1. Try to speak French. Just learning the basics will make the locals happy. You can pick up some phrases on-line and whether or not you have your pronunciation correct, this will help you avoid negativity. I have found this to be less of an issue in the smaller towns and villages, than in Paris itself. There are so many historical (and current) reasons behind the fierce French language and culture preservation ideals that dominate the ‘air’ of both Quebec and France, that instead of judging it from a foreign perspective, it would be worth while for you to do some of your own research to better your understanding (I am not sure I am up to the 3,000+ word dissertation!). Or, you could just handle it, and know that there is a good reason!
2. Learn a bit about French culture. Did you know that the French (just about always) greet each other when opening a conversation? They have a great appreciation for politeness and cordiality. This means if you run up to local and ask them directions without an appropriate “Hello how are you?” (Bonjour, comment allez-vous?), YOU are being DOUBLE rude (not attempting their language while in their country, AND not giving a proper greeting). I know here in Canada, it is common for someone to jump in front of you for directions with a “Hey! Where is _____?”. When you think about it in a proper social context, though it is acceptable behaviour here, it is kinda rude. French people don’t really like ‘rude’, and usually aren’t ‘socially rude’ to each other. Yes, they may react to said rudeness in a similarly ‘rude’ manner, I think we are all guilty of that. It is worth it to learn a bit, so you aren’t stepping on toes – or being cranky – or getting cranky reactions unnecessarily.
3. Leave your negative stereotypes behind. Having said the above, I have not found the French people to be overly rude (there are ‘rudies’ in every country, of course), but there are cultural differences that you should be aware of (see #1 and #2). On the contrary to this stereotype, I have had many helpful, positive experiences (particularly outside Paris) with amazing people – some that I will never forget. Remember, every Canadian is not a Torontonian, and every American is not a New Yorker. Apply this to Paris and France. In addition, the French generally do not hate Americans, and are usually better at separating the people of a country from their leadership than we tend to be in North America. They also do not stink, the women DO shave (and are generally quite beautiful, and usually fashionable too). They don’t all smoke, you don’t have to speak fluent French to get by, they don’t all ‘hate tourists’, and not all of the public toilets are ‘holes in the ground’ – most aren’t. And it doesn’t have to be atrociously expensive either (check out my 70% FREE see and do list). Any other stereotypes you need busted, you can bust yourself, with an open-minded visit.
4. Make a trip outside of Paris. I have said it before, but have to say it again – the French countryside is spectacular. Full of medieval villages, incredible views, unbelievable history, friendly locals, dense forests, beaches and rolling green expanses, if you are able, you MUST head out of Paris and visit some other communities. It doesn’t really matter which route you travel, you will find something outstanding in every direction. Many people have trekked to Paris, almost an equal amount have not experienced anything else in France – and that is a shame. France has great road systems and is a fantastic place to rent a car. You can even sleep, eat and shower at many of the fancy roadside turn outs.
5. Follow the local driving laws. France as a whole, has really cracked down on speeders and traffic violators. Be sure to pay attention to the limits. Even we received a ticket in the mail upon our return home – a small ticket for going a few kilometres over the limit. Oops! And don’t forget to watch for speeding Belgians, Germans and those trying to catch a ferry (no, I am not kidding). They are in the demographic most ticketed, barreling down the fast lanes of the main highways.
6. Be aware of the ‘French schedule’ – there is one. Like many other tourists, I have found myself standing in front of a site I thought should be open, or in front of a closed restaurant at lunch time, starving. Many services are closed for a long lunch – open in the morning until about noon, closed until 2 or 3pm, and open again in the evening. Plan for this, so it isn’t a frustration. It shouldn’t be – surely you would be happy with the schedule, if you lived there!
7. Eat. This may seem basic – because OF COURSE you are going to eat – but eating is a special thing in France. You absolutely have to treat yourself to a few meals out – even if you are on a tight budget. It is an event within itself. Meals are not usually rushed, and much attention is paid to preparation and detail. For inspiration, read about one of our glorious food experiences in France.
France is somewhere I have been able to travel without much planning. There are enough hotels and hostels to accommodate the incredible flux of tourists that visit yearly, and enough to do that the options are limitless. It is possible to travel France on a shoestring budget – it is also possible to throw yourself into a decade of debt repayment after a week long tour. That choice will be up to you. Though I have had a few experiences being scammed by cabbies, or being treated rudely by wait staff at a restaurant or hotel (usually in central Paris), France is not as difficult to traverse as some think. Head out of Paris to meet the people at the heart of France, and I promise you will fall in love.