Expert interview: helpful tips to enjoy your trip to France
Expert interview: helpful tips to enjoy your trip to France
You want to enjoy France but as a foreigner, you heard so many things that you don’t know what and who to believe?
Today, I’m very excited to introduce you 10 experts on France. Most of them are a foreigner, except Cendrine who is French but lives abroad since so long that it’s as if she also was.
They are the best ones and non-biased to share their experience and give you their best tips to enjoy France during your next trip.
1. As a foreigner, what was your general feeling about French people? Did you feel welcome?
I was particularly curious to hear the answers to this question.
Without any surprise, a lot of our travel experts talk about the language barrier.
Some of them also had heard some negative things about French people.
Let’s see how was their experience with the French people. Did they enjoy France and its people?
Claudia: I was in France a few years ago and I didn’t feel very comfortable. Especially if you don’t speak french. This year I was in Paris and the people there were absolutely lovely and welcoming.
Hadas: I don’t like generalising an entire population based on few experiences. Some French people were very nice, some were less welcoming to strangers but overall I think many of them just struggled to speak English with me. Although, I appreciated the effort they made.
Rich: I studied French in middle school, high school and college, but after college I didn’t make it to Europe. I had studied the French culture and history over the years and loved it. But I had not met or talked to many French people, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The French people we met were warm and welcoming, especially in the south of France.
Sophie: I’ve wanted to live in France (at least for a little while) for as long as I can remember. I actually chose my university and course choice so that I’d have the opportunity to study abroad in Paris. I’m a pretty open minded person and so I didn’t really come with any pre misconceptions about what French people would be like. I’d heard that Parisians were rude but, by now, I’m pretty convinced that it’s all just talk…
Cendrine: I’m not a foreigner, as I was born and raised in France. But I have lived abroad long enough (12 years) to notice the way people look at me when I go back.
There is no uniform answer here. It depends on the areas you visit. Based on conversations with people and my own observations, Paris is the worst.
And there are also marked differences between southern and northern France. Northerners look colder and more distant, while southerners are louder and more welcoming. But in the long run, if you win the trust of the former, you are good to go. The latter are looser cannons and friendships are a little more superficial in general.
I’m originally from Toulouse and it’s one of the most welcoming places I know.
Laura: Yes, I felt very welcome. Even in Paris, despite what a lot of people say, I had very few negative experiences, and those were all many years ago. I lived in Metropolitan France from 2008 to 2013 and never had a problem. As long as you say “bonjour” first thing when you go into a store, you’ll be fine.
I find that the French are very polite, though not necessarily friendly. And in the South of France, whenever anything related to the war came up, they always said something about how grateful they were to the US for their (our) help.
Phil: I had the traditional English antipathy towards all things French, including French people. I was not expecting a good time in Paris. However I found my school level French language coming back to me and managed “Bonjour Madame, Du pain s’il vous plait” and “au revoir madame”. My accent must be atrocious but the people I spoke to seemed to respect the fact that I was making an effort to speak French.
On the Metro, nobody spoke to me in 7 days, which might be typical of capital city commuter rail systems, but is not very welcoming. On the streets and cafes everyone was friendly enough.
Anna: The only city I visited in France was Paris. To be honest, it has so many tourists that I am not sure I have a good idea of what French people even are (there are so many foreigners that the citizens are a bit lost there). My impression were mixed:
On one hand, there are so many tourists that everyone seems to be used to them. You can’t surprise anyone with the foreign language or a huge camera there.
On the other hand, all the restaurants and cafes are so used to serving hundreds of people daily that the service has become a bit automatic: Sit, eat, leave… I had been to Prague prior to that and I can say, even though Prague has more tourists than the actual citizens, I still got more authentic (not sure if it’s the right word) service there…
In Paris you are mostly treated as one of many tourists: People don’t ask where you were from. You don’t seem to be interesting to the locals.
Still I thought that was Paris style – I actually liked everything there!
Elaine: When I was younger I travelled to many places within France staying on sunsites camp sites. The majority of French people were not particularly welcoming. We always try to get to know local people and integrate with them to enjoy the local area, cuisine etc. many French people did not seem keen to engage.
There were exceptions and they were usually within the tourism industry we stayed at a hotel for one night and the staff there were very welcoming. Also staff in some cafes or restaurants were generally helpful and friendly.
Generally their reputation is that they are not particularly friendly. However, I do know some people with holiday homes in France and their neighbours are all lovely. Really helpful and look out for their property when they are not there. Maybe things have changed since 20 years ago!
Brooke: My experience has been that people are not easy to speak to or get help from in Paris, and bigger cities, in comparison with the more rural region (Provence and Normandy). This makes sense as it’s crowded and people get very tired of foreigners in the big cities as they are busy, but the French are certainly a bit less friendly than both the Italians and Spanish, in my experience.
