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Speedos to kissing: Six French social norms that take some getting used to

From the bureaucracy to driving on the right and a whole new language, there's a lot to get used to in France. But there are also more subtle social norms that foreigners can at first find confusing.

Speedos to kissing: Six French social norms that take some getting used to
Speedos are not just accepted, they're compulsory in some French pools. Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP

Here is our selection of some of the key social norms that you need to know about. 

  • Obsessive bonjour-ing

People say bonjour a lot in France. Like, really a lot. 

It is about more than simply saying hello, it is about politeness and respect. 

READ MORE Why bonjour is the most sacred word to French people

You will hear people saying bonjour at the shop, at the workplace, in the elevator or doctor’s waiting room, as well as obviously with neighbours or people that you know – a normal day can easily involve 50 bonjours.

If you omit to utter a bonjour, you may be dismissed as rude or snobby. 

  • Complaining

Complaining is a national pastime in France. 

There is almost no limit to the number of damning ‘‘ that can be affixed to an exasperated oh-là-là

READ ALSO

Opinion polls routinely show the French to be pessimistic about their future, even when things are going comparatively well. 

Various theories have been put forward as to why the French are such a bunch of râleurs: from societal value placed on scepticism and rebellion enshrined since during the enlightenment period and revolution, to a sense of nostalgia for the glory days of De Gaulle and Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Disagree with these theories? Feel free to complain in the comments section below. 

  • La bise

Many countries practise a version of the cheek-kiss greeting but in France it is highly commonplace – before the Covid pandemic, 91 percent of French people would greet close acquaintances with a bise

For foreigners this can be a minefield, especially as different regions have their own variations of the greeting, how many times you need to do it and which cheek to start with. 

Try not to worry too much though, even French people can find the rules pretty confusing, as the below advert shows. Made during the pandemic to remind people not to kiss, it shows a group of French lads debating whether they are in a three-kiss or a four-kiss region.

Generally, you would only bise with your family, in-laws, close friends or social situations where everyone is doing it and although it is starting to return after being largely forbidden during the pandemic, many people have taken the opportunity to scale it back a bit. 

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

  • Terrible drivers 

Many stereotypes about the French are untrue, or at least exaggerated, but not this one. France numbers some truly shocking automobilistes.

Whether it is tailgating, speeding or clanging other cars while parking, driving is an area where France does not live up to its reputation for sleek elegance. 

READ ALSO Who are the worst drivers in Europe?

A 2021 study found that 74 percent of French drivers break the rules of the road and 88 percent said that they feared the aggressive behaviour of other drivers – no surprise there. 

France routinely ranks high on the list of European countries with the worst drivers – although Italy, Spain and Greece tend to compete for the top spots. 

  • Speedos

What is it with the French and Speedos?

The skimpy male swimwear item – also known as a budgie-smuggler or a banana-hammock – has been out of fashion for many years in other countries, but in France they are not just popular but compulsory in some places, such as municipal swimming pools, where baggy swim shorts are not allowed.

READ MORE Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos

The French believe it is more hygienic to wear tight-fitting swimwear, a theory that is often met with raised eyebrows by Anglos. But if you want to swim at your local municipal pool you have no choice but to squeeze yourself into a pair. In most pools, swimming caps are also compulsory.  

  • Not tipping

While your wallet might thank you, it can be a little awkward for foreigners in France to get around the idea that tipping is not the norm. 

Service staff in France are generally better paid than in most anglophone countries, meaning they do not rely on tips to make up their income. 

Leaving a bit extra for the waiter or waitress is considered a friendly gesture if the service was particularly good, but it’s certainly not expected for every meal.

READ MORE How much should you tip the waiter or waitress in France?

Is there anything we have missed from this list? We’d love to hear from you at [email protected]

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TOURISM

What to know when visiting France’s lavender fields this summer

Known affectionately as 'blue gold,' France’s lavender fields are a popular tourist attraction every year. Here is what you need to know about visiting them:

What to know when visiting France's lavender fields this summer

Lavender is the “soul of Provence,” the French region where the fields can be found. Like wine, lavender was brought to France around 2,000 years ago by the Romans. The flower is the emblem of ‘Haute Provence’ regional identity, though the fields stretch from just outside of Nice almost all the way up to Valence, and they are not fully exclusive to France.

Even the washerwomen, those whose job it was to clean clothes and linen, were referred to as les lavandières in France. 

The flowers, which can be found mainly in two species in Provence, have several uses – as oils for cooking and bathing, as a perfume for soaps, and even as an antiseptic for healing wounds and scars.

The lavender essential oil that comes from Provence is even an AOP (L’Appellation d’origine protégée) in France. 

When is the best time to see the fields?

Typically, the lavender flowers from around mid-June to early-to-mid August. However, depending on the weather, especially if there is a drought or hotter temperatures, the lavender might flower sooner than normal, which is likely the case for this year.

This is unfortunately also a side effect of climate change, which might be pushing up the lavender flowering season.

Where should I go?

The Valensole plateau is perhaps the most famous place to go for lavender fields. Speckled with several small Provencal towns, the area is beautiful, with a mountainous backdrop in the distance. If you go here, you might also be able to see the sunflower fields too.

Sault is perhaps a bit less known, partially because due to its altitude, the lavender typically flowers a bit later.

It is still a great place to go see the fields, and every year the town hosts a Lavender Festival in August. Walking (or cycling) between the villages (Aurel, Saint-Trinit and Saint-Christol) is very manageable.

This is not too far from the Sénanque Abbey, a medieval 12th century abbey which is surrounded by lavender fields. You might notice some small stone houses called bories in the fields, which were historically used for field workers.

Luberon Valley is another location that comes highly recommended. In the area, there is a regional national park, home to rosé wines, castles (chateaux) and charming villages, like Gordes, a stunning hilltop village.

Here you can also find the Musée de la Lavande, if you are looking to learn more about harvesting, producing and distilling lavender, its industry, and some interesting regional history.

How to get there?

You can take a TGV train to Aix-en-Provence or Avignon, or rent a car. With a car, you can also enjoy the several scenic routes that allow you to see the fields from the roads.

What else is there to do while in the region?

The area is also known for its rosé wine, so you could take the opportunity to go visit some vineyards or spend some time wine-tasting. 

In the summer months, the south of France can get quite warm. If you are looking to go swimming or enjoy the water, the Gorges du Verdon are not too far away. Though a bit of a tourist hotspot, the canyon is a beautiful and a wonderful place for paddling along in a canoe.

If you’re a fan of hiking, you can always go for a (light) hike along the Ochre Trail near Roussillon. Here, there are two marked paths that will take you through sunset-colored red and yellow cliffs in an old quarry.

Words of Wisdom

Unless you have been given express permission, do not pick the lavender, as this is the farmer’s livelihood. You can always buy a bouquet from nearby souvenir shops for your photo shoots! 

Also, stick to the paths that exist to avoid trampling any crops, and of course do not litter in the fields. 

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