La Belle Vie: French winter pleasures and decoding the country’s myths

From where to go for the best Christmas markets to ridiculous Paris tour guide stories and unpacking some French clichés which might just be true, 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: French winter pleasures and decoding the country's myths
A French supporter at the rugby world cup in 2007 uses binoculars and wears a blue béret with the French flag on it (Photo by ERIC CABANIS / 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.

Even though the French government is urging the public to cut back on energy usage this year, worry not – the country will not be in the dark over Christmas. Most holiday festivities are set to go ahead, and for many people, the staple winter activity in France is going to Christmas markets.

When I imagine walking around a marché de Noël, bundled up, carrying a warm cup of vin chaud and admiring the stands decorated with string lights, I automatically feel a bit cosier. Luckily, France has Christmas markets all across the country, so no matter where you might visit this holiday season, you’re likely to stumble upon one.

And if you are not coming to France over the Christmas/ New Year holiday, the light display in Lyon – another popular winter attraction – has republished its video from the 2021 festival, so you can enjoy some Christmas lights from afar. Otherwise, here are the best French Christmas markets that you need to put on your must-see list:

14 of the best Christmas markets in France in 2022

While walking through the Christmas market, you might find yourself hungry for a traditional snack. You could go for pain d’épices (traditional spiced French gingerbread) or maybe you’d rather stick to a sturdy bretzel (or Alsatian pretzel), but personally I always find myself tempted by all things involving melted cheese.

Fondue, contrary to popular belief, is not the only dish involving melted cheese. There are several – from tartiflette to gratin dauphinoise – and many of them can be made at home, so you do not need to be in France to enjoy them (though that certainly enhances the experience). 

The six best French winter dishes made with cheese

And if you are coming to France this winter, or simply taking a trip to enjoy the more famous Christmas markets, you might also sign up for a guided tour. 

As France has such a long and expansive history, dedicated tour guides are a great way help scratch the surface more than you might be able to with a museum audio guide or via Wikipedia. It might not come as a surprise that tour guides have to memorise quite a large repertoire of history related to France’s royalty, its military exploits, and artistic greats.

But the most enjoyable tours are by guides who also made it their goal to memorise some of the scandals too, and there are a few key stories that tour guides love to share. One of them is about how all of the brothels in Paris closed out of respect, following the death of one of their greatest customers: Victor Hugo. 

7 ridiculous stories from French history that Paris tour guides love to tell

One key task of the French tour guide is to separate fact from fiction. This is more difficult than one might imagine, as French history is filled with myths and legends that dupe even the most learned francophiles. 

I remember learning all about Joan of Arc in elementary and middle school in the United States – in fact, I even did a poster presentation about her, so you might imagine my shock when I found out that Joan of Arc did not actually disguise herself as a man to help the French win the Hundred Years War. 

And that is not the only French history myth you might be surprised by – there are dozens more. 

22 of the biggest myths about French history

It is not just French history that has a tendency to become a bit fictitious over time, French culture is also subject to its fair share of stereotyping and myth-making.

You might remember a certain 1995 episode of The Simpsons when the groundskeeper Willie describes the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” But is this an accurate description or is it just another case of unfair stereotyping? 

Well, the cheese aspect is undeniable, seeing as France consumes more cheese per capita than any other country in the world. But there are plenty of other clichés about France that need some fact-checking.

Myth-busting: Are these 12 clichés about France actually true?

One cliché you’ve probably heard about is the fact that French people love to wear bérets. I have been living in France for a few years now, and honestly I can’t say I’ve noticed too many bérets.

But there was definitely a red beret resurgence after a certain Netflix show (*cough* Emily in Paris) came into prominence. In fact, the French Cosmopolitan dedicated an entire article to how you can find a red béret just like Emily’s. 

The béret cliché did not appear out of thin air though – writer Margo Lestz explained the reasons why we imagine French people as béret wearing, and interestingly enough it has to do with the “French Onion Johnnies.”

Why we think the French all wear berets and carry onions

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La Belle Vie: Getting used to French social norms and travelling around France

From learning to complain like the French to social norms that take some time to get used to and where to hike and cycle in France, 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: Getting used to French social norms and travelling around France

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”.

Certain topics  are quintessentially French – and if you live here or visit regularly then at some point you will be impacted by a strike.

While you should certainly take some time to understand the official strike terminology (found HERE), perhaps the more important lexicon to learn would be how to complain like an authentic French person (because there tends to be a lot of that going around during les mouvements sociaux).

Eleven phrases that will let you complain like the French

Strikes are one French social norms that take foreigners time to get used to – especially those from countries like the United States where large-scale industrial action is less common.

Listen to the team at The Local talk about France’s strike culture in our podcast Talking France – download it HERE or listen on the link below.

But there are some other uniquely French experiences that tend to require a bit of practice on the behalf of the foreigner living in or visiting France – like remembering which cheek to kiss first during la bise. Though, if you mix this up, it will definitely give you a funny story to tell both your friends. I have made this mistake before, and can attest that accidental lip-locking gets a good laugh from both anglophones and French people alike.

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

Many foreigners in France tend to feel lost about one particular social norm – tipping. To get an idea of how English-speakers living in France handle this question, The Local conducted a survey to understand which scenarios should involve a tip, and the ones that should not. 

Interestingly enough, a lot of readers of The Local noticed that the longer they stayed in France, the more their tipping habits changed. Some found they tipped more when travelling home, while others found themselves not tipping at all while in France. 

‘We tip less in France than in the US’ – readers reveal who they tip, and how much

One aspect of French life that remains shocking to me (in the best sense) is the ease with which you can travel by train (when there isn’t a strike on).

Within France, it is often easier to get from one French city to another by train, rather than by plane or car. Other European cities are also accessible by train from France, which means you can save money that you would have spent on tolls and fuel, or the time you would have ticked away while in line for security at the airport, by travelling by rail. One huge benefit to rail travel is the fact that you can bring all the liquids you want on board – no need to worry about your perfume, shampoo or wine bottle getting tossed out.

Six European cities within 7 hours by train

If you prefer to travel by foot or bicycle, you are in luck. France is full of “Grand Randonées”, local walks, and cycling routes. It is even estimated that there are 100,000 kilometres of walking trails in France, crossing the country in all directions.

Hiking and biking in France can offer spectacular views, lungfuls of fresh air and a beauty-filled and accessible way to keep fit and healthy. If you are starting to think about your spring or summer holidays, take a look at these 13 French hiking and cycling paths. The Local has a compiled a list with options from all over the country from Corsica to Brittany and along the Mediterranean.

13 of France’s best hiking and cycling routes

As you make your way through France’s regions, you will undoubtedly come across plenty of different, unique regional drinks, cheeses, and meals.

The French are very proud of their gastronomy, so much so that the country developed a labelling system so that customers would be able to buy certain agricultural products – from vegetables to cheeses and wines – safe in the knowledge that its production and processing have been carried out in a particular geographical area (the terroir) and using recognised and traditional know-how. 

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

One product that often sports an AOC label in France is fromage. Dozens of French cheeses are registered as AOCs – 63 to be exact, but there are far more than 63 types of cheese in France.

Cheese plays such a significant role in French culture and cuisine that there are eight general categories – or families – for designating them. Beyond that, it gets a bit complicated as new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented.

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?