10 Lessons an Unworldly American Learned in France

1. The people were seriously NICE, ya’ll.

I’m not kidding. Don’t let anyone tell you that the French don’t like Americans and are not welcoming. Every person I met was kind, helpful, and seemed genuinely interested to talk with us. (Okay, except for the guy smashing in a car window. I’ll talk about him later.) Everyone ELSE – from our Air B&B hosts, shopkeepers, strangers on the street, and ordinary people riding the bus – were friendly and happy to talk with us. I thought my husband might kiss the manager of the rental car office when he kindly offered to move our rental car to the correct return lot after we ditched it in a random parking garage during a harrowing drive through Paris (never again!).

I think the key to getting French people to warm up to you is to start by being humble and attempting (even if it’s a lame attempt) to speak their language. Think about this for a minute. If you were walking down the street and someone came up to you and started speaking French, wouldn’t you wonder why they assumed you could speak their language on American soil? Now, if that same person came up to you and, in very broken English, humbly asked, “Do you speak French?” wouldn’t you have a completely different attitude? It’s the same thing. Since nearly everyone we met spoke English, once we asked them in their native language, we were generally able to communicate in English. The bottom line is that, while most French people do speak English, it’s the respectful thing to do to simply ask first.

2. Styrofoam is not necessary for our survival.

During our trip, we often bought coffee, crepes, sandwiches, or bread to go. This was always packaged in brown paper and I never saw a single piece of styrofoam while we were in France. When we kept our paper coffee cups to reuse later, they would start to leak during the second use because they were already starting to break down! Paper towels and paper products in general are not used much either. There were a few bathrooms with paper towels, but just a few mainly in Paris. We could learn a thing or two from their limited use of disposable plastic and paper products.  I believe our landfills would thank us one day.

3. While the French love to keep their yards neat and trimmed, they manage to do it without Roundup (glyphosate), as it was outlawed there in 2017.

Our Air B&B hostess in Normandy told us that she uses a spray mixture of bleach, baking soda, and salt on some weeds and does a lot of pulling. I’m going to try her concoction on some poison ivy growing under my deck. If the French can manage to hold back the onslaught of weeds without glyphosate and still have neatly maintained landscaping, so can we, America!

And, lest you come peek into my shed, I completely include myself in that appeal.

4. European wine makes me feel fine.

I drank at least 2 or more glasses of wine almost every day in France and I never once had a headache or tummy upset like I sometimes do after drinking more than a glass at home. My husband and I even split an entire bottle of champagne during our 45 minute picnic at Versaille, and I felt completely clear-headed. Our bike tour and tour of the chateau was delightful and I didn’t feel groggy or tired.

Since I have experienced similar results after drinking wine in Germany, I thought I’d do a little research. One theory is that that European wine (especially French) has less alcohol content than that made in the U.S. However, back in the states, I retested the French champagne trick with not-so-savory results. I don’t know what to think about this. Another theory is that more sulphites or other preservatives could be added to imported wine. Do you have any theories on the differences between wine in Europe and that in the US? This might warrant some more research and a future blog post…

5. Driving in the rest of France was not a problem, but driving in Paris was a completely mind-rattling experience.

If you’re comfortable driving in U.S. cities, you should be fine to drive in France as long as you do a little homework on signs and some French words (left, right, toll, pedestrian, except, etc.). But driving in Paris was a nightmare.  It was like being trapped in a Frogger game where lanes change without warning and scooters, bicyclists, and motorcyclists pay no attention to rules or lane lines. Parisian drivers are pushy, have no qualms with coming inches from another car, and use their horns liberally. Bicyclists often swerve in and out of traffic. It’s mayhem, people. We only had to drive in Paris about 5 miles to drop off our rental car, but it took an hour and I’m sure it also shaved a couple of years off of my husband’s life.  The good news is that public transportation is excellent in Paris.  It took us a little while to gain the nerve to try the Metro, which was fast and efficient.  I wish we had hopped on the Metro right away.

6. The typical French breakfast is very light – some baguette, maybe a little butter and/or jam, some coffee, and perhaps a cigarette.

They might have a croissant or pain au chocolat (an amazing croissant-like pastry with chocolate inside) on the weekend or special day. They do love their eggs, but they eat them later in the day. It’s common to see omelettes or quiche on the lunch or even dinner menu. I had the most amazing Spaghetti Carbonara (pasta with eggs and bacon) in an Italian restaurant in Paris.  While their smoking habits are not so wholesome, I do think the small breakfast and ample walking habits of the French perhaps do explain their ability to avoid obesity as compared to Americans.

Want a little taste of France in your own kitchen?  Try the chocolate croissants from Trader Joe’s (found in the frozen food section).  They’re amazingly close to those delectable pain au chocolats we adored in France.

7. We felt pretty safe, but as in all cities, there is a good deal of crime.

We saw many little old ladies or women by themselves out after dark. Violent crime is uncommon in Paris, but thieves are rampant. Within five hours of arriving in Paris we actually witnessed a man smash in a car window, get into the car, take his time looking through and taking what he wanted, then strolling away – all while many onlookers watched. This was disconcerting to say the least, especially to my kids. In Paris precautions against pickpockets and thieves are an everyday necessity. I’m so grateful that I don’t think about it much, if at all, here in the States.

8. We’d heard much about non-existent public restrooms and generally poorly-supplied toilets, but we didn’t find this to be an issue at all.

Yes, if there was not a public toilet available, we needed to buy something at a cafe to use their restroom (espresso anyone?). But there were public restrooms at Omaha beach as well as on the promenade by the Seine River. We never had a problem finding a restroom when needed.

9. The French take their downtime seriously.

Shops are closed on Sundays (except for bakeries and some restaurants) and many are also closed on Monday. They open around 10 and are closed by 7:30. While Americans are used to shopping whenever the urge strikes, the French are used to this schedule.  They simply plan their shopping accordingly.  I do see a significant disadvantage to our “open all the time” business philosophy.   In America, some creative, hard-working people are perhaps reluctant to open a retail business because of the personal life they would have to give up.  I can only imagine the kind of inventive, independent businesses we’d enjoy if retail business-owners could reasonably have a better work-life balance in the States.

10. The coffee, oh the coffee!

In France, coffee (café) equals espresso. It’s delicious, and it’s everywhere. Even “tabac” shops (selling cigarettes and magazines) have espresso machines and will whip up a delicious shot faster than you can say Eiffel Tower. But if you expect to get a Super-Big-Gulp-sized cup of drip coffee, you’re in for some disappointment. The espresso is small, strong, and incredibly smooth. Think quality over quantity. At the risk of seeming the typical American tourist,  I always asked for milk in my coffee (au lait).  The person taking my order never gave me any attitude for asking. Sometimes I was given a small pitcher of milk to pour into my espresso. Sometimes they would froth milk and make more of a latte for me. It was all delicious. I definitely need more espresso in my life.

I hope these experiences from France were at least entertaining and, perhaps, helpful should you decide to visit the delicious country of France.


What have you learned from traveling to new places?  I’d love to hear about your experiences!