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A Survival Guide to France

Way back when (it seems like a lifetime ago) I was teaching French at the university level in the United States. One semester in particular, I had a group of architecture students who had never studied French and who I needed to prepare to go abroad in one semester.

I've just found some of the final cultural notes I gave the students before sending them off.  In any case, this advice can be useful for both tourists who are only passing through for a couple of days, to people who are settling in France and need to know the basics of getting around.

Keep in mind that France is a very high-context culture. In plain English, this means that much of what you are supposed to do socially is coded, and not explicit (see the first point below for an example).

Whether you are just visiting France or moving here, remember the following...

BONJOUR, EXCUSEZ-MOI...AU REVOIR: If you ever need to stop someone to ask for information (French people do this a lot), always begin with ‘Bonjour Monsieur/Madame’ before continuing your question. Similarly, always greet a person when entering a store, bank, restaurant, etc., and say goodbye when you leave (Bonjour/Au revoir).  (See Simple comme bonjour, http://mavieinfrance.blogspot.fr/2015/02/simple-comme-bonjour.html)

SMILING IS OPTIONAL: People tend not to smile at strangers in public and usually don’t make eye contact.  If you do this, it can be interpreted like you’re trying to pick someone up!  Girls and women especially, be wary of smiling at people you meet/see in the street. 

BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS: In touristy parts of any city, beware of pickpockets and gypsies or ‘gitans’. In touristy areas of Paris I've seen a child approach people with a card written in English or say ‘do you speak English’, probably trying to distract the person to get their wallet. In other cities there are scams where groups of people will try to get you to sign petitions. In any case, just politely say "désolé" (sorry) and walk away, and hang on to your belongings.

DO YOU HAVE A LIGHT/CAN YOU SPARE SOME CHANGE? It is common to be approached by people in the street in France and asked for various things: a light for a cigarette, directions, the time, and obviously, also for money.

When I first arrived here, I was always on my guard when anyone stopped me in the street, but now I've realized that it's a pretty common occurrence and most of the time people who do it are sincerely asking for information.

In all cases, if you don't know what the person wants or can't help them, the simple answer is always "Non, désolé" (no, sorry). This also goes for people asking for money. In my experience, people asking for money are usually polite and maintain their distance. Rather than ignoring them, the politest thing to do is simply say "Non, désolé" (No, sorry) and walk away.

THE FRENCH SCHEDULE:    
·   *Many public places (stores, markets, offices) will close anytime between 12-2 in the afternoon during the week.  This takes some getting used to, and you will need to plan accordingly. 
·   *Many businesses and restaurants are closed on Mondays. The idea is these services are often open on Saturdays, so closing on Mondays provides a two-day weekend.   
·   *Almost everything except for restaurants will be closed on Sundays, so don’t count on doing your shopping then.

STRIKES ARE A NATIONAL PASTIME: You will no doubt encounter at least one strike (grève) while in France.  This is in part because of the strength of unions in France. Get used to the idea now and just remember that it’s all part of the experience.  The most common groups that go on strike are:  teachers, the trains (SNCF) and often university students. 

8 recommendations of places to visit in France outside of Paris:
Many Americans moving to France see this as their ticket to Europe, and take advantage of weekends and holidays to explore the different European capitals. While low-cost airlines provide a great opportunity to discover Europe on a relatively low budget, there is so much to see within France itself. If you're spending some time in the hexagone, I highly recommend taking the time to also explore France and its many, diverse regions (all incidentally with their own, delicious regional food). 

Here are 8 of my recommendations for places to visit in France (most of which are also presented here http://mavieinfrance.blogspot.fr/2015/04/a-regional-tour-of-france.html ):

1.  Strasbourg- Try to go around Christmastime, when they have their famous Christmas market (marché de Noël). You'll feel like you're in Germany, and can actually walk to Germany by simply crossing a bridge on the Rhine river.

