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CULTURE

Nine signs that you are becoming French

When Norwegian writer Ingri Bergo moved to France she thought she knew what to expect. Then, slowly but surely, her behaviour started changing as she became more French.

Nine signs that you are becoming French
Wearing tricolore wigs and face paint are not among the signs. All photos: AFP

When you move to France you are diving head first into a web of cultural affinities and entering a country that proudly bears its Frenchness on its chest, proclaiming its exceptionalism.

It can be a challenge. You will fight the bureaucracy and weep. But you will also fall unexpectedly and unconditionally in love with some of its peculiarities – then you will begin to adopt them yourself.

1. You taste the wine

France is the country of wine, however French people rarely binge-drink.

Where I’m from – Norway – wine is something you drink in large doses. Like the French, we bring a bottle to a party. The only difference is that we bring it for ourselves.

I used to think wine was just red, white or rosé. In France, people actually taste their wine. I remember how snobbish I found that girl at a party who said she wouldn’t drink her white wine because it was trop sucrée (too sweet). Then I went home on holiday and found that the same €5 Chardonnay at my local wine-store cost roughly €17 in Oslo. That might have been the moment I started doubting whether I could never move back home.

2. You’re always poised to kiss

In France, you greet someone with la bise, a kiss on each cheek. There’s a whole art to this, and as a foreigner it can seem terrifyingly complicated at first.

How many kisses are you supposed to do? Which cheek do you start with? And all this varies from region to region. It’s a tradition that can seem exhaustingly time-consuming sometimes, like when you enter a dinner party and need to kiss everyone around the table.

However it’s personally become one of the parts I appreciate most about French culture. By kissing someone, you’re straight away opening up for a more intimate knowledge of that person, even though the kiss is completely casual and non-sexual.

Plus, because it’s so complicated, people rarely hold it against you when you mess it up. It can even be a good ice-breaker: “Oh, here in the south we do three kisses and not two like those cold Parisians! Welcome!”

READ ALSO La bise: Who to kiss, how many times and on which cheek

3. Bread becomes lifeblood

As I Scandinavian, I have my own bread-traditions. 

We eat rye-bread, thick slices of dark loaf packed with seeds. It tastes good, but more importantly it keeps us healthy in the north. Bread to me was the slightly plain base that you cover up with something else: eggs, ham, cheese and veggies (preferably all of them together).

I didn’t see the bread as a food in itself, nothing my dish couldn’t do without. I know now that I was clueless, and that bread is an essential accessory to the meal. Why haven’t all other countries learnt how to make bread as the French? Are we still allowed to call our so-called ‘bread’ bread? I honestly don’t know.

4. You will never call those yellow plasticky slices ‘cheese’ again

Cheese to me used to be that yellow slice that goes on top of your toast .

To the French, cheese is culture. It’s huddling together around a Raclette on a cold winter day (Raclette is a delightful dish where you literally poor melted cheese on potatoes). It’s the soft Camembert that has amassed a distinct smell of old socks, or the crottin de chevre that is just dying to melt on your tongue. It’s the sharp aftertaste of Roquefort, biting itself info your tastebuds.

You lose yourself in the cultural moment.

5. You learn to appreciate Friends in French

One of the most shocking culture clashes I experienced when moving to Paris was when I saw Ross and Rachel arguing in French.

Why, I asked my French boyfriend, were the characters of my favourite TV show being destroyed by these strangers’ voices?

Boyfriend then explained that French TV-channels don’t really subtitle foreign films and TV shows, they dub them instead. Sometimes, he continued, he thought the French voices were much better than the English ones. Appalled, I silently reconsidered if what I until then had thought to be a very promising relationship. It was only a couple of days ago that I caught myself watching half an episode of Friends without noticing that the subtitles were off and the voices were in French. And I had been enjoying it.

6. You become an aggressive pedestrian

Scandinavians have a reputation of being fairly nice people. We say hello, good day and thank you, and we apologise when bumping into someone on the bus.

I remember how shocked I was three years ago when an old Parisian lady punched me for biking on the pavement (the route was blocked by a truck and I was late for university). As I peddled by her, she clenched her tiny fist and pounded on my left arm with all the strength she could master.

Three years later, I myself have become the angry Parisian street-walker. Although I don’t physically attack people, I frequently insult them for blocking my way out of the Metro. I sigh and roll my eyes, pff-ing hard through my nose in classic French style, especially when the laggers are tourists . . .

7. You are always prepared for a strike

That leads me to the next point: got a job interview? An important meeting? Don’t count on public transport to take you there in time.

When calculating your journey time always, always, account for the fact that there might be someone somewhere out there practicing the very French act of la grève (striking). So be prepared, and be prepared the French way: bring a book. You won’t always have internet access, so you can finally get off your phone. Who would have guessed that French railway strikers would be the ones to bring fiction back into your life?

8. You become a bureaucracy whizz

Whether it’s renting an apartment, getting a bank card or joining the French health system, the paperwork will always try to kill you.

There will be misunderstandings, documents will be lost in the mail and need to be sent again. Bureaucrats won’t always be helpful. But you will survive. And the best part is, when you manage to find your way through the labyrinth that is the French system, you will feel unbeatable.

9. You will never be completely French, but that’s OK

The last couple of weeks France has been debating whether to ban the Muslim headscarf (le voile) in public spaces. I, on the other hand, have been arguing that la voile, also known as the white sail that keeps a sailboat moving, should definitely be allowed everywhere. Also in classrooms.

Bottom line is: your French might never be perfect. But that’s alright. French people are surprisingly lenient with foreigners who make grammar mistakes and they seem to find our accents charming.

Member comments

  1. It was an enjoyable article until the writer (non French) offered her opinion on le voile (hijab) in France. Hijab is not French; it is sharia law and has no place in a Western culture that has fought hard for egalite of women and men. The day muslim men wear hijabs, niqabs and all the other sexualizing and stigmatizing clothing muslim females must wear (they are taught such modesty is necessary to prevent male sexual excitement), is the day muslims decide it was (in truth) never a teaching of the koran.

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FOOD & DRINK

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit: www.economie.gouv.fr

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”. 

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