Krissie P., a teaching assistant in Avignon, France, who moved from southern USA to the ‘sizz-outh’ of France to work as an English teaching assistant, tells you some things to expect on your first trip to France.
As an American living and working in France for 9 months, I’ve noticed a handful of differences from my typical American ways, some in culture and some in vocabulary. Here are ten that I thought useful to point out.
1) Ask for a café alongé. (caFAY, ahlonJAY…or something like that) Unless you’re at Starbucks, asking for a café in France will not get you a Tall, Grande, or Venti. A café in France is equivalent to what we know as an espresso. If you want something similar to the tall cup of coffee that we’re used to getting in the US, it’s un café alongeé, s’il vous plait!
2) The salade is not a salad. Bravo! You’re going for the healthy choice, even while traveling abroad and having a serious case of post-party munchies. But what you really want is a salade composée (solLOD compoZAY) because just saying salade alone will only get you lettuce. At a snack (a fast food restaurant), you’ll see many offerings like “kebab salade,” a kebab with your choice of bread with lettuce.
3) Money on the table. Just when you thought the French were overly touchy feely with their kiss-on-the-cheek greeting, ranging anywhere from 1-4 pecks on the cheek (typically 2 if you want to play it safe), you might be surprised to find that at a cash register or at a restaurant table, it is very common to pay for things and receive change by putting the money on the counter or table rather than by placing it directly in the person’s hand. Impersonal? Perhaps. But it’s just one of those cultural things. Don’t worry, we know you wash your hands.
4) What’s on the menu tonight? If you’ve mustered up the courage to eat escargots (snails), you may find yourself wanting to browse the restaurant’s menu to see what they’ve got. However a French menu is what Americans know as a combo. It usually includes, for a fixed price, a choice of appetizer, entrée, dessert, and some type of beverage, maybe wine or after dinner coffee or both. To see the actual menu with all of the restaurants offerings, ask to see la carte. And while we’re on the topic, in France, an entrée is an appetizer, not the main dish as in the US.
5) Thank you for not smoking. Laws and rules regarding cigarette smoking inside bars, restaurants, and nightclubs in the US may have changed over the last few years depending on what state you live in. In France, restaurants and bars seem to have completely done away with indoor smoking, and night clubs usually offer a separate “zone fumeur” (smoking area), so think twice before you go lighting up that cigarette, drink in hand on the dance floor.
6) Speaking of Smoking… If you’re into smoking a certain green plant that shall remain nameless, and if you should be so lucky as to find a French counterpart who is offering, be aware that you are more likely to find “sheet” (hash) than herb, and thus joints are usually a mixture of hash and tobacco. Good to know if you’re iffy about tobacco or if you weren’t sure what to do with that stick of hash… I’m just sayin’.
7) One word: ketchup. Nothing goes better with fries, right? Not exactly. While diners and fast food joints all across America will never question your love for this delectable tomato and sugar based sauce atop a potatoey substrate, the French just don’t seem to appreciate the pair as much. A snack stand worker will ask you what kind of sauce you want with your fries. Even more shocking, McDonald’s in France serves packets of a mysterious white “fry sauce.”
8) Speaking of other things that may be shocking, electricity is one of them. I mean as a Westerner you’ve never had to think twice about plugging shit into the wall, but when traveling abroad, you should. The first thing you’ll notice is that the plugs are different. American plugs have two flat prongs while French plugs have two round prongs. You definitely need a plug adapter to make it happen. But that’s not all. The voltage is also different. (I have lost a flat-iron and a blow dryer in this madness.) So you put on the adapter, plug it in, and voila, you’re blow drying away. Not for long. If you’re lucky, your appliance will just gently smoke for a while before dying and never working again. If you’re unlucky, you’ll witness a small explosion while narrowly escaping electrocution. Your power will be interrupted, and you’ll be left wondering which button to press on the electrical panel. Meanwhile as you stand there dumbfounded, your crazy, but favorite friend to travel with has already tried 5 of the switches, the power is working again, and she’s about to plug in the blow dryer…again. Before you can say wait maybe that’s not a good idea… Let’s just say, play it safe and air dry, and charge your cell phone or MP3 player through a USB charger. Also consider battery-powered devices for the ones you can’t leave home without. On the other hand, laptops and devices that have an AC adapter are OK.
9) The customer is NOT always right. No, it’s not a typo. It’s the French way. The French approach to customer service is a little more… relaxed, especially in the South. Perhaps this is because service industry workers make a regular hourly wage rather than hustling for tips as in many US states. So service may be slower and with a little less…well..ass-kissing. Don’t get me wrong. Servers are nice and often smiley in France, but they tend to be less shy about letting you know that the one-sided, I’m the customer and you’re the server, and I’m always right attitude isn’t welcome. That said, go with a pleasant and sympathetic attitude and you’ll be welcomed anywhere.
10) Syrup, it’s not just for pancakes anymore. When it comes to beverages, I can’t help but think the French are just a little more creative. There are a number of different flavors of sweet syrop – lemon, peach, mint, grape, cherry, – that can be mixed with carbonated water, like Perrier, to make a refreshing soda, with flat water to add some flavor, or even with beer (YES, BEER!) I’m not really into peachy beer, but peach and Perrier? Yes, please. You can try these drinks at a restaurant, bar or cafe or buy your own syrop and a bottle of Perrier at the super market and mix away! Hint: pour the syrop in the glass first (~2 tablespoons), then the drink.
About Nomad Krissie P.
Krissie is a southern-bred Atlantan working as an English teaching assistant in Avignon, France. When she is not teaching French high school students American slang, she is an avid ‘hula-hooper’ and trapeze artist who spends her nights drinking cold ones in Avignon’s ‘Place Pie’.
Have questions about traveling to southern France, hoop dance or working as teacher in France? Leave a comment below or shoot her an email krissiep [at] rocket mail.com.