La Belle Vie: How to stroll, drink and enjoy café terraces like the French

From the glorious pedestrian-friendly nature of French cities to the importance of tabacs and unravelling French drinking habits, our weekly newsletter La Belle Vie offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like a French person.

La Belle Vie: How to stroll, drink and enjoy café terraces like the French
Customers shop at a 'tabac' in Perthus, France in 2018. (Photo by RAYMOND ROIG / AFP)

La Belle Vie is our regular look at the real culture of France – from language to cuisine, manners to films. This newsletter is published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences or adding your email to the sign-up box in this article.

Adjusting to life in a new country is always difficult – whether you have just moved to France, are planning to do so, or perhaps are just looking forward to your next holiday, there are bound to be things that surprise or confuse you as you navigate a different culture from your own.

For many native-English speakers, it can be discouraging (if not shocking) to have your French publicly corrected by a stranger.

The experience of having a boulangerie worker tell you that it is une baguette, not un baguette is not a pleasant one. But this interaction might be more emblematic of a cultural difference than the baker having a personal vendetta against you – in France, it is rarely considered rude or offensive to correct a foreigner speaking French.

There are several unwritten rules to life in France, just like in any country. Learning these implicit cultural rules can help your life in France move a bit more smoothly.

The six unwritten rules that explain life in France

One of the six unwritten rules is about adjusting your expectations – particularly around how long things take.

You might be used to going into a restaurant or bar and being immediately served. Foreigners often complain about slower service in France and – while this depends on the restaurant or bar you are visiting – eating and drinking typically takes longer in France than it might in a place like the United States, for example. 

But there is something very special about cafés in France: in any French city you can rest assured that there will always be one in walking distance. 

You might get a little cosier with the people sitting next to you on a French terrace than at a drive-thru Starbucks, but there is a certain joy in sitting at a French café, sipping an espresso or Spritz, and reading a book or watching the people walk by. 

Elbows in: An essential guide to French café terrace etiquette

Walkability is definitely one of the top benefits to life in France – in towns and cities you will likely be able to walk from your home to the grocery store, florist, bakery, and pharmacy. 

If you are visiting Paris, walking is one of the best ways to see the sites. Foreigners are often pleasantly surprised by how walkable the city of light is – in fact, if you try to walk across the city from east to west, it would take less than three hours (depending on your speed, of course). 

France’s capital is home to some really beautiful streets that are well worth a Sunday stroll.

The ten Paris streets you just have to walk down

And as you enjoy your weekend balade, you might notice that certain establishments on French streets always seem to be bustling.

This “cornerstone of French culture” is more than just a place to buy cigarettes (though you can do that here). In fact – even though the name might insinuate otherwise – you don’t even need to be a smoker to enjoy these shops.

Underneath the iconic red signs, tabacs are a place to socialise – buy a beer, have a coffee, and even pay your taxes. 

There are several practical things you can do at a tabac, and you are sure to find at least one in every French town. 

Why the tabac is essential to life in France – even if you don’t smoke

If you decide to stop in for a drink while passing by a tabac, and you have a little too-good of a time, you might find yourself looking for a specific set of French vocabulary words.

Oddly enough, the French have a very extensive drinking-related lexicon, and the direct translations into English can be quite funny. For example – if you drank quite a bit more than you meant to, you can use the phrase “se péter la gueule” which translates literally to ‘to break your face.’ It’s a rough, colloquial way of saying you got ‘plastered,’ though sometimes its funnier to imagine the exact word-for-word translation. 

From getting just a little pompette to your gueule de bois the next morning, you’ll want to know these French expressions for the next time you have a few too many in France.

‘I broke my face’: How to say you’ve had too much to drink in French

But are these phrases becoming less useful in France?

French drinking habits have been changing a lot over the last 70 years. These days, just one in 10 French people report drinking alcohol every day, which is a significant decrease from the days when an average French worker might consume a litre of wine per meal.

Did you know that at one point, wine was such an important part of French life that children under the age of 14 used to drink it at school?

