Look beyond Paris’s bustling streets teeming with reckless, unfettered drivers and see what really drives these mythic people. You will immediately enter France’s own private world rich with history and hidden charm. It’s all over, but sometimes it takes a little bit of extra observation to identify. Recently, I had the privilege of traveling to France for two weeks, visiting 6 of France’s 22 ancient provinces and came to a much-needed realization about the French. Many of the eccentricities surrounding Parisian daily living that I witnessed I had already known of, whether that be through personal research, (I am a shameless, self-proclaimed Francophile) or wistful explanations I’ve received from French teachers over the years. But something about seeing those supposed French habits confirmed and watching them come to life as I adopted that lifestyle helped them take on a brand new significance and realness.
Along with the acknowledgment of these habits comes the recognition of false French stereotypes as well. Thanks to the media, the French are painted in a very specific light, and are closely associated with only a minuscule fraction of true French culture. Although many of them are accurate, a great number of these are plain falsehoods. The following are common misconceptions about the French, confirmed or debunked based on my travel experience.
They walk around with baguettes.
Yes! It is not uncommon to spot nearly any Parisian strolling down the street with baguette tucked under arm, fresh from their local marché. Most French people buy their food the day they plan to eat it, as opposed to making one trip to the nearest Super Target to supply for the rest of the week as done in the US. Bread is a constant in every single French meal and is closely linked to the world’s perception of France, but actually seeing the stereotype taking shape is always a thrill.
2. People are arrogant, rude and disapproving of Americans.
This is actually a half truth; in 2013, France was visited by 85.7 million foreign tourists, and it is common knowledge that it is the world’s most popular tourist destination. So, understandably, the French grow weary of incessant tourists in their country, but in no way exhibit hostile behavior to them. They are generally appreciative of those who make an effort to embrace and understand their culture (i.e address them in French, etc). Overall, their charity is no different from America’s: if you smile, they’ll smile back. If you strike up a conversation in French, they will follow suit.
3. French cafés face their chairs outwards towards the street.
C’est vrai! Most street cafés all over France have one table with two chairs that face the street, perfect for fully engaging in a laid-back afternoon of people-watching, another staple of French culture.
4. French meals last for hours.
Yep! One of the most admirable aspects of French culture is the ability to slow down and actually enjoy your meal. Breakfasts typically aren’t too lengthy, unlike lunch or dinner. The French have a two-hour lunch break, giving them ample time to indulge in their midday meal. And then you have dinner. Again, it was one of those quirks you hear about, but don’t fully acknowledge until you’re living it. “Allow 2 and a half to 3 hours for dinner” is something you note before a trip and yet you’re still shocked when you are out until 12 am eating dinner. Naturally, my first inclination was to eat, pick up the bill and go, but after a few nights, you gradually acclimate and look forward to dinnertime, a time of togetherness and appreciation for fine cuisine.
5. French people dress like their stock photo-stereotype.
You know the image. The one of a French man, wearing a striped shirt, a beret atop his head and a scarf slung effortlessly around his neck. Unfortunately, this is not the reality of French fashion. In fact, most people dress similarly to what is considered “business casual” in the US. What I will say, however, is that French women absolutely live up to the standard of classy, impeccable and effortless beauty the rest of the world seems to hold them to. Maybe I’m just biased because I yearn to look half as good as French women but is no secret that the vast majority have truly mastered the art of dressing.
6. They bike everywhere.
They don’t call it the Tour de France for nothing! Aside from driving cars, (French driving alone would require an entirely separate article) another common form of transportation is biking, whether it be motorcycles or public bike rental services. Surprisingly, though, motorcycles were much more prevalent. Motorcycles, along with scooters, are a popular choice because their slim build enables individuals to weave in and out of traffic with ease and they take up much less space on narrow French streets. Just about every sidewalk is littered with parked motorcycles!
Because France is the world’s premier travel destination, unrealistic expectations are often conjured up by the public and made worse by the media’s generic depictions of the sophisticated country. At the end of the day, though, the French are just like us, but perhaps a little more appreciative of life’s small pleasures.