great, leave 2 or 3 euros. If there was an accident, you broke some glass, you called for special attention, 5 euros would be called for.
[4:26] Tour Guides: Yes, tip your tour guide ! How much? 5€ per person per day if it was a whole day tour. Two euros if it was a short tour. Let me take the occasion to remind you that THIS tour guide also accepts tips, see the Tip Your Guide Button on the top right of joinusinfrance.com. How much should you tip me? Beaucoup 😉
[4:57] Taxis: 10% is appreciated, but I only tip if I got help with my luggage and the person didn’t give me lip about giving me a receipt. It’s up to you. I admit, I have a bad attitude when it comes to taxi drivers with their strikes where they block traffic and the whole thing with Uber in France my attitude has gotten worse.
[5:32] Hotel Services: Someone brings extra pillows or ice to your room, give them a couple of euros. Those 2€ coins are very handy I think! Some hotels will not send someone to your room but will ask if you can come get it at the desk. In that case, no tip. If a porter helps you with your luggage, do tip a couple of euros per bag. Tip the cleaning staff. Leave a few euros on top of a note that says “Merci au personnel de nettoyage”.
[6:30] Bathroom attendants: Yes, you should tip them! Even if entry to that bathroom is free. 1€ per person is plenty. You’ll know if tips are accepted because there will be a coin jar or something. No jar, no tip.
2. French Restaurant Etiquette
[7:02] Basic restaurant etiquette: Do NOT under any circumstances address a waiter as “garçon”. I know you’ve seen it done in classic French movies, but those movies are 50 years old by now. To get a waiter’s attention say “madame” or “mademoiselle” or “monsieur”.
[7:34] If the bill takes too long to come, you can get up and go pay at the cash register. Just point the table where you were sitting and they’ll know what you ordered. Sometimes the waiter leaves a little piece of paper on your table where they keep a running tab of everything you’ve ordered. If there is one on your table, take it to the cash register.
[8:10] The waiter will not tell you his name or notice something nice about you and compliment you or even ask you how things are going. They will not make friends with you. They have way more tables to handle than they are normally given in America, so they are busy. If you need their attention, ask by raising your hand and saying “monsieur”!
3. You Like to Patronize Small Business? Come to France!
[9:17] France still has a lot of family-owned businesses that are staffed by family members. We still value personal service over 24/7 convenience. Bakeries (boulangeries) are a great example of that: boulangeries / pâtisseries are everywhere and most French people go to their bakery every day to get their fresh bread. You can also buy bread at the supermarket, but even though there are some supermarkets that make nice bread (Auchan!) most of them do a poor job. So off to the small bakery we go.
[10:45] Butcher shops are also common. It used to be we had a lot of horse meat butchers (boucheries chevalines) but those are pretty much all gone by now. For the record, I’ve had horse meat in my life, but not for at least30 years, so hopefully all is forgiven! Today at a boucherie you can buy beef, chicken, pork products (including cold cuts), prepared dishes that you can warm up at home, sometimes some cheese and wine too. If you want a more authentic French experience rent a gîte or apartment and patronize those small stores. It will give you a chance to practice your French with someone who–unlike the ticket guy at the metro station–has an incentive to be very patient with you and help you along.
[12:37] Tobaco shops. Those are also small operations most of the time. This is where you may go to buy tobacco products, obviously, but also postcards, stamps, small souvenirs, newspapers and magasines. And here’s a thought: copies of glossy French fashion magazines will make for a fun gift for your fashion-loving friends!
[13:26] An important consequence of having so many small businesses in France is that stores are not open as much as what you’re used to in the US or Canada! For instance, did you know that it’s pretty hard to find a restaurant on a Sunday night in France? If you’re in the center of a large city, you’ll have no trouble finding something open, and all the chain restaurants are open almost 24/7, BUT family owned restaurants (which is the vast majority of what we have in France) are often closed on Sunday and Mondays. So if you don’t want to go hungry, don’t get too picky on where you eat on a Sunday or Monday. You have been warned!
