Understanding French Culture

By Rick Steves
Barge cruise, Burgundy, France
Barge-cruising is just one way to experience the good life in France. (photo: Rick Steves)
Sampling the snails, Beaune, France
Travelers of all ages — here trying snails for the first time — can reach new gastronomic heights in France. (photo: Rick Steves)

I love France — it is one of Europe's most diverse, tasty, and exciting countries. It brims with the good life and a special appreciation for culture, music, art, food, and wine.

But Americans can feel pretty dowdy when confronted with the casual sophistication of the French, who are matchless when it comes to just about anything suave and urbane. In my early days of touring France, I used to worry about being a cultural bumpkin — but now I embrace it. After all, I travel to learn.

Take cheese, for example, which I used to think of as a yellow square wrapped in plastic. It was daunting when I first faced a French cheese course — even more so when it was offered as dessert and arrived on a chariot de fromages (cheese cart). But that cheese board — on which every gooey, stinky, and moldy product was the happy creation of a local artisan — was my invitation into l'art de vivre — the art of living.

For the French, the art of living is not just a pleasing expression; it's a building block for a sound life. With five weeks of paid vacation, plus every Catholic holiday ever invented, the French have become experts at living well. It's no accident that France is home to linger-longer pastimes like café lounging, fine dining, and barge cruising.

As a guide, it's fun to introduce people to the finer things of French life, especially when it's something they're afraid of for no good reason. As I traveled with a group in France this summer, we timed it just right for snail season — but not everyone was eager when I ordered up several dozen of the little guys. But after a little coaching on fork technique, I got all but one traveler to try an escargot — and they all responded with a yummy thumbs-up.

While it's easy enough to push one's gastronomic envelope, handling the French language is another thing. I am a miserable linguist. I got into my alma mater thanks to an intensive one-month summer French class that fulfilled my foreign-language requirement. But it was probably the worst month of my life. The four ways the French pronounce un broke my spirit. I remain the travel guy who can't speak the languages.

But my lack of anything like fluency doesn't matter — the French people value politeness just as much as they take pride in their language. I get fine treatment everywhere in France just by using the simplest of French pleasantries. If you begin every encounter with bonjour or s'il vous plaît, and end it with merci and au revoir, you'll earn a smile.

To make any trip more personal — and more memorable — find ways to connect with the locals. For the ultimate French experience, consider staying with a family. Whether in a B&B or at a rural farmhouse, it's the ideal way to sample everyday life firsthand. Cooking schools abound in France, offering unthreatening and personal experiences, including trips to markets. Informal wine tastings are another fun way to break down barriers, sip by sip.

The French have a Michelin Guide–certainty in their judgments and are often frank in how they convey their opinions. Don't misinterpret their confidence for arrogance. For a long time, I thought there was something affected and pseudo-sophisticated about all this finicky Frenchness. I once asked a wine merchant in Paris to suggest a good bottle to go with snails, and he wanted to know how I planned to cook them. I had envisioned a good Chardonnay, but mais non — not "flinty" enough; only a Chablis would do.

I felt inept for having suggested the wrong pairing and annoyed by the wine seller's hair-splitting choosiness. But then I thought of the ways I catalogue the nuances of baseball.

It's taken me a lifetime of slowly absorbing the game's rules and situations to simply "know" the game the way the Frenchman “knows” wine. All the stuff that matters to me — taking a good lead off first base, executing a squeeze bunt to perfection, matching up a batter against a pitcher — would be nonsense to a French person. The next time I mortify a French friend by putting a little ketchup on my meat, I'll just remember that with two outs and a full count, he'll have no idea why I know the runner will be off with the pitch.

Thankfully people are knowledgeable about different things. And when we have the opportunity to meet an expert in good living, it's a pleasure to be a student.

This article is used with the permission of Rick Steves' Europe (www.ricksteves.com). Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours.