Blake Snow

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13 things I learned in France


The story first published to in the fall of 2012

With the help of two babysitting grandmas, a good job, and lots of decisiveness, Lindsey and I vacationed in Paris this year for her birthday. It was our first time to Yurp. (And I thought Boston was old!)

Travel bragging aside, I learned several things on the trip, including a few reoccurring generalizations. They are as follows:

  1. French aren’t rude, they’re just unwelcoming. Before visiting France, I failed to distinguish the difference between being rude and unwelcoming. But there is a difference. A big one in fact. Whereas Americans, English, Brazilians, and a lot of other cultures open their arms and verbally acknowledge the presence of guests, The French take a very matter of fact approach to strangers in their midst. It’s not that they don’t want you there—in their store, in their restaurant, or standing in front of them. They’re just not going to do cartwheels or project enthusiasm. It’s almost as if they are saying, “You’re standing in front of me. What can I do for you?” without ever saying that or smiling to ease any tension of discomfort. Once I figured that out, my eyes and interpretation of French culture and people dramatically improved. Like how the outside of an onion is off putting while the inside layers are delicious and flavor enhancing, so too are The French.
  2. French lovers meet, greet, and depart with a kiss. In America, kissing is very sexual. During the first nine years of our marriage, Lindsey and I mostly kissed when things were about to get hot and heavy or after an extended absence. In my experience, I’d say most Americans take the same approach. In France, however, lovers peck each other “hello” if you will, seemingly every time they encounter each other throughout the day. I liked that. Younger couples will even suck face in public (oh, young love). So from now on, I aim to kiss Lindsey every time I greet and leave her presence, like the French do. I might even try to tongue wrestle her in public if the desire strikes.
  3. The French stop and smell the roses more. You should see them in their wonderful parks with those comfy green lounge chairs. The retired, recreational, and even working-class French fill their parks at all hours of the day, taking in the sun, the night; and people watching for hours on end. I was impressed by this. In fact, the French (or at least Parisians) enjoy their parks even more than the Brazilians do, according to my personal observation of each. That said, I don’t think the French will get as much out of my book as Americans will.
  4. The French read more than Americans. A lot more. Whereas Americans bust out a smart phone in public, the French flip open a book. And not the electronic kind. The paper kind. Even on a single stop subway ride, they’ll pop open a book to read even just a half page or two. Impressive.
  5. The French make great bread. Simple baguettes and croissants were my favorite. The former aren’t near as hard as the kind you’ll find in America—more like skinny french bread with a superior crust. The latter are indescribably better than most served in the states. Soft and buttery inside. A flakey crunch on the outside, like a hyper thin ritz cracker coating the outside. Delicious. As is crème brûlée, which is creamy in France as opposed to custardy here.
  6. Paris Metro is the most convenient subway system I’ve ever used. I haven’t ridden all public transport systems, but Paris Metro is a lot better than NYC, Bart, Washington DC, and Marta. Speaking of which, this stop has to be the coolest subway station in the world. I was blown away by it, and even skipped the next train just to spend a few more minutes in it. Charles De Gaulle airport, on the other hand, is an utter failure of public transport, usability, and style over substance.
  7. Food is an event, not fuel. Parisians (and I suspect to a larger extent The French) understand and embrace this better than Americans. Eating can be so much more than just refueling. It can be a great excuse to socialize, to pause, to be still, to think. Whether with others or by themselves, the French are inclined to stop and enjoy their food, rather than just horking it down like narcissistic Americans. Although I took a liking to cooking and thinking about my next meal in advance before visiting France, my trip certainly accelerated my interest and participation in both.
  8. Sushi ain’t got nothing on Tartare. More than four years after first writing this post, and I still don’t like raw fish (UPDATE: I changed my mind—sushi is 4/5 star good but still not something I crave). Slide a half pound of well seasoned and juicy raw beef under my nose, however, and I’ll ravage the thing like a semi-civilized fox.
  9. Despite being drenched in tourists, the Eiffel Tower is magical. Perhaps more so for me personally, as I’ve come to consider it the epicenter of non-English-speaking Europe. Nevertheless, I felt awe, accomplishment, and inspiration standing beneath this iconic piece of art. So much that we returned three times during our stay. But it’s not just the tower that impresses, the white space does, too. By that I mean the city wisely instituted bylaws that prohibit vertical development, ensuring that the Eiffel will forever remain the centerpiece and will not have to compete with other buildings for your focus. That’s forward thinking government done right. And the made to order street crepes ain’t that bad, either.
  10. French enjoy more affordable bread, cheese, and wine; Americans enjoy more affordable meat, produce and bathrooms. As a teetotaler, I didn’t drink the wine. I was surprised, however, to find it even more affordable than bottled water. Or to see children drinking it since it’s so engraved into French culture. Same goes for bread and cheese: dirt cheap but delicious. Meat and produce, on the other hand, is a lot more than I’ve grown accustom to paying. And while you can find free bathrooms in some of the outer Parisian districts, paying to use public bathrooms just feels wrong (although I understand why they do it).
  11. If you can, AirBNB is the way to go. We stayed at this immaculate penthouse in Paris with a wonderful host for a fraction of the cost of similarly equipped accommodations. Granted, this was our first time using AirBNB; you do assume more risk in going that route than with an established hotel. But the reward in our case sure was greater. Where available, we’ll consider AirBNB again, and keep using Trip Advisor for hotel comparisons, attraction prioritization, travel tips, and restaurant recommendations, all of which were invaluable to our stay.
  12. American women emphasize hair and make-up; French women emphasize fashion and apparel. Now before any American or French ladies get bent out of shape, I’m not saying you won’t find well-dressed Americans or well styled French women from the neck up. But both my wife and I remarked how often we encountered a well-dressed French women with uninspired hair and make-up (this despite Paris being the make-up capital of the world). Conversely, we were quick to remember how often you’ll encounter an American woman with styled hair and lots of make-up in Nikes and a plush track suit. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
  13. Simple pleasures are better than the tourist trade. They’re also less crowded, less stressful, and more relaxing. Things like lots of naps and picnics in public parks, feeding pigeons croissant flakes, eating good food, trying to get the French to smile, walking on thousand year old streets, visiting lesser-known districts, jogging the beautiful Parc des Buttes Chaumont, sitting alongside canals, and eating at street side cafes to name a few. With exception to the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysee, we mostly enjoyed the simple pleasures of France. (On that note, stay away from Château de Versailles unless you like being boxed in by crowds. It’s definitely not worth the crowds, although the town itself probably is.)

To further credit the French, it’s rare for me to visit a place and look forward to returning soon. I’m the kind of traveler that likes to see a lot of new places before deciding upon which ones I’d like to revisit. Hence, few places immediately inspire a return trip for me. France is a notable exception.