4. Plan Vigipirate in France
[14:30] Vigipirate is what the powers that be decided to call the terror alert system in France. There are 5 levels: White, Yellow, Orange, Red, and Scarlet. When it gets to red and scarlet you’ll see some things happen in France. Garbage receptacles will be removed from the streets to eliminate a place where a bomb could be placed. Or, there will be a lid bolted on top of the garbage can. Entrances will be closed (for instance at a train station), traffic will be diverted so that they can watch a reduced number of entry and exit points. They will place barricades to restrict access to certain places. French people don’t like these things any more than anybody else, but we’ve got to let police do their work I suppose.
5. Pets Are Treated Like Kings
[15:50] French people have a lot of pets and they are treated like family. Dogs get taken places where you couldn’t take and American dog unless it was a service dog. And by the way don’t pretend your pet is a service dog just so you can take it places in America, that makes the life of actual service dogs users much harder. Anyway, I digress! French dogs can go to the restaurant, but they’ll probably ask that you sit at a terrace outside. They get taken to the train station (SNCF has very generous pet rules) to the airport, on the streets everywhere. These dogs are very well socialized and cause no trouble at all generally. But because French people like dogs, homeless young men almost always have a dog or two or ten hoping to elicit sympathy. This is getting to be a problem because those dogs are about as ill-suited for society as their owners are. I recommend you walk as far away from those gatherings of homeless people and dogs as you can.
[17:44] Dog poop on sidewalks used to be a huge problem. It’s gotten a lot better in all big cities because there is staff to deal with it. Mentalities are changing as well, but it only takes one idiot who doesn’t pick up to make it nasty for hundreds of pedestrians. I think France is going in the right direction on that, too slowly, but it’s moving. But be aware that patches of grass in the city are not safe to walk on, because no-on but no-one picks up after a dog that went in the grass! Don’t walk on the grass folks, not that it’s forbidden, but it’s full of landmines!
6. French Children Are Allowed to Do “Dangerous” Things
[19:00] French children are allowed to do “dangerous” things such as climbing trees and going places without parents. This comes from a cultural acceptance that children need to experience all sorts of things in order to grow up to be competent adults. You will see surprisingly young-looking kids alone on the bus or in the metro or walking places. I know you will wonder where the parents are. The answer is the kid is alone and it’s OK. Some French kids are small and skinny so they look even younger than they are, which makes it worse. Remember that France is a safe country. Parents don’t have to worry about child abductions and shootouts. The most dangerous thing you will probably do while in France is cross the street and get in a car. Don’t trust any taxi driver, but for the rest you’re probably safe.
7. French People Don’t “Get” Vegetarians
[20:10] You ask for a vegetarian meal and they ask you if you want fish instead. Most French people don’t understand that fish is a form of meat because to them fish is the least you can do. We’re that behind! French people don’t eat as much meat as Americans, but we stick some meat in everything. Most restaurants don’t have a vegetarian item on the menu, you will have to ask for something custom. Most restaurants can make you an omelette if you ask in French and negotiate the deal a little bit . Ask “pouvez-vous me faire une omelette s’il vous plait ?” (can you make me an omelette). New and trendy restaurants in big cities do tend to have a vegetarian dish or two, as do restaurants owned by younger people who understand vegetarians and vegans. But again, that’s not the majority of restaurants you’ll find in France. If you’re vegan you have to be prepared to make your own meals from the grocery store or do a little research using Yelp to find the rare place that will serve your needs. When vegans come to France they end up eating a lot of bread and French fries. I bet they love it here! So if you have special needs when it comes to food, do your homework before you get here!
8. France’s Bathroom Problem Is Getting Better
[22:10] Yes, it is! We’re not perfect, but it’s going in the right direction. It used to be worse 10 and 20 years ago, but it’s still not great. French people seem to understand that tourists need a place to go. You see, for your traditional French person, it’s very simple: you’ve learned to hold it all day, right? And if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you? Most of the people who think like that are getting old and realizing that oops, they can’t hold it all day either! Hence the going in the right direction bit.
