Surprises about France and the French

I’ve been to France many times before. But on a recent trip there to Lyon, Burgundy and Alsace, I learned many things I never knew. Or perhaps I knew but have forgotten. Or not fully understood.

Here are some, to me, surprises about France and the French.

Surprises about France and the French #1: The countryside

I shot this on a rather hazy morning, but you can still see the somewhat typical scene of miles and miles of fields surrounding the lovely village of Vézelay in Burgundy.

So much of the land is rural. I’m always taken back by this in most of Europe and especially here in France. I guess my mental model of France is Paris. Which is like judging the natural expanse of the US by New York’s Central Park.

Surprises about France and the French #2: Speaking the language

You may have heard the line that you don’t need a parachute to jump out of a plane. You need a parachute to jump out of a plane twice. Similarly, you don’t need to be fluent in French to converse. You need to be fluent in French if you want to converse in a way that won’t get you comments or corrections. Or, just make friends, like these various groups of people in Lyon have done, who won’t care if your French is perfect or not.

If you speak English to most French people, they will ignore you. If you try to speak French to a French person in a big city, they will soon be so pained or annoyed by your poor French that they will speak to you in English. In rural areas, where fewer locals know English, they will usually try to help you with your French and admire you for trying.

One of the surprises about France is that we also learned that even the French struggle with French. It’s such a beautiful language, but it is hard to perfect. Or in my case, even speak passably well. I felt as if I was constantly butchering even phrases I thought I knew well. For example, one person, after we’d gotten to know him better, said that my pronunciation of “beaucoup” meaning (or so I intended) “very much” sounded more like how one would tell someone they had a cute behind. Great. But he said this in a kind, fun way and went on to explain that when visiting other regions of France, the locals there make fun of his pronunciation. Misery loves company, I guess. 

Surprises about France and the French #3: Open hours

Note the empty tables at around 6 p.m. in Annecy, France.

The mid-day break can really throw you. Like the siesta in Spain, having everything close down from noon to two on weekdays, all afternoon on Saturdays and all day Sunday can mess you up as a traveler. Same with meal times (good luck finding lunch after 1:30 p.m. or dinner before 7:00 or 7:30 p.m.). Or, you can quickly try to adapt and realize there’s something nice about a mid-day break and later dinner.

Surprises about France and the French #4: The value of time over money

Noyers, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France, is a popular destination for travelers. But most of the town is closed on Mondays. I made this shot at around 4 p.m. and as you can see, not a lot of people around. We ran into similar situations in other towns on other days of the week.

Even on the days you’d think places would be open, they aren’t always. We encountered many restaurants and shops that were open only two to four days a week and rarely on the same days. The French are known for enjoying almost eight weeks of time off a year, but I didn’t realize how that valuing of time over money affected store and restaurant opening times. It may be an inconvenience for travelers. But, I think we Americans could learn some things from the French about work/life balance.

Surprises about France and the French #5: The joy of a café

Is it a café or a restaurant? Yes. You can get a coffee or beverage at almost any sidewalk establishment such as these in Dijon.

Café life is even better than I thought. Sure, everyone knows that the way to enjoy Paris is to hang out at an outdoor café and watch life unfold. But even in tiny villages, searching for, discovering, and then savoring a café au lait at a local café became a highlight of our trip. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the activity, but I was by how meaningful it was to sit, write, watch, sketch, sip, and repeat in almost every town we visited. This was less a surprise about France and the French and more about what changes in me in France.

Surprises about France and the French #6: Driving on small roads

A tiny road like this may lead to a farmhouse. Or it could be the way to the beautiful village of Chateau Chalon that you can just make out on the top of the hill. Driving in Burgundy requires supreme trust in your GPS and a willingness to see what’s around that next bend.

The little side roads you think are almost driveways turn out to be the main roads to some locations. In the countryside, the tiniest of roads may be the primary means of reaching certain sights. At first, driving with barely any clearance (and on a two-way road, at that) freaked me out. But when I soon found that rarely did we encounter oncoming traffic, it became less stress and more adventure. And definitely more scenic.

Surprises about France and the French #7: Ordering food

My wife ordered this at a wonderful restaurant in Noyers (virtually the only one open on a Monday evening). It looks great, doesn’t it (assuming you like prawns)? But what lies beneath the onions? You never know if you don’t understand every detail on the menu.

Not translating one word or ingredient on a menu can mess you up, not just in France, but anywhere you don’t speak the language. Between Google Translate and questions in our meager French to our server, we usually could guess the gist of a dish on the menu. But sometimes, we’d guess wrong and find that the one ingredient, say, a very strong cheese or strange (to us) animal body part made us wish we’d ordered something else. The flip side was that we discovered new tastes and combinations, many of which were amazing.

Surprises about France and the French #8: Bakeries

This building in Semur-en-Auxois no longer houses a bakery, but the sign seems to represent every stereotype I have of what a French boulangerie should look like.

Not all boulangeries (bakeries) are of the same quality. Our hosts at a B&B informed us they’d been through three different local bakeries until they found the one from whom they’d bought our morning bread and pastries (which were excellent). I told them I somehow assumed all were good in France. It’s not the case there any more than elsewhere. So part of the fun when you’re in a place for some time is testing which is the best and which to avoid.

Surprises about France and the French #9: Beer!

I’ll explain in a later post why that’s not beer being poured into the beer in this friendly Dijon restaurant/pub.

Every restaurant serves beer. OK, why is this a surprise? Because we were in Burgundy and Alsace, two huge wine-growing regions. I assumed from all the guidebooks and blogs I’d read before our trip that if you didn’t drink wine (as I don’t, alas), you were out of luck. Not so. In fact, micro breweries are a growing trend there just like here. I had an IPA from a brewery in Chablis (yes, where that wine comes from) which was one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere.

