For centuries, the French have fascinated visitors and arm-chair admirers around the world. The way they dressed, the way they ate, the way they lived…few other peoples have generated as much admiration, curiosity, misconceptions and misunderstandings as the French, and for visitors who may be wondering about some of the things they might encounter, here are are few things you might want to know!
1. Why do the French kiss all the time and how do I do it?
No, this is not about the one with all the tongue! In France, it is customary to greet friends and relatives with a light kiss on the cheeks. Known as la bisse, it is seen as a normal and completely unsexual act, despite continuous Anglo-Saxon fascination with it. As a visitor to France, you may not have the opportunity to faire la bisse, but if you ever do, just remember:
Women can kiss both women and men;
Men kiss only women or men they are fairly close to;
A quick peck on the cheek is usually safer than a firm planting of lips;
Its you’re choice which cheek to kiss first, but most people start on the right;
The eldest or most senior person usually initiates the ritual;
The number of times you kiss depends on the region, but two is most common in Paris;
And if any of this feels at all uncomfortable, a firm handshake will do!
Incidentally, noone really knows where the term French kiss came from, though it has been in use since at least the 1920’s. Like many similar English terms however, it can probably be attributed to the English penchant for associating all things naughty (i.e., French letters, French postcards) with their cousins across the Channel.
2. Are the French waiters really as rude as people say they are?
In a word, no – it’s just that having a meal in a restaurant is usually the first situation when the differences between French culture and everyone else’s becomes clear. The most common complaint is that French waiters are not attentive: you have to call them over in order to get service. Many people say this is because French waiters do not receive tips as a service charge is included, and so don’t feel required to hover every table. This is some truth to that, but there is also more to it than that.
In France, a meal is traditionally considered a social event, often taking several hours. Having a waiter constantly interrupting is considered rude and gauche and so for the French, it is perfectly acceptable for the waiters to hang back until their services are called for, an approach which often annoys visitors more used to American-style attention at the dining table. Basically, while the diner is fuming at what he thinks is a lack of attention, the waiter thinks he’s being polite and correct and can’t imagine what the fuss is all about. In this case, crossed cultural perceptions leads to both parties feeling a little put out. Of course, when it’s 30 degrees outside in August and the waiter is still working while the rest of the country is on vacation, it may also just be sour grapes.
3. Why are French women so slim?
In the past few years, there have been numerous books attempting to explain this perplexing – and enviable – mystery, ranging from Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secrets of Eating for Pleasure, and Josh Ferdinand’s The French Paradox. Combined, these books have sought to blame the Frenchwoman’s highly envied figure on everything from the cuisine, to their more relaxed approached to life and even to the greater amount of walking the French do. In other words, there’s a theory for every person you ask.
Most likely, the true reason is a combination of all these reasons but whatever the truth, the phenomenon has a number of consequences for the visitor. The first involves the food. Any visitor to a French restaurant will probably notice the size of the portions which, compared to the gigantic American sized portions now becoming common everywhere else, are incredibly small. More than one amazed tourist has pointed to a tiny croissant as the reason why all the women in Paris are so slim!
Another consequence for the visitor is in shopping. For most women who wear dress sizes larger than about 12, shopping for clothes in Paris can sometimes be an exercise in frustration, as oftentimes the stores won’t have anything in a size larger than perhaps 12, or even 10. This applies not just to clothes, but to shoes as well. If you’re planning on a shopping spree in France and are used to an American range of sizes, be prepared for occasional moments of chagrin in the fitting room!
4. What’s with the berets?
Once an essential part of the well dressed French man’s wardrobe, the beret was at one time the most common piece of headgear in France. Originally worn by the Basque minority, in the early 20th century it rapidly became popular throughout the rest of the country. After the world wars, soldiers brought home tales of their encounters with the French, including their inevitable headpiece, and lo, the international image of the beret-wearing Frenchman was born.
Nowadays, the beret has gone the way of its counterpart across the Channel, the British bowler hat. For many, it has become too strongly associated with wine-soaked old codgers and the detested stereotype of a Frenchman to be fashionable, despite some attempts at revival by the fashion houses. Many young Frenchmen won’t be caught dead in one, preferring the now universal baseball cap. Today, the only chance you’ll see one is if you venture into the Basque provinces in the deep southwest, where it is still worn with fierce pride, or if you run across a military recruit, who still sport the dashing beret as part of their uniform.
5. Strikes! Strikes! Strikes! Why all the fuss?
OK, in a country where the French Revolution is still seen as the ultimate expression of street politics, and where even the school children are taught to and are prepared to assert their right to protest as citizens, why would the constant striking be a surprise? In France, demonstrating their displeasure with the way things are done is considered a sacred right — and one they are happy to exercise.
For visitors, the French penchant for protesting at the drop of a hat can be very trying when it ends up delaying planes, closing down roads and otherwise turning a short, relaxing holiday into a marathon stress-fest. It doesn’t help that the French are traditionally tolerant of strikes. Solidarité being one of the country’s enshrined principles, sometimes other groups will even join the strikers out of sympathy. All in all, la grève is so regular an occurrence that it has become part of the fabric of life, and everyone just finds a way around it.
The best way for a visitor to handle this situation is to stay well informed in advance: usually, there are very clear warnings from the strikers of when and where a strike will take place, so that people will at least have some time to make alternative arrangements. Oftentimes, even when a strike shuts down ‘everything‘, there’s still some sort of service available: for example, the express trains may not leave the station, but the normal trains still run; the local flights may be grounded but the international ones still take off. Be flexible with your schedule — not just Plans A and B, but sometimes even C and D as well. Most of all, don’t take it personally or let it ruin your stay. Occasionally, visitors may even benefit, as in the case when museum workers went on strike and let visitors enter for free!