Five Things I learned as a First Timer in France

Five Things I learned as a First Timer in France

I recently traveled to France for the first time in my adult life. Although I’d been to Paris with my parents once before as a child, I felt that I was basically seeing and experiencing the country for the first time since I didn't remember much of my experience in France before. Being all alone in a foreign country as a non-French speaker was an incredible experience, and I set out with a goal to bring home a few small day to day tips that may help other first-timers feel (or at least look) like seasoned travelers.

Here are a few of my tips and interesting bits of knowledge I picked up on my great adventure:

1) The section “entrée” on a menu does not refer to the main course.
Come to find out, America is one of the few places where “entrée” refers to the main course… and so when I ordered (on more than one occasion) an entrée for my meal, I was surprised to be delivered a very small, yet always delicious, portion of food. This continued to cause me great confusion until I finally brought up how small the portions were to an Australian couple I met, who kindly explained to me that an entrée is in fact an appetizer or starter in most parts of the world.

2) Most restaurants in France do not serve dinner before 7:30 pm, plan accordingly.
On the day I arrived in Toulouse, France after about 16 hours of traveling from San Francisco, I was extraordinarily famished. It was about 4pm, very cold out, and I desperately wanted a warm meal in a cozy little restaurant on the Toulouse Capitol Square to kick start my adventure! I quickly settled in to my hotel, put on my warmest coat and set out to find the best Cassoulet or Coq au Vin I could find… what I found however, were many restaurants luring me with delicious sounding dishes they would begin serving in 3 hours. That’s right. Three. Whole. Hours. I walked from one restaurant to the next, and couldn’t find anyplace serving before 7:30 pm. I had no choice but to eat my trodden granola bar out of my carry-on luggage and wait. Although 7:30pm is not an unusually late hour to eat, when you’re extremely hungry, in unfamiliar territory, and jetlagged, a little advance meal planning goes a long ways toward making your trip more enjoyable.

3) Ordering a coffee gets you a (very strong) shot of espresso.
The first few times I ordered a coffee after my meal (which by the way is one of my favorite things about French culture, more on that later), I received a shot of thick, strong espresso. I’m not one who usually corrects the order in situations like this, so I enjoyed my beverage and thought it was a simple mistake... until it happened again. I quickly realized that the French standard for coffee is what Americans refer to as espresso, customarily a more specialized order in the US. After asking a sweet English lady I met how I may go about getting a full cup of coffee, she explained that in order to get an 8 to 12 ounce cup of black coffee (like you’d expect when ordering coffee in the US), you must order a café allongé—which is an espresso with water, essentially the French equivalent of a good ol’ US coffee. The equivalent of a drip coffee in France is (by all accounts in my experience) nonexistent. Hope this helps those fellow spring travelers who need a pick-me-up that doubles as a hand warmer on the chillier days too!

4) Wifi and mobile phone service are not widely available outside of cities.
This is an important thing to realize in advance of your trip for planning purposes, especially if you’ll be traveling within the country once you arrive. In most parts of the US, we’re used to having a wireless network option in nearly every public venue, and cellular service is widespread and only evades the most rural of areas. This is not the case in France. Unless you are in a large city, expect to have very limited or no cellular service and few and far between wifi network options. Do as much as possible in advance—travel planning on-the-go with smartphone maps and apps, as well as updating family/friends/social media, checking emails, etc… is likely to become a luxury rather than a way of life while you’re in most areas of France (especially the rural southern towns). This however, became a fact that I grew to very much enjoy… which leads me to my next point…

5) When in France, do as the French do (i.e. plan ahead and don’t expect to-go cups).
I couldn’t help but notice the lack of cell phones ringing, rudely interrupting meals, conversations, walks, sights. Of course France is a modern day country much like the US, but the French seem to have a better handle on their use of technology. After a few minor inconveniences due to the lack of cell phone and internet coverage, I decided to relax and try to live like a local. It didn’t take long before I enjoyed my new found freedom… no nagging cell phone ringing, no urges to check the latest and greatest in the news and social media… no distractions. Just me and France.

Another example of this brings me back to the topic of coffee. To-go cups in France are scarce, and I came to understand why that’s a good thing (and I’m not making an ecological point, I promise). Back home I rarely sit in a café and enjoy a cup of coffee, rather, I ask for it to-go or better yet, go through a drive through window and sip my coffee as I go about my other daily tasks. While in France, however, I came to notice that the convenience of to-go coffee is actually cramping my lifestyle. It’s the small things that make life so enjoyable, and the French understand that a good coffee—or more accurately espresso—is something to be savored over easy conversation with friends or loved ones, or simply on your own while relaxing in a little brasserie or patisserie. The French are very good at doing one thing at a time, and if you can learn to do this (at least while you’re in France!), you are sure to more fully absorb your experiences while finding them more rich and vibrant than you’d ever thought possible.

I hope that these few tidbits will help you to get the most out of your travels… Bon Voyage!

This blog was brought to you by Amanda Thayer from The Barge Connection. We specialize in matching customers with barge cruises that best suits their lifestyle, interests and budget.

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