Some Loose Rules of Thumb for Americans in Rural France

Reading Time: 5 minutes

(inspired partially by Satchel Paige’s advice on “How to Keep Young”)

  1. Everyone moves at his or her own pace. You might as well do the same. No one is slowing down or speeding up for you, I assure you. They’ll get out of your way, if you’re polite about it. The corollary, even in the dead of night, in the middle of a village, is do not ever just step into the roadway to cross.
  2. No one is giving you the stink eye. Unlike Americans, Europeans have no trouble looking other people in the eye, or at least in the face. This is especially true of the French. They’re not sizing you up. They merely assume, if they don’t know you, that you are in the same state of mind as they. Cautious, guarded, and disinterested. And don’t worry, the French see you, and they’re not looking through you. It’s the Germans who don’t see you, and the Brits who look right through you.
  3. There is no such thing as a place in line. Everyone gets to be first, if they can manage it. There is no etiquette. Just step to the front like they do, and watch your elbows. The shopkeeper or vendor will decide who gets attention. If you’re a stranger or a tourist, forget it.
  4. The roads are much narrower than ours, and the cars, generally smaller. The trucks and buses don’t look it, but they are too. The advantage the French have is, they are used to it. You’re not. Amazingly they won’t hit you. Just don’t hit them.
  5. People on bicycles think they are the only ones on the road. This is because they have a priority. Don’t threaten them with your car. And use your directional signal when you pass them. More likely than not, there’s a car approaching in the opposite lane.
  6. Don’t hand a merchant a 50-euro bill for any sale less than 20-euros. They will always ask if you have anything smaller. So if you do, keep it out of sight, or you’ll make an enemy for the rest of your stay, or the rest of your life. Whichever is longer.
  7. Give a merchant exact change if you can. You will make a friend for, well, see Rule 6., above. Otherwise, those eensy beensy copper coins? They actually use them. If you don’t give them over, they’ll be handed to you. You can tell a merchant really likes you when he or she rounds the total down to the nearest euro.
  8. Don’t look back, because you can be sure someone is gaining on you, flashing his high beams. They’re not pissed or perverse. They just go at a faster pace than you, and want you out of their path. So move.
  9. They’re used to making fast moves with their smaller, faster, more maneuverable cars. They’re not trying to side-swipe you when they return to the lane after they pass. That’s just how they drive.
  10. Eat anything you like. It’s all good, and far better for you than the usual in the U.S. As long as you stay out of the fast food outlets. If you go to France and eat at McDonald’s, you’ve just spent a lot of money for no good reason. And I’m talking about the plane fare and the hotel. Not the Big Mac.
  11. The French, especially in the South, have been eating healthier than you, for a lot longer than you. Don’t get snotty when you tell them you’re a vegan and they seem not to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t eat whatever, just say so. You’ll still eat well. The French consider it an honor and a duty to make you comfortable and satisfied.
  12. Don’t ever raise your voice. At best, it just demonstrates you’re an American. At worst, you’ll be completely ignored. They hear you. Try a few simple words in French, in a normal tone of voice. It’s magical. Otherwise, see Rule 1.
  13. Don’t ever imagine that there’s anything remotely like marché in the ‘States. They do this every week, all year, year after year, and it’s as festive and uplifting for everybody as any Fourth of July. Get into the spirit of it, and enjoy yourself. There’s no cheaper way to get entertained, spend an entire morning amusing yourself for nothing, buy better produce, fish, cheese and meat, and raise your spirits. In the meantime, all those vendors are making a living and enjoying themselves while they do. Do you?
  14. If you think the coffee is bitter and strong, it is. There’s nothing wrong with it. Just a different palate. Just do what every American does and order a “café crême,” which is actually a cafe au lait. You can order a cafe au lait. They’ll simply repeat, “café crême,” and bring you the same thing, even as you have assured them you’re an American (or, at worst, they’ll mistake you for a Brit). If you order it after 11am, they’ll know you can’t be anything but an American, because no one drinks coffee with milk in France except for breakfast. You could get tricky and order a noisette, which literally means “hazelnut” though this has nothing to do with it. It’s a an espresso with a tiny shot of steamed milk. Saves you a euro, or more, and gets rid of some of the acidity. Might also allow you to get away with appearing French.
  15. No one eats dinner before 8pm. Not if they’re French.
  16. At someone’s home, if you’re lucky enough to get an invitation to visit and share a meal, show up ten minutes late, and it’s perfectly cool, often preferable. Show up late for a restaurant reservation and you may find yourself without a table. Go figure.
  17. Get used to dogs in any place that serves food and drink, inside or out. If you don’t like it, don’t go out. And even the most humble bistro will probably bring your dog a bowl of water, unasked.
  18. Large supermarkets and malls increasingly exclude dogs. Assume it’s the infernal Americanization of a great country that managed to get along nicely without us, until about 70 years ago.
  19. You’re not French. You will never be. You’re an American in France. Admit it to yourself, then forget it, and enjoy yourself. They actually like Americans. Can’t say as much for others.
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