That said, I have had a wonderful time in both Provence and Normandy and find that because I approach people in a respectful way and use a few words of French I get along fine. People are polite to me over all. They are also much more helpful in rural areas if you are a beginner in French and want to practice. They are ok with being patient.
Yet, the French are not as easy to win over or get to chatting as many other cultures are that I experience. I’m American and here we can go out into an area alone and meet a lot of people very quickly. If sitting alone somewhere, people will talk to me. We may strike up a long conversation and then even keep in touch. This happens less in France.
I also always have noticed that French women never talk to me, as a woman. And they don’t seem particularly interested when I approach them, so I generally only approach men or couples. I have sensed it would be very difficult to make female friends in France.
Then, lastly here is another thing I have experienced a lot with my French friends, and staying with them in their homes, etc. The French seem to be obsessed with eating only at certain times and never ever at any other times. Snacking is not ok. Eating early or late is not ok. You will starve if you miss the restaurant lunch hours by even 30 minutes.
Even when my friends are hungry because we had an early morning and have been very active, they will not eat snacks or bring any sort of protein or food to help keep them sustained til the next meal. They simply eat 3 meals a day and that’s it.
This is mostly ok, but it’s a bit annoying when I get up hours earlier than usual and then the French guy I’m dating acts like I’m weird because I want a snack before lunch (um hello I’ve been awake for 7 hours!).
2. Do you have a good or bad experience to share with us? How did you enjoy France?
Good and bad experiences are part of a trip. So, what about our experts in France?
Claudia: I wrote about the 5 myths about Paris.
I think I had both good and bad experiences. I was in a little place in France a few days ago (not a big city) and the people there were nice, but…. I only think that they don’t care about the service. If you complain. They just don’t care. Whatever you say. You say this and this did not work. They ask you maybe why but they don’t offer you anything. Or they don’t excuse for the things that don’t work. I feel a little like talking to a wall. If you say it or not, nothing changes.
Hadas: I lived in Lille (the north of France) for about a year doing a student exchange, so I have acquired quite a few experiences during that time. In terms of bad experience, there were several occasions when I walked into a store looking for some help from the salesperson but got refused since they couldn’t speak English. Their answer was simply: “No, sorry, no English” in a very rude manner. Another difficulty was to understand the overall French habits and costumes.
Regarding a good experience, I could not choose one as I loved my entire time in Lille. Lille is a beautiful city, with lots of things to do and places to go to. In Lille, I met so many people from different countries and cultures, so my entire experience has been overall very good.
Being a fashion blogger, I wrote a post about how my time in France changed my style:
Rich: We had a bad experience that turned good, thanks to some friendly French people. We flew into Nice late, and by the time we got our car and were heading up to our rental house near La Gaude, a little French village above Nice, it was approaching 11pm. We followed the directions from the owner but kept getting lost and ending up back in the same roundabout. And my SIM card doesn’t work, so I can’t call her.
Finally, we stopped at a small hotel and asked the owner for directions. She got her husband and they tried to make sense of our directions. Finally, he said, “I can take you there, allons!“, and jumped in his Renault. We followed him up some crazy mountain roads and voila! we found the house. And he waves and off he goes. But zut alors! the housekeeper who was supposed to meet us and give us the keys had given up and gone home!
Did I mention my SIM card wasn’t working?
So we head back to the village but we get lost again and can’t find the hotel. By this point, it’s past midnight but fortunately the French eat late, so there’s a little Vietnamese place that is just closing up and clearing tables. I run in and manage to communicate my bizarre plight in French, and the owner kindly takes my info and calls the homeowner herself! They rapid fire in French, and she tells me to go back and the housekeeper will meet us. Which she did, much to the relief of my boys, who were about to fall apart in the back seat!
Sophie: Since moving here, I’ve ended up with a French boyfriend. Just to clarify, this is a GOOD experience (haha). I feel like a walking cliché; ‘English girl moves to Paris and ends up falling for a Frenchman and planning to stay in France’. It’s so cliché but I have so many friends who have experienced similar scenarios! I’ve written a couple of posts about this on my blog: WHY FALLING IN LOVE WITH A FRENCHMAN ISN’T ALL CLICHÉS BERETS AND BAGUETTES
Laura: Many years ago, before the euro was introduced, my husband and I arrived in Paris with only credit cards and a 200-franc note saved from a previous trip, which turned out to have been retired in the meantime. We found out that it was no longer valid when we tried to buy tickets for the métro. It was too late to go to a currency exchange and we were tired and jet-lagged – we just wanted to get something to eat and then go to our hotel. The clerk didn’t make any effort to try to help us, but the customer behind us very kindly paid for our tickets.
Anna: Honestly, I can’t say any of my experiences was bad. It’s just what it is: Paris is a huge busy city where people hardly care about you. I talked to people there but mostly those were other tourists (We visited a lot of tourist attractions, so that’s why) and everyone was very nice to us.
I didn’t get to see too many locals though which is the shame. Next time I go to Paris, I’ll make sure to visit other places too!
I’ll go to Paris again though: I miss the grand charm of the city. You actually feel very small there and the fact that nobody cares about you only adds to that charm! So I’ll say this is part of the city charisma!
Elaine: The one incident that sticks in my mind was going there with my family at about 18 years of age. Every morning I would walk to the local shop to buy fresh croissants and bread etc for that day. I was always friendly and would speak in French. I didn’t manage to get them to smile once and although I am sure my French was understandable they always replied in brusque English! This must have made an impression as it is one a handful of memories I have of holidays in France over several years about 20 years ago.
3. Did you speak French? Did you have some problems to communicate with people?
Communication is crucial during a trip.
Let’s see how it worked for our experts in France.
Claudia: No I don’t speak French. I speak four languages but not French. I didn’t have problems in Paris but I definitely had problems outside the big cities.
Hadas: It was definitely a big challenge communicating with people. Before I moved to France I knew about the stereotype of French people that they don’t speak English but I didn’t realise how bad it was until I got there. I recall one time I went on a date with a French guy after exchanging a few texts. When I saw him in person and we started to talk I realised that his English was very poor, way worse than I expected. Turns out, he was using google translate the entire time we were texting. Since my French is on a scale of one to non-existing, we had no choice but to use google translate during the entire date.
After spending few months in Lille, I signed myself up for a French course. I tried to practice and speak French every time I could (at the grocery store, shopping centre, restaurants…).
I can say my French has massively improved after spending a year in France and taking French classes, however, it is still not at the level I want it to be.
Rich: Not having used my French in…ahem…18 years, I was rusty, to say the least. My family knows no French, so I was the translator, but I could not speak quickly, and was constantly having to look words up. Google Translate was a critical resource for me, although the fact my UK and US SIM cards weren’t working for the first 3 days was a major problem. In the UK you can buy SIM cards for $15 in a corner store, but in France, I had to find an official store and fill out paperwork in French.
In the cities, most people spoke English enough, but they always wanted you to at least try your awful French before they’d stop to using English. In the countryside, however, we met many people who didn’t speak any English (or perhaps they were just more adamant about not using it, hard to say!).
Sophie: I’d taken university courses in French as they were part of the required credits I needed to take before being allowed to take part in a French university exchange programme (I ended up studying at the Sorbonne in Paris). My Dad is French Canadian so I’ve grown up in a multi-language household. Growing up in the UK but only practicing with Canadians led me to have this weird English/Canadian accent when speaking French so a couple of people have laughed at my accent. I’ve also been called ‘roast beef’ when ordering a drink in a bar which is a tongue and cheek nickname that French people sometimes give their English counterparts. Otherwise, communication has been fine!
Laura: The first time I visited, I was 15 years old and had been studying French for 1½ years. Obviously, I knew very little but I tried to use it as much as possible, and the only problem I had was in a very touristy shop, when the clerk refused to speak to me in French even though his English was terrible. I think it was worse than my French, but maybe not. 🙂
Now I’m fluent, and I have no trouble communicating. In fact, people often comment on how I have little or no accent, which is an exaggeration but I appreciate the compliment anyway.
Phil: I spoke school-level French, that came back to me after 45 years! I managed to make myself understood when I needed to, but that was partly through a mixture of French, English and pointing. Mainly pointing and saying “deux, s’il vous plait” when I was on my own.
Railway stations and navigating the Metro would not have been possible without my French-speaking friend.
I was surprised at the number of people who will speak English, as long as you have made a basic attempt to speak French. This is reasonable and I expect visitors to England to speak at least some English.
Anna: I spoke English and I had no problem getting my point across… I’d heard lots of scary stories that French people hated English and they will pretend they don’t understand you (I know Germans who don’t like going to France for the same reason)
I personally never experienced any difficulty expressing myself in English there and all people hearing me speak English never showed any negative attitude… I am still not sure if it would be the case if I go away from tourist attractions and try to speak to real locals. That would be a fun experience I am looking forward to!
Elaine: When I travelled to France I had recently studied French at school for 5 years. Although I was not fluent and was probably a bit self conscious I always made an effort to speak in french. I didn’t have many problems being understood- even if they didn’t understand at first repeating or using alternative phrasing did the trick. I remember being really happy when I managed to book hotel rooms including a cot for my baby sister. My dad was much better at French at that time so I am sure he would have helped me be understood if necessary.
