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What Not to Do in France

Practical France Visitor Tips to Make your Vacation Relaxed and Pleasant

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France is a great country to visit, but many people don't quite know what to expect. The French culture is different, quite different from many other European countries. So check out this guide for a few helpful hints on what not to do in France.

1. Dont be shy about speaking French

Don’t be shy about using your school French, however basic or rusty it might be. We all know that the French are very proud of their language; they even have the Académie Française to protect it fiercely. The French Academy consists of 40 members known as immortels (immortals), appointed for life which gives you some hint as to the importance they attach to it. Established by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII in 1635, it protects French from ‘Anglo-Saxon’ attacks and write an official dictionary. And they have an interactive site on what to say and what not to say.

So it follows that the French will be delighted when you attempt to speak to them in their language. Of course, you may not get far, but it’s the best way to make a French person speak to you in English when they realize that the next few minutes will be extremely painful to them as you murder their exquisite language.

2. Don’t rush through France on your way to your destination.

France is full of delightful surprises, of small, pretty, sometimes fortified towns that never seem to make it onto the main tourist itineraries, of slow flowing rivers to have a picnic beside, and country lanes that take the adventurous through beautiful villages, rolling countryside or dramatic mountains and valleys. The sense of discovery, of making the country your own as you find a charming country inn to spend the night in, and experience local life spent in cafes on hot summer afternoons is one of France’s greatest gifts to its visitors.

Until I stayed a night in Montreuil-sur-Mer, once an important port, but now abandoned by the sea which has receded a few kilometers, I had no idea of the connection to Victor Hugo. In 1837, the great French writer stopped in Montreuil on his way back to Paris and so liked the town that he based some of the action in Les Miserables here. If you go in July and August, you might catch the son-et-lumiere spectacle in the Citadel that brings the famous story to life.

3. Don’t use a satnav or gps system in your car to identify speed cameras.

If you’re driving in France, you must know the rules of the road. There are several major things you must observe such as having your car documents with you, and making sure you have all the bits of equipment that French law specifies, like warning triangles, headlamp converters, and breathlyers.

But the main change in French law concerns systems that identify speed cameras. The French have really cracked down on speeding, to the extent that most people obey the limit even on motorways. You still get crazy foreigners bombing down the fast lane (Belgians and Germans generally, and Brits thinking they are about to miss their ferry are particularly culpable), but on the whole things have changed. The satnav law is quite heavily enforced.

4. Don’t ignore provincial museums.

France has some great museums outside the capital. Ever since the time of Napoleon, the policy has been to spread culture throughout the country. Napoleon pinched so much from the rest of Europe that he had to send it out of Paris to find buildings to house the art he had taken. So. for instance, the Fine Arts Museum in Lille has 17th-century Flemish masterpieces and a fabulous Rubens painting. Two of Europe’s great new museums are the result of the policy. Don’t miss the Pompidou Center in Metz, and the latest blockbuster to open, the new Louvre-Lens in north France.

Then there’s the delightful Museum of Flanders in the small hilltop town of Cassel in north France, and a host of top museums in and around Nice.

5. Don’t get (too) annoyed at Parisians.

The French outside the capital have as cordial a dislike of Parisians as you might find yourself harboring. Some years ago, the French government realized that the reputation of Parisians was not good for tourism. So they launched a charm campaign. We had always eaten at a Brasserie called Thoumieux (before it reached the dizzy heights it is currently enjoying). And the waiters? Well, they were pretty miserable. But human nature being slightly perverse, we came to love the atmosphere, the grumpy waiters who could sometimes be coaxed into a smile before they presented you with the bill…it was just part of Thoumieux. Then the charm campaign kicked in. The waiters smiled and translated the menu but it just wasn’t the same.

Are the French, and particularly the Parisians, really that rude? Some of them are arrogant, or seem to be, but often it’s just the way people have of talking. You have to make up your own mind on whether the French are rude or not. I’ve mostly found them charming, helpful and ready to give directions and even take you to where you are going.

6. Don’t rush your meals

A meal is an integral part of French culture. Times have changed from the days when every office worker had enough time to go home for lunch and there are many more fast food restaurants in every major town. But sitting down to a meal is still important to the French. So waiting staff in restaurants might appear rather casual as they leave you to look at the menu properly before taking your order. But relax, slow down and enjoy a good French meal. Follow the same rules if you’re invited to somebody’s house for dinner.

7. Don't just stick to steak frites or even coq au vin

Don't stick to the tried and tested dishes; be adventurous when you eat in restaurants in France; it's the only way you'll get the true flavors and cooking of much of the country. Frog's legs actually taste like chicken, though snails, I grant you, are really just an excuse for garlic sauce. When you get the menu, ask the waiter for an explanation of any dishes that confuse, and particularly ask about local delicacies. In good restaurants, or friendly local restaurants, if you show a real interest, you may well get a small sample to taste. The French always appreciate interest in their food.

And try to get your children interested in different dishes. Our son was introduced to mussels on a trip to the north coast. The waiter showed him how to use the shells instead of cutlery. You take a mussel shell and use it like tongs to take the crustacean out of the next shell. He was 7 years old and he's been hooked on mussels ever since.

8. Don’t go with an already full suitcase.

Shopping in France is a great pleasure. You’ll find outdoor and intricate wrought-iron covered markets all over the country bursting with stalls full of local products. In Provence, who can resist the lavender soaps, the brightly colored Provencal fabrics and the extra virgin olive oil? If you’re in Paris, then shopping is probably on the agenda already. Whether it’s a one-off made-to-measure extravagance, or a day spent in one of the gorgeous department stores, you’ll get equal pleasure. And you'll fill that suitcase.

9. Don't be afraid to kiss the French...many times if necessary

The French do a lot of kissing on cheeks when they meet. You don't do it when you are introduced, but if you've met somebody and got on well, you might find yourself kissing them on both cheeks when you say goodbye, rather than the more formal handshake. But it's a tricky business. And how many times should you do this? In Paris it's a couple (and possibly air kissing anyway unless you disturb the makeup); a little further south and on the Mediterranean it may well be three times. But in remote France, in the Auvergne, for instance, I have even counted five kisses. I assume that this is because this is La France profonde (deepest, darkest France) where time seems to stand still. So if you've got nothing else to do, why not kiss five times?

10. Don't 'tutoyer' at the beginning

Don't be too familiar with the French if you're uncertain as to whether you should use the more formal 'vous' or the more intimate 'tu'. Always err on the side of caution. The French language guide has good advice on this; check out her tutoyer tips and tu vs vous.

This can be confusing, but not nearly as confusing as that famous song Lady Marmalade by Labelle. Those of you brought up to the sounds of the 70s must remember the line in the hit song, Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir? which as we all know by now, translates as 'Do you want to sleep with me tonight?' Uh? Formal French? Again, consult Laura Lawless, the French language guide on this; she's got a great article about this particularly intriguing expression.

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