2.  Annecy-I lived here for a year.  Annecy is near the Alps, so if you wanted to ski, this would be a good place to stop and visit on the way.  You can take buses from the Annecy train station that will drive you to the ski stations.  The scenery is breathtaking.  There is a huge lake surrounded by mountains, and the city is full of little canals.  They call it the Venice of the Rhône-Alpes.  

3.  Aix-en-Provence/Marseille- Aix is a beautiful city with a lot of fountains.  In this part of France, they have 300 days of sun per year!  If you like the 19th century artist Cezanne, he lived in Aix for a good part of his life.   

Visit Aix for a day and then take a bus to Marseille (only about 30 minutes away).  You’ll notice a huge difference between the two.  Marseille has so much history, including an ancient port that dates back to the Greeks.  Marseille has a large immigrant population, and it’s right on the Mediterranean.  It is also France’s 2nd largest city after Paris.  A TGV(train) from Paris to Aix only takes 3 hours.

4.  Arles- Arles is small, but there is so much to see.  This is where Van Gogh ended up in an asylum, and you can see the café he painted, as well as other sites from his paintings.  In addition, there is an almost completely restored Roman amphitheater, a Roman theater, Roman baths, and a museum if you want even more Roman history. 

5.  Lyon- Lyon is the third biggest city in France and has an important place in French history.  You’ll get a different feeling from Paris or Marseille.  It’s right on the Rhône and Saone rivers and also has Roman ruins, museums from the German Occupation during WWII, other major museums, and is considered one of the most ‘gastronomic’ cities in France…meaning it has great food! 

6.  Bretagne-(cities:  Rennes, Quimper, St. Malo, Brest)-Bretagne has been on my travel list for a long time.  It has its own culture, dialect and has a lot of Celtic traditions.  Just don’t expect good weather!   

7.  If you get the opportunity, go to Corsica, the island is supposed to be gorgeous.  It would be best to go in warm weather.  If you want to save money, you can take a night ferry from Marseille.  Corsica is technically part of France, but has its own culture and language, closer to that of Italy. 

8.  Nice- Nice is a big tourist destination and because of this it wasn’t the first place I wanted to visit in the South.  When I finally went, I saw what all of the fuss is about.  It’s beautiful, on the Mediterranean, and has a lot of culture.  You’ll hear a lot of Italian walking around, and there are some great art museums (Matisse, Chagall, etc.)

If you're moving to France...

If you move to France and don't speak any French, make sure you can at least do the following:
1. Memorize the spelling of your first and last name, in the French alphabet.  Especially while you’re learning to pronounce your name with a French accent, you’ll probably need to spell it out. 
2.  When you get your cell phone in France, memorize your number.  Before you have it memorized, store it in your phone so you always have it on hand, and can just show to someone if they ask for it. 
3.  memorize your birthday in French:  remember that the French switch the order of dates, the date comes first, the month second (i.e. February 10, 2015 is written as 10-2-2015) 

On meeting French people: 
In my experience, it takes time to become friends with French people.  This can be frustrating if you really want to work on your French and expand your social circle. 

My advice to you:   Get a French hobby! 

Join a club, take a class, play on a sports team…whatever your interests are, find a way to pursue them in France.  French people are very into hobbies so this is a great way to meet people.

I've now lived in France three different times, and over the years I've taken piano lessons, played oboe in a city band, took art classes, did volunteer work, participated in language exchanges, etc.  These were great experiences, I met a lot of terrific people and it made my social life more interesting. 


A good place to find local activities is in what's called an MJC (Maison Jeunes Culture). They’re basically centers that offer recreational activities and clubs you can join, and often there is often one per city, sometimes one even in every neighborhood.  Most cities will also have a ‘foire des associations’ in September, a sort of showcase for the different activities available in the city.  

Best of luck to anyone reading this moving to France. 

Please comment on this post if you have other suggestions you think are useful for anyone visiting or moving to France.   

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