Experiencing the French Culture

French Culture Chenonceau Castle

My first visit to Paris was in 2012 after graduating from high school. This holiday was the first time I had ever been in a country where I didn’t know the culture or speak the language. Being outside of my comfort zone was exhilarating! I stayed in Paris for 5 days in a hotel, ate at restaurants and did all the touristy stuff. I loved it so much that I promised myself that one day I would come back to France, immerse myself in the French culture and live like a local. After 6 weeks in France I can finally say that I’ve ticked this big goal off my bucket list. 

French Culture Louvre Paris
(First time in Paris, 2012)

In Paris most people can speak a bit of English to communicate with the thousands of tourists that come through each year, but as soon as you start to venture out of the capital city you find fewer and fewer people that can. It can be quite challenging to get around if you don’t speak French but I was determined to always choose the local way of doing things and figure it all out. You actually become so creative when you have no choice but to communicate with people who don’t speak your language and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Will and I spent our first week in France exploring Paris and although we still did the main attractions in Paris, this time was very different. Our good friend Alizée kindly invited us to stay with her family in the North of Paris. When we arrived we realised that this experience wasn’t going to be like staying in a hotel or hostel surrounded by other travellers…we were actually going to be sharing a home with REAL French people who truly made us feel part of the family. 

If you’re looking for a local experience like this, you can book a local guide to take you on a private tour of Paris here.

French Culture Paris
(Will, Alizee and I in Paris)

We soon learned (after a couple of awkward moments) that in France, friends and family greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. After meeting and greeting the family we all sat down for a meal together. First we had an entrée (something light), then the main meal which really filled us up, and then came the cheese as part of the dessert, then fruit, crepes, and tea/coffee! This wasn’t even a special occasion, French people eat A LOT for dinner every night.

A typical breakfast for the French is something small and sweet such as fruit, yoghurt, baguettes with jam, chocolate crepes, croissants, etc. (Quite different from a full English breakfast!) At first this was strange for me because I love a big breakfast to start the day full of energy and I generally prefer a light dinner but after a few weeks of living in France I got used to it and since leaving, I actually crave something sweet every morning.

French Culture Crepes
(Crepes in France)

After a week in Paris we decided to do some volunteering in France with a company called WorkAway. This was a perfect way to avoid travelling around like a tourist and instead stay in one place for a longer period of time, live with locals outside of Paris and get to know their way of life. Our first volunteer exchange was organised in Bourges, Central France, and what better way to experience real French culture that in the region that’s furthest away from other countries than any other region of France.

French Culture Bourges Cathedral
(At the cathedral on our first day in Bourges, Central France)

The next step was to organise our transport from Paris to Bourges. We soon realised that in France public transport from one city to the next can be more expensive than a flight to another country in Europe. So we did what the locals do to get around and searched for a ride on blablacar.com, where local drivers advertise where they’re going and travellers can pick up a ride with them if they’re going the same way. It usually works out a lot cheaper than public transport so you save money, it’s a lot better for the environment and you get to meet locals too. Our Blablacar driver, Chloe was really nice and spoke a bit of English. She taught me that in France cars are supposed to stop at pedestrian crossings but they don’t, so you have to just go to avoid waiting a long time. (Great tip for anyone travelling to France!)

In Bourges we taught English and renovated a bedroom at a hotel/restaurant in exchange for food and accommodation. 

French Culture Teaching English
(Our two French students, Matilda and Virginie, graduating from our 3-week English course that we taught)

Before arriving we weren’t expecting to be eating at the 5 Star Restaurant like all the other guests, which was a very pleasant surprise. In France it is common to have an aperitif (pre-dinner drink), which is exactly what we had when we arrived. During our stay our host Catherine made us 3 course meals twice per day. Since she was an excellent chef we almost always talked about food so we learned a lot on the topic. Such as in France people used to eat their food with bread before knives and forks which is why there is always bread at the table, many French don’t actually eat snails and frogs…if they do it’s maybe once per year, and we also noticed that French people eat very slow.

We met our Malaysian friend Alice in Bourges who was another volunteer and one day the three of us hired a car and went on a day trip to the Loire Valley, a region of France where you will find many beautiful French castles. 

We learned a lot about the French history there but we also learned that the tolls in France cost us more than the petrol on a 5 hour round trip! I guess that explains why public transport is expensive. When Catherine had some free time she took us all on a road trip to Sancerre, a French town famous for its wine.

French Culture Sancerre Vineyards
(Will, Alice, Catherine and I at the French Vineyards in Sancerre, France)

You always hear that in France you drink red wine with your meal, and trust me that’s true… I drank more red wine during my time in France than in my entire life. I’ve actually now converted from my favourite white wine ‘Moscato’ to red wine, which I never imagined would happen.

Although we had some amazing experiences and memories, after 3 weeks of eating what felt like 20-course meals we were ready for a change. We were offered to volunteer on a farm in Normandy and go vegetarian for a couple of weeks.

French Culture Normandy Farm
(Getting dirty in the garden in Normandy, France)

We stayed with an English couple in the countryside so we sometimes forgot that we were actually still in France but in terms of experiencing the French culture we did learn that it is dangerous to go for a walks in the woods on a Sunday because that is when French hunters are out. Over those two weeks in Normandy we immersed ourselves in ‘farm life’ and had such a fantastic time with a group of other travellers that were also volunteering.

French Culture Normandy Christmas Markets
(Our Work-Away family in Normandy, France)

When I travel, the first thing I notice is the vibes of the place and its people, which is very important to me when considering how long to stay in one place. During my 6 weeks in France I met some very lovely people but in general I didn’t get the best vibes from French compared to locals I’ve met in other countries. Although I had an awesome time in France and don’t regret a thing, I don’t believe I could ever adapt to this lifestyle long-term. However, I do recommend for anyone to visit and I would love to come back and travel throughout the South of France in the future.

Over to you…Have you been to France before? How did you find the French culture? Leave us a comment…

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