Surprises about France and the French #10: Privacy

No, I don’t normally take my camera and camera bag into the bathroom. But we had just entered our apartment in Semur-en-Auxois and were checking it out when my wife snapped this shot before I’d even set my bag down. Note the “privacy” screen. That seems like it would really help provide a lot of privacy when you’re using the bathroom…from anyone standing out in the bedroom who is under four feet tall.

One of the surprises about France you don’t normally discuss is that privacy in a bathroom is different there. I first realized this in Lyon when we saw a row of urinals lined up outside the restroom smack in the middle of a busy street. No doors or even dividers between urinals as in most restrooms elsewhere. We then found that many of our apartments had limited or no barriers between the bathroom and the bedroom. Maybe it is just our more staid American sensibilities because when we mentioned this to a French couple in a similar room and they said, “Yes. No bathroom door. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Surprises about France and the French #11: Vineyard vehicles

Surprises about France and the French include odd looking farm vehicles like this vineyard tractor
We saw several variations on this tractor used for working in the vineyards. They all looked like something out of Star Wars.

One of the more unusual surprises about France was that vineyard tractors are different. We first noticed these driving in Burgundy. They’re like a normal tractor on stilts with the driver riding above the vine and the two sets of wheels going down the dirt rows on each side. Here you are in this beautiful countryside and along comes something that looks like it’s from a sci fi movie.

Surprises about France and the French #12: Going to the birds

You find stork nests everywhere in Alsace, often in wire baskets installed on roofs. So clearly, some people there appreciate these huge birds.
Here you can see the metal basket or frame used. I don’t think the storks built that part. Note also the colorful roof tiles on the left.

Tourists are fascinated with storks. Locals? Not so much, or so it seemed to us. Throughout the Alsace region of northeastern France where every village has multiple stork nests on rooftops and spires, I sensed a lack of local enthusiasm when visitors like us took photos or oohed and ahhhed about the storks. But I totally get it. Where I live in the Seattle area, we get tons of Canada Geese coming through here. We all think, “Big, noisy, poop-making machines.” My visiting friends say, “What beautiful, majestic birds!” 

Surprises about France and the French #13: Friendly people in unlikely places

This wonderful gentlemen in the very popular Alsace wine village of Ribeauville was very gracious in allowing me to take several photos of him in his picturesque window. We met several locals in that town who were extraordinarily kind.

Some of the nicest people were in the most touristy areas. That’s one of the surprises about France because usually, when there are hordes of visitors, patience by locals (and other travelers) runs thin. I’ve never found the stereotype—that people in France, particularly in Paris, are rude—to be true. In fact, most of the people we met were extremely kind and hospitable. Some even told us why: Because we were polite and tried to speak French. Seriously, such a small thing, but so many visitors there are indifferent to others or to the local language. Greet everyone one with a pleasant “Bonjour” and you dramatically increase your likelihood of a good encounter.

Surprises about France and the French #14: Dining out

A surprise about France was that Indoors and outdoors, restaurants are really crowded. Maybe it is a reaction to being cooped up for two years during the pandemic. Or maybe it’s the norm in France. Or maybe I just need to get out more…

The French eat out. A lot. We heard this from several locals and anecdotally, even in small towns, we had to make reservations or risk not getting a table for dinner or even lunch. Not from too many tourists, but from those who live there.

Surprises about France and the French #15: Fresh matters

Not everything you see here is local. But enough is both local and in season to make your taste buds wonder what they’ve been missing with that grocery store produce at home.

Food grown locally and in season tastes not just better, but different. It’s like I never had a sweet pea or a strawberry before when I tasted some of the local varieties that were in season there. That may be obvious to any localvore, but never as dramatic to me as on this trip.

Surprises about France and the French #16: Small town feel

Dijon, France, has a population of around 150,000 people. Not a huge city, but it is an historically wealthy one that is small enough to explore on foot, but big enough to feel exciting.

A big surprise about France was that big cities there didn’t feel so big on this trip. I typically enjoy small towns more since with globalization, bigger cities around the world all start to look the same to me. But in Lyon (very big), Strasbourg (fairly big) and Dijon or Besancon (both large towns), we found areas (usually the old town parts) that felt intimate while having all the energy of a larger town or city.

Surprises about France and the French #17: Changes in fashion

Fashion (or at least wearing more than shorts and a t-shirt) still matters in places like here in Dijon.

Fashion isn’t what it used to be. I’ve always thought of the French as icons of high fashion. But on this trip, one of the surprises about France and the French is that most everyone was very dressed down. And yes, especially in the evenings in larger towns, some people wore nicer outfits, but the majority wore very casual clothes. In Lyon, my wife noticed how virtually none of the more stylishly attired women we did see wore heels but instead, sported white designer sneakers. And a woman we met from Paris said that, in particular after COVID, even in Paris people dress more casually now.

Surprises about France and the French #18: We’ll always have Paris

Paris is Paris. We didn’t go there on this trip primarily because we wanted to see more of the rest of France. In the areas far from the capitol, without exception, every French person we met who wasn’t from Paris made some less-than-complimentary remark about Paris and Parisians. Paris seems to evoke a love/hate response and feels like a different world from the rest of France, likely similar to how people in the US from outside of New York City feel about that city. But even with the little barbed comments came a sense that Paris is still the City of Lights and a very special place. Even if the people we met wouldn’t want to live there, they acknowledged why they still choose to visit this, the most visited city in Europe.

In summary

You can take all these surprises about France and the French with a grain of salt since they are entirely subjective based on our limited experience in one region of the country. Or better, take a plane, train, or boat and get to France to discover for yourself some things you never knew or realized about this wonderful nation.