When I moved to France I didn't feel like I was walking into the unknown because I'd seen France plenty of times on the TV and felt I knew what I was in for.
So when I opened the shutters that my first morning and saw a man outside wearing a beret and carrying a baguette, I was confident that I had been well informed.
I hadn't. For a start….
1. Parisians are NOT the rudest people on earth
The arrogant Parisian is a staple character in television and film. This image is so pervasive that some visitors to France actually expect to be treated badly by the locals. I remember my brother's astonishment after a day's sightseeing in Paris with his young family; commuters had leapt to their aid as they struggled with pushchairs on the unforgiving Metro system. “Parisians are so friendly,” he said, baffled but pleased.
Are there rude people in Paris? Absolutely. But no more than in other large cities.
(Happy Parisians on the Metro)
2. All French women are NOT stylish/beautiful/thin/whatever
The impression abroad that the French as being superior in matters of appearance and sex still holds strong. It's one that British newspapers and glossy magazines gleefully participate in, trolling their readers with headlines along the lines of “French women are thinner, prettier and sexier than you. Also, they're better mums LOL.”
They then take some upper-middle class Parisian woman with glossy hair and colt-limbs and prod her until she says something like, “French women know how to please a man in bed and we don't eat biscuits at 10 am unlike you, you lumpy, polyester-knicker wearer.”
(The average French woman looks like this. Doesn't she?Photo: Depositphotos)
Now I don't deny that French women exist that are gorgeous, rich, thin, wear designer clothes, and who no doubt have sex magnificently. But to suggest that they are representative of all 33 million French women is ludicrous. As anyone who has ever walked down a street in France could attest, French women come in all different shapes and sizes.
3. French people are NOT all white
Staying on the subject of representation, I made the ground-breaking discovery that not all French people are white when I arrived in my town in Seine-Saint-Denis, the department with the highest proportion of non-ethnically French residents in France. Until this point, my image of France had been based largely on the Renault Clio Papa and Nicole adverts: dappled sunlight and charming towns populated entirely by white people. Now I know places like this exist because I've been there on holiday.
Of course, I hadn't really thought there were no non-white people in France, I was just unaware that they were such a significant population. In my defence, there are very few black or non-white French public figures that have careers outside of France (apart from sports stars of course). I can't think of a single singer and only a couple of actors (Omar Sy, pictured below being the most famous) that could be offered up as proof to the outside world that black and other ethnicities exist in France.
4. French people ARE actually hard working
The British and American media love to make snide comments about the French work ethic, citing the 35-hour working week, generous holiday allocation, long lunches – even strikes – as proof of national laziness. Aside from the perverse idea that valuing time spent away from work is something to be ashamed of, this characterisation of the French working week overlooks the fact that the 35-hour limit only applies to non-managerial workers.
The Parisians I see daily look just as stressed and overworked as their London counterparts.
Holidays though? The French do get much better holidays than the Brits and Americans. Keep your moral outrage, I say, I'll have an extra two weeks by the sea, thank you very much.
5. Lunches DON'T last two hours
Those lunches I mentioned above: nope. French people – or Parisians anyway – eat takeaway food like sandwiches, salads and sushi at lunchtime. The luckier workers have access to canteens which provide three-course meals at incredibly good value. But two-hour wine-laden lunches are rare beasts.
Weekend family lunches don't last two hours either – more like three or four. Pray that you've got a cushioned seat because otherwise, your bum will be numb by the time you've finished.
(French office workers pop out for lunch on a Monday afternoon. AFP)
6. French people don’t only eat baguettes
I was mightily disappointed to discover that not only do French people eat bread other than baguettes, but you can even buy prepacked sliced bread in supermarkets – just like the British stuff, only worse. I felt dismayed that the French had chosen to sell this bread when they have a far superior native product.
(France should just stick to what it does best – the baguette. AFP)
7. Mime artists DON'T litter the streets
Where are the forsaken souls, cast dumb yet forever searching for keys to open invisible doors, climbing through windows and down interminable stairs that only they can see? You see more in Edinburgh during the Festival than you do in France. Disappointing!
(One in two French people look like this. Except they don't. Photo: Moyan Brenn)
8. French people DON'T talk about philosophy and poetry all the time
I was alerted to the existence of France's lowbrow culture by the display of trashy magazines in our local supermarket. Their covers featured people who appeared, to the uninitiated eye at least, to be an identical cast of buffed, coiffed, surgically inflated and tattooed characters as the models, reality TV contestants and footballers that appear in British gossip magazines.
The similarity doesn't stop there. Turn on the TV any night of the week (something I would urge you not to do) and you will find the same public and celebrity participation shows (The Voice, La France a un incroyable talent, Danse avec les stars) that exist in the UK and US, not to mention the myriad of cooking, dating, filming-drunk-twentysomethings-in-a-house shows.
I thought, somehow, that the French would be above all this sort of nonsense. It was incredibly naive of me, I'm now aware, to think that French TV would consist of late-night discussion shows where roll-necked professorial types discussed art and philosophy while smoking and gesticulating, before going home for a good old-fashioned orgy.
(Can't find Philosophy and Orgy weekly among the gossip magazines here. AFP)
9. French people DON'T only drink wine
Did you know that French people actually drink beer? You know, like us. It blew my tiny mind.
Fun fact: brewing beer is the one thing French people think Belgians can do better than them.
10. French people CAN actually speak English
Many French people are as comfortable speaking English as dogs are being dressed in dungarees. The reason why, in my opinion based on some years of teaching English, is crippling insecurity brought about by negative feedback in the school system. (I taught people who were mainly in their 40-50s; hopefully teaching methods in schools have since improved.)
But the fact that France is the world's most visited country means it requires service industry professionals who can speak English, and so it is that most of the French people tourists encounters (in hotels, restaurants and tourist sites) are perfectly able to communicate with them.
Reluctance to speak English is far too easily confused with incompetence. My French husband recently told me the story of how he had been sitting opposite two American women on the Métro and overheard their loud and detailed conversation about a recent sexual encounter. “I don't think they realise that we speak English,” he remarked. “We're not good at it but we do understand.”
What did you get wrong about France?