I’m going to get a little graphic here for a couple of minutes, if you can’t take it, fast-forward two minutes. I’ve got to be honest with you because I want you to understand France: we still have bathrooms that are a hole in the floor, they’re getting harder to find, but they exist and they should all get torn out. Put me in charge of France, I’ll put that at the top of my to-do list! The hole in the ground toilets came from the belief that since you squat and touch nothing it’s cleaner. The issue is, if nobody cleans that bathroom, they get super nasty even faster than others because of bad aim. I won’t say any more than that.
Another bad aim problem that you see in regular bathrooms that are not a hole in the ground: French women hover over the seat while peeing. Guess what, they squirt all over the seat!!! It’s nasty! So what do bathroom attendants do? They remove the toilet lid and seat. So now if you would rather sit, you’ll be sitting directly on the porcelain.
What can you do about this? Put cleaning wipes in your bag and bring tissues. I would like to apologize on behalf of French people. We have a long way to go. Mind you, any tour guide worth its tip can tell you where the okay bathrooms are, so that’s something.
9. The Best Way to Make Friends in France Is to Ask for Help
[24:50] The best way to make a “friend” (air quotes) in France is to ask for help. But you HAVE to try to ask for help in French. At least a few words of French. I haven’t talked about this in a few episodes, so if you’re a new listener you may not know, but the rest all know this: What’s the first word that should ALWAYS come out of your mouth before you say anything else in France? Say it out loud! What is it? Say it again! BONJOUR, yes, bonjour is the magic word in France. Say it before you say “excuse me” or anything else. Say it to clerks, anyone you stop to ask for directions, waiters, folks who work at the Paris metro, folks who sell you tickets, say it to children even!
[26:05] In France you have to use whatever French you’ve got. I’m not sure how that would surprise anyone, but it does! English speakers assume that they can just speak English anywhere they go and be fine. That does not work in France. Not only do some French people not understand English, but some of them categorically refuse to speak English to anyone who doesn’t make the effort to try some French first. It’s a cultural quirk that probably comes from the fact that French used to be THE language everyone had to learn. It’s been a long time. Some of us are slow!
[26:50] So, rule #1, learn a tiny bit of French. And rule #2 Say “Bonjour” before you say anything else. Once you’ve said bonjour, you could say “excusez-moi, je ne parle pas bien français” and wait for their reaction. Watch their face. French faces work the same as faces of other nationalities. If they look unhappy about the fact that you don’t speak much French, plug along with whatever French you’ve got. Don’t try to make complete sentences (unless you know enough French to do that), just use the few vocabulary words you know in French. By now, unless that person you’re talking to is a mean SOB, they try to find someone else who can speak English.
And, drum roll please, #10 What’s Up with Nakedness on French Beaches?
[28:02] Steve in Alabama asks about taking his teenage daughter to the Mediterranean beaches in the south of France. Looking for suggestions about specific beaches, private beach clubs. What about bathing suits for men? What are things on the Côte d’Azur that a young American teenage girl might be interested in?
French Beach Attire
[29:10] Let me talk about the bathing suits first: French women wear bikinis and sometimes go topless. About half of the men wear Speedos that are tight-fitting. Some parents let their kids go naked on the beach. French beaches are not for prudes, I’m not saying you are a prude Steve, but I just want to be crystal clear about the fact that French people are open-minded when it comes to appropriate beach attire. You can be one tiny bit of cloth away from naked on a French beach and nobody will bat an eye. Is that what most people do? No. You will also find plenty of loose bathing trunks on men and one piece bathing suits on women, but there’s no way to tell before you get there. Does that mean that French beaches are lewd? Not really. Nobody stares, it’s all normal.
As a matter of fact, you will get more stares if you cover-up too much. For instance I’m very self-conscious about my legs and I like to wear shorts over my swimming suits. People don’t understand that and stare a little bit more than I’d like, but I accept it, I’ll never see these people again anyway, so I do what makes me comfortable. You should also wear whatever makes you comfortable and ignore the rest.
