5 things I learned spending 2014 in France

When I first came to France last September, I had a lot of questions. How can they live without take-out coffee shops? Why don’t they smile at me on the street? How do they all look so good all the time? In my short time in France, I have learned, accepted and embraced a few cultural quirks that come with la vie en rose. Voilà!

  1. The body is a beautiful thing.

I went out to the bar in the lovely little town I live in called Arras. I was calmly enjoying my bière and the relaxed atmosphere with some friends, when a birthday boy arrived. I know he was the birthday boy, because he was greeted by about 20 people singing “Happy Birthday”. Then, it got weird. First, his friends took off his sweater. Then, they took off his shirt. Then, his pants. Before I knew it, I was staring at a real French baguette. While this may have shocked my expat friends and I, it barely fazed the other people in the bar. I’m not sure I even heard an “oh la la”. The bartenders didn’t do anything about it. This birthday boy stood smiling on top of a table in his birthday suit for about half an hour. I’ll admit I was pretty distracted from my conversation, but I think this openness is actually quite endearing.

  1. There are times for eating and there are times for starving.

I learned this lesson the day I stepped off the plane. My boyfriend and I tried to get dinner in Paris at 5:30 pm. Big mistake. Dinner does not start till 6:30 at the absolute earliest. Similarly, lunch is strictly from 12 to 2:30 pm. This is very difficult for my North American capitalist brain to grasp. “But I want to buy your food, why can’t I buy it now?” However, I suspect this may be part of the secret to France’s famously low obesity rates. While French cuisine may treat butter as a food group, it’s still only a food group to be consumed three times a day.

  1. People are actually very polite and helpful, provided that you are as well.

Like many tourists, I was warned by friends that Parisians can be rude. I found the exact opposite to be true. When I was wandering around Paris with a confused look on my face and suitcases in both hands, multiple people came up to me and asked me in English if I needed help. Whenever I asked for directions, people were also very obliging. I find if you smile and say “excusez-moi”, even the busiest people will stop for a couple minutes to help you.

  1. Watch out for dog poop.

This may be my most useful piece of advice for people travelling to France. For reasons I have not yet discovered, people do not feel it is their responsibility to pick up after their dogs. I have seen droppings of many different sizes and shapes and in many different locations in my short stay in France. I haven’t slipped in it yet, but it seems inevitable.

  1. Down time is just as important as working.

I am working as an English teaching assistant in France. Within my seven month contract, I have six weeks of paid vacation. I have to say my stress levels have plummeted since taking on this new job. Even at work, people make time for themselves. Two hour lunch breaks are not uncommon in a teacher’s schedule. You have to make time for the entrée, the plat principal, the dessert and the coffee. In other words, a three course meal. Even in your free time, French culture forces you to relax as much as possible. Almost all shops are closed on Sunday. Forget running errands and getting your groceries done. Sundays are family time. You spend the morning preparing a big lunch and the afternoon walking it off. It makes me wonder why I ever used my Sunday to pick up laundry detergent. There are many things that I’d like to see North America borrow from France and mandatory relaxing time is definitely one of them. That and the cheese.

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