Daily life in France is fairly legendary – and for good reason. So much of France is pretty as a postcard – literally – with beautiful landscapes and gardens, over-the-top picturesque towns and villages, the habit of taking time to slow down and ‘smell the roses,’ the attention paid to good cooking and good eating, the patina of time and history leaving its mark on French culture, architecture and manners, and much more.
I often am asked how one can experience France in deeper ways, in non-touristy ways, in more personal ways. A very short answer is: by paying attention to the joys of French daily life. In my opinion, it is quite possible to experience the rhythms and riches of ‘la vie quotidienne’ in France whether you are traveling here for a few days or a week, or staying for a month or even more. Spending any length of time in France is always a great thing – and incorporating the following five top aspects of French culture into your routine of a few days or a few weeks or a few months is supremely rewarding. Of course, there are other things one could mention on any list of top things about daily life in France but these five get my vote every time!
Buying fresh bread is essential to daily life in France. Everyone, and I mean everyone, buys ‘du pain’ every day. Whether they have it with butter and jam in the morning for breakfast or buy it to accompany lunch or dinner, the French eat lots of bread. French baguettes are made without preservatives and cost about one euro each, making them one of the best bargains in all of France. In addition, going to the ‘boulangerie’ (bakery) anywhere in France is often a social occasion, whether it means running into your neighbors or having a brief chat with the ‘boulanger’ or ‘boulangère’. In our small village of Courances south of Paris (about 350 inhabitants!), the award-winning bakery is news central and when I go pick up a baguette (our favorite is ‘une tradition, pas trop cuite’ (a traditional yeasty baguette that’s not too brown), I know I’ll also get the day’s tidbits about the weather, upcoming events, local happenings, and more. Even if you’re in Paris or elsewhere in France for just a few days, try to make a point to visit the neighborhood ‘boulangerie’. Buy bread for a picnic or for a dinner if you’re staying in an apartment – and participate in this time-honored French social activity. You could say a French bakery visit is about the ‘pain’ (bread) and the people. And since a baguette doesn’t keep – it gets hard as a rock if you leave it out overnight! – the pleasurable ritual of buying bread gets repeated every day. (NB: Like many French people, we keep a couple of baguettes in the freezer for those moments when we’ve forgotten to buy bread and the bakery is closed!)
On a side note, for those travelers who want to take a taste of French bread back home with them or share it with friends, check out the cool new “La French Baguette” Do-It-Yourself Kits! Launched just this past summer by a French woman in Normandy, the idea is to be able to make the perfect French baguette chez vous. Since there are not boulangeries on every corner in other parts of the world, the founder wanted something visitors could take home as a souvenir or give as a gift…sort of a ‘baguette postcard,’ if you will, since the kits can be addressed and stamped and sent by mail. Click here for more info – and keep an eye out for the fun, inexpensive (about 10 euros) kits next time you are in France!
The French place a high value on manners and etiquette, particularly verbal etiquette. It’s a daily verbal dance to interact in French society whether you’re doing your baguette shopping or attending a cocktail party. Now, when I am in the U.S. or other places which don’t use ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ or the initial ‘Hello!’ along with regular conversation, something seems a bit amiss.
For travelers to France, verbal manners are a daily must even if it’s just for a few days or for a longer living experience. And everyone, no matter their of level of French, can master the basic tenets. Whenever you interact with someone in France, it’s vital to follow the following relationship protocols:
– Make positive eye contact
– Say ‘bonjour’ (hello) to open the relationship or interaction
– Be liberal with ‘Monsieur’ and ‘Madame’
– Of course, use ‘s’il vous plaît‘ (please) and ‘merci’ (thank you) often
– Say ‘au revoir’ to close the interaction
And it goes without saying that a spirit of good will even if you are met with a welcoming smile or a stone face will go a long way in France!
FRENCH FOOD MARKETS:
The outdoor food markets in France are an impossibly beautiful combination of great culinary ingredients, stunning colors and textures, amazing arrays of choices, dazzling displays, and soul-satisfying camaraderie among shoppers and vendors. And ‘les marchés’ happen day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s a daily food ‘festival’ that turns ho-hum grocery shopping into a sensory extravaganza. And it’s a French social experience as people from all walks of life rub elbows in search of the next good meal.
Next time you are traveling in France, I recommend finding out from your hotel or the local tourist office when and where the daily markets in your area are. Make them a priority cultural outing whether or not you have a kitchen to cook in when you’re done – take photos, taste samples, talk to vendors (see the French verbal etiquette above), buy a few things, participate in ‘la vie quotidienne.’ The markets are fun, casual, delicious and so French! (For more glorious photos of recent French market days in Normandy, check out our Instagram photos and stories @french_affaires!)
As France would not be France without its outdoor food markets, the country would not be the same without its cafés. It’s the daily French gathering place par excellence where you can have a coffee or a glass of wine or a (usually) simple meal. You can sit for as long as you like – people watching is a great French café pastime. And the table is your ‘real estate’ in Paris or wherever you happen to be, as long as you’re a paying customer of course.
Most of the time, I find French café waiters to be straightforward and congenial, especially when one is polite and respectful (see the importance of French etiquette above). However, there are a few not-so-good apples here and there. One time when having coffee and croissants with a friend at the Café de Flore in Paris, we both needed to run on to other appointments. With good French and good manners, we asked for the bill. And we asked. And we asked again. Monsieur was clearly too busy to get around to us. Finally, we started putting on our jackets and getting up to leave – with the intention of paying the manager as we left. Bien sûr, Monsieur-too-busy came running over! We paid him and got our change. I don’t think we left any goodwill coins for him that day. But the morning was glorious and starting it at this Left Bank café institution made it all the better.
FRENCH CHURCH BELLS:
One of my most favorite things about daily life in France is the bells. In almost every city, town and village where there’s a church, the bells ring every day on the hour or more during the day. (However, I have heard stories where a family had rented a French vacation house near a church whose bells rang hourly all night!) Here in our village of Courances outside Paris, the 12th century church of St. Etienne has beautiful bells which ring on the hour and half hour from 7am to 10pm every day. We have hardly any clocks in our French home as we can keep time by their sound. Or we can look out the windows of the house and see the clock face across the garden – though the hands stopped working a few months ago so now it’s sound only until the clock gets repaired! The Courances village church also rings out the Angelus at 8am, 12noon and 7pm, giving off a chorus of bell tones for a good two to three minutes. I am so used to the daily ringing that now I find myself listening for French church bells wherever I am. Despite the repeats, I never tire of them (though it is hard to talk when I am on my cell phone out in the garden and they start ringing). And I love comparing the sounds of different bells when traveling around France. Below are the early morning bells of the Bayeux cathedral in Normandy – an example of daily French music in France…and all for free!