While the French have not foregone their love for wine entirely, they certainly are drinking less of it than they used to. The Local spoke with experts to find out why that is, and what French drinking culture looks like today. 

ANALYSIS: Why the French are drinking less and less wine

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La Belle Vie: France’s favourite hero, French wealth and how to use ‘oh là là’

From France's favourite comic book character to a holiday all about crêpes and how to express shock in French, this week's La Belle Vie newsletter offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like a French person.

La Belle Vie: France's favourite hero, French wealth and how to use 'oh là là'

La Belle Vie is our regular look at the real culture of France – from language to cuisine, manners to films. This newsletter is published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to your newsletter preferences in “My account”.

Between cold weather, grey skies, and holidays being far and few between, February is the winter month that tempts me the most to stay within the warmth of my apartment and avoid venturing outdoors. If I’m able to convince myself to do anything, it’s usually to head to the movie theatre (where it is also warm). Both the Academy Awards and the French Oscar’s – the César’s – often take place in mid-to-late February, so it can be a great time to catch up on the films that have been nominated.

This week, France’s favourite Gaullish hero, Asterix, hit the box offices for the fifth time, and this version features stars of French cinema like Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel. Before you reserve your tickets to see what all the buzz is about, here are the five things you should know about the hit series that both the young and the old in France adore.

Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Even though I mentioned above that holidays are far and few between in February, that is not entirely true. We have Valentine’s Day to look forward to, of course, but before that, France has a special day that is basically dedicated to delicious crêpes.

The holiday is called La Chandeleur and is a day of superstition and snacking. According to tradition, if one could carry a Chandeleur candle all the way home from church without it going out, then they would be able to stay alive that year. These days, you probably will not stumble upon many people trying to walk candles home from church, but you will find them eating crêpes, a part of the festivities that finds its origins in Rome, not France. 

La Chandeleur: The day the French get superstitious and go crazy over crepes

When preparing your tasty crêpes, you might consider drizzling some caramel au buerre salé (salted butter caramel) from Brittany over top. This is my favourite topping for crêpes – it might sound very simple, but I promise it is delicious. The most important part of the formula, however, is making sure that you buy your salted butter caramel from a marché in Brittany – that is how you can ensure the best quality.

France has plenty of other ways to mark quality and region of origin when it comes to food and drink. When buying a bottle of French wine, you might see it described as cru or AOC. When going to buy your bread at the bakery, you might find yourself choosing between a boulengerie ‘artisanale‘ or one with the label ‘boulanger de France‘.

There are many different labels when it comes to shopping in France, and sometimes they do not necessarily mean that the product will taste any better than the one without the special label. Here is how you can keep track of them.

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

Regardless of whether you pay attention to France’s labelling system, you can be pretty sure that the food bought at your local marché will be fresh. I’ve even found that shopping at the marché can be more affordable than going to supermarkets – depending on the product.

Maybe that explains how the French are able to save money, though you might be surprised by how wealthy the French actually are. In a country where talking about money can be seen as taboo, recent data just came out from France’s national statistics agency to help give a glimpse of average net wealth in France. 

Calculator: How rich are the French?

The amount may have surprised you – either in the sense that you expected it to be lower or in the sense that you expected it to be higher. Regardless, if you are looking to express that shock, you could start with a classic “oh là là“. 

The use of oh là là is a French cliché that is actually true – but its meaning is pretty different to how we use it in English.

Oh là là can be either a good or a bad surprise while its stronger cousin oh là là là là là là (always 6) is usually bad. You probably heard this a lot during the World Cup from the sports commentators when France lost to Argentina.

11 ways to express shock or surprise in French

Besides oh là là, English speakers, even those who have little experience with the French language, will also know another French expression: voilà.

This is another one of those expressions where we anglophones use it differently than the French do. An English-speaker might say voilà to emphasise some spectacular action – imagine a waiter lifting the lid of a silver platter, announcing “Voilà“, to unveil an exquisite dish. 

But in France, although it can be used in this sense, it’s far more commonplace and has a plenty of other more mundane uses. 

How the French really use ‘voilà’