Brooke: My first 3 times in France I did not know French, but this past time I stayed a month and took French lessons. Speaking a bit more French (although still not a lot) was helpful in having less stressful situations. However, more serious misunderstandings occurred when I spoke SOME French because there are cultural differences. For instance, my teacher asked me if I was ok with walking the next day to a different location and I said ‘sure, ok’. I walked to the location the next day and she was not there. She was at the old location waiting for me in her car. After 1 hour of waiting, I went to the old location. I had missed our entire session (which I had paid for already). She was there and asked me why I did not show up. I told her ‘you asked me if I could walk here today and I said yes…!’ She replied that I had said ‘ok, that’s fine’ which to her meant ‘I’m not interested in doing that’. I had no idea how she could possibly assume that but, due to my French, (c’est bon, etc) she assumed something incorrect about my meaning.
4. Which places have you visited? Why?
I often hear foreigners telling they want to enjoy the rural France.
What about our experts?
Claudia: Paris, Montpellier, Montecarlo, Cannes. I will visit in the next week also Nice, Antibes and a few other cities at the Cote d’Azur. Just for vacation.
Hadas: I have travelled in France every opportunity I had. I went to Paris many times, because… do you really need a reason? Like they say: “Paris is always a good idea.” I also visited Normandy with a group of my classmates in one of the university breaks we had, and it was absolutely gorgeous. We went to Le Havre, Honfleur and Etretat. To Nice, Cannes and Lyon I went after 4-week long Euro-trip I made with a friend. It was the end of our trip and we were exhausted so chilling in the French Riviera was exactly what we needed.
Rich: We visited Nice, Cannes, St Paul de Vence, La Gaude, Eze and Paris. We started in Nice and covered the area around there, and then took the bullet train to Paris and spent 4 days covering as much ground as possible there, before heading to Germany.
Sophie: I’ve tried to visit Ile de France (which is where Paris is located). For me, it’s convenient to do day trips in this region as they’re all free with the Navigo card (a bit like the London ‘oyster’ card, the Navigo is a monthly pass that can be purchased and from then on, allows unlimited travel in the Paris region).
5. What was your favourite place to enjoy France? Why?
Even if Paris is always in the race, another area have seduced our experts!
Claudia: Paris. I will visit in two weeks the Cote d’Azur after years. Maybe in a few days I will change my mind.
Hadas: I would have to say Lille is my favourite French city because that’s where I spent most of my time. However, France is an amazing country with so many great places. Of course, Paris is gorgeous, but if I have to choose a favourite city except Lille, hands down it’s Nice. I just loved the French Riviera and the lifestyle it has to offer, as well as being so close to Cannes and Monaco.
Rich: It’s really hard to pick a favorite. Nice was wonderful for its laid back vibe, great food and art, and of course the beach. But Paris is such a refined city with so much to see and do, it’s hard to not make that my favorite.
Sophie: My favourite place (and maybe always will be) Paris! It’s just got this really cool, unique vibe where everyone can just be themselves… Saying that, every ‘arrondissement’ (Paris is divided up into 20 districts known as arrondissements) has it’s own ‘feel’. My favourite ones are probably Montmartre and Le Marais.
6. Which tips would you give to a first-time traveller to France?
Our experts learned some good tips from their experience in France.
Claudia: To be prepared to talk with hands and feet if you do not speak french. And if you travel to Paris – it will be very expensive.
Hadas: Visit as many places as you can. France has way more to offer than just Paris, I promise.
Rich: First, try hard to make sure your cell phone plan has data when you’re there, or download an offline dictionary/translate app before you go. Work really hard on the basic phrases, especially “I don’t understand”, “I’m sorry” and “Pardon me?” 😃. Secondly, don’t spend all your time at the major tourist sites. The Eiffel Tower and Versailles are impressive, but we had some equally fun times in a little medieval village near Nice, or running around a small Roman colosseum. Get off the beaten track and don’t be afraid to explore. France is very safe, despite recent events, and there is a lot to see.
Sophie: Learn a couple of phrases in French and don’t be afraid to make a mistake! People are really appreciative when you make at least a little bit of an effort…
About our experts
Learn more about our experts and where to find them.
Claudia is a travel journalist and travel blogger for www.nonsoloamore.net
She also has a social media agency. www.killer-press.com
Cendrine Marrouat is a social media blogger, curator, author and coach living in Canada. She is the founder of Social Media Slant and #smslantchat, a monthly Twitter chat for businesses. Cendrine also contributes regular content for Paper.li and B2B News Network, as well as other blogs. She has also authored two books.
So now, how do you feel for your next trip to France? What will be your secret recipe to enjoy France?