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
The 57th International Agriculture Fair (Salon international de l'Agriculture) at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center in Paris. (Photo by Ludovic Marin / 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 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?

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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’