I’m English. By law that means I’m supposed to hate France, insist that all the people are rude and tell you that Paris smells of stale pee and vomit with half-digested snails floating in it.
Sadly, I can’t. Because it’s great.
From Nice through Monaco (yes, not France, I know) and all the way up to Metz and Thionville in the north, I’ve met nothing but hospitality and politeness. OK, some people are rude – but certainly no moreso than back home. And sure, not everyone speaks English. But why the hell should they? This is France!
Some things I have noticed are worth pointing out for curiosity’s sake. Like every person I met who spoke English was afraid to speak it in case they got embarassed… usually over their accent. Very few thought their English was any good as they sometime (rarely, in all honesty) had to stop and think of words.
Let’s look at these points. A French person will speak English with a French accent. The same way Americans speak it with an American accent, an Aussie speaks with an Aussie accent and a Geordie speaks it like it should be spoken (not biased at all, honest guv). As for lacking a vocabulary, I know people at home who have to describe things they don’t know the words for. Let’s face it – English is huge. Anyone who can enter into a conversation with me and understand what I’m saying as well as make themselves understood is – in my books – “advanced”. Most I know have rated themselves as “intermediate” on Couchsurfing.
The further north you get, the more cheese becomes part of dinner. In Nice, it was served as a side dish before dessert. As you approach Luxembourg you find that cheese is dinner. There are restaurants where the entire menu is cheese-related. I’ve been told this is because it’s colder in the north so they wolf down cheese for energy. I’ll stick to chocolate.
Also, and I’ll get shot for this if anyone reads if before I cross the border, much as I’ve enjoyed the cheeses here (and I’ve had more variety in 4 weeks than in 33 years), good old very mature cheddar still rules. Of course, there are 400+ cheeses in France and I’ve probably only tried 15 or 20. Maybe they have a cheddar-beater. but I doubt it.
Cinemas pretty much always show films as “VF” (Version Français) if such a version is available. Arthouse cinemas are an exception and usually show films in whatever the original language is. Look for “VO” on regular cinema listings for “Version Originale”, as long as you don’t mind French subtitles. There’s a lovely old picture house in Nice which shows almost everything in English.
If you visit and stay with someone, expect to eat late in the evening. I was always used to eating dinner around 6pm at home. The French usually sit down at 8pm or later. Mind, they also have a late lunch which helps.
If I have a complaint about France it’s the way the shops remind me of England around 25 years ago. Almost everywhere is closed on a Sunday. Many places close for lunch as well – for 2 or 3 hours. Check the details of any city you’re visiting as some have a local “half day” as we used to back home when all the markets closed at lunchtime on Wednesday. In Metz, for instance, a lot of places are shut on Monday morning.
Don’t skip places if you’re driving around. This goes for Italy as well. Stop at every town you go past, even if only for ten minutes. And once in a while, go off the main roads and follow the “route national” (equivalent of our windy B-roads). There are many hidden treasures down there I’ve found on foot!
Definitely, definitely brush up on your French or at least get a phrasebook. It’s just polite – and necessary in some places. Most people under 25 will speak passable school-level English is pressed but surely it’s your job to speak the local lingo? This won’t be a problem anywhere touristy though. Tourist information people – even in the rural areas – often speak good English as well. If you’re anywhere near the Swiss border around Geneva, you’ll come across a lot of English being spoken. It’s virtually compulsory if you want to work in Geneva as it’s such an international city.
And don’t just stick to the likes of Paris, Nice and Strasbourg. Visit Metz, Nancy, Besançon… there are many towns which get little in the way of tourism and you have no idea what you’re missing out on.