Private beaches. A private beach would be no different because I know of a lot of “private” beaches where people go completely naked, but none reserved for people who prefer more modest bathing suits. I’m not sure if that’s why you were asking, but a private beach is not likely to be much different from a public beach, but it will offer more services like chairs, umbrellas, drinks, rentals of various sorts (but you’ll find those on public beaches too).
Back to the beach attire for a second: the rule everywhere is that as soon as you leave the beach you must cover up at least with a t-shirt. Even if you’re on the board walk right next to the beach. That rule is followed quite well, French people understand it’s not cool to be topless at a café near the beach. Topless is OK for sunbathing. Most women who go for a walk along the beach will put their top back on. They don’t HAVE to, but they do, at least most of them do. Men who wear Speedos just walk around in their Speedos, which yeah, that can be ridiculous. I ignore it, whatever floats their boat.
Things You Need to Understand About the Côte d’Azur:
There are lots of small cities/villages on hills and rocky beaches all along the way between Saint Raphaël and the Italian border. There are also a few big cities along there, but they are not as scenic and they are just as mobbed. For a genuine French vacation experience I recommend you choose some scenic small town and spend a few days there.
The geography of those small towns is that the roads are narrow and the streets steep. That’s what makes them scenic. That’s also what will complicate your life a little bit because they are mobbed in the summer. And for the most part these are rocky beaches with pebble, not a lot of sand.
[33:15] Parking: the first consequence of going to a small town in a scenic place is that your car is going to become your enemy because you won’t be able to park anywhere for very long (two hours max before you have to feed the meter again and that’s IF you find a place). Even if you find a hotel that will guarantee a parking spot, you won’t use the car once you’ve parked it because anywhere you go parking is going to be a problem. Parking for a day at a hotel will cost you at least 20-30€, you will also pay no matter where you go beyond the hotel.
Go Carless: Consider getting there without a car and choosing a hotel in a place where you can walk to everything. Be creative, there is bus service to most of those places (listen to episode 75) or just pay for a taxi or shuttle service. It will probably save you both money and headaches.
Hotel Prices: If you can, book a hotel right next to where you will spend most of your time (the beach presumably?) then walk everywhere. Beach locations are going to be expensive. If you must get further away to get a better deal, ask if the hotel will provide a shuttle to the historic center a few times per day (many do). Sometimes there is a public shuttle service because the small town wants to discourage people from driving in to the historic center.
Water Activities: as far as fun activities for a teenage girl, I suggest you look into water activities rentals. You’ll find Jet-Skis, paddle boats, day-cruises, boat excursions, all sorts of things like that. If they’re not readily available on the beach, ask at the tourist office.
[35:32] Can I recommend a specific place? I would rather not because it’s not a part of France I know inside and out like the south-west. I’ve been to Cassis, it is gorgeous and there are beaches that you can only get to by boat or after a hike and those are great because they are not so crowded. But Cassis is hardly the only place like that. You could do a search on the “les meilleures plages de la Côte d’Azur” and you’ll find the latest popular spots. Use Google Earth to see the places before you go. I would select a small village over a bigger place personally, but that may not work as well for you.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is in the Camargue and a sandy beach, it’s more of a popular place, not as fancy as the Côte d’Azur.
No matter what you choose, remember what I said about those places being mobbed. They will be, every single one of them! But it’s worth it so long as you know what you’re getting into.
France is wonderful, France is fun, but we have bathroom issues, and dog issues, and why is that restaurant closed when I want to go issues. We really do. And the first step, as always, is admitting it.
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French Tip of the Week:
- [3:02] “gardez la monaie” (keep the change)
- [27:16] “excusez-moi, je ne parle pas bien français” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak good French),
- [28:08] “pouvez-vous me faire une omelette s’il vous plaît ?” (can you make me an omelette please?)
- [6:15] “Merci au personnel de nettoyage” (Thank you cleaning staff)