With a little more than a week in residence, there are a few observations I have made. It will be interesting to see if those observations remain true over time.
1. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked about French men wearing berets. Here in 2013 France I have only seen one older man, in Charles De Gaulle Airport, wearing a beret and I don’t know whether or not if he was actually French. The only other berets I have seen are the red military berets worn by members of the French 11th Parachute Brigade, 3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment ( 3e Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine, 3e RPIMa), a French Army paratrooper unit stationed here in Carcassonne. I did see two young French men in uniformed service with Kepi caps and train conductors wearing service caps. As a whole I would say most French men seldom wear hats at all during this time of year. If there was currently an iconic piece of French menswear during this time of year I woud say it is short scarfs tied with a Parisian knot.
2. Seldom do you see coffee in a “take-away” cup. Coffee culture here is such that you get your coffee in a ceramic or glass cup with the intent that you will savor it either sitting at a table or standing at the bar. Here coffee is a little harder to locate than in Italy were there were at least two coffee bars on every block.
3. However, in France it seems that there is at least two bakeries, boulangeries, on every block. The smell of fresh baked bread will make you detour to get a better whiff of the aroma. Bread appears to be king and you really do see people carrying their loaves of baguettes home. Bread is made without preservatives so it seldom lasts more than a couple days. And yes! The French pantries from the local pâtisserie really are as delicious as their reputation.
4. The local table wine by the carafe, un pichet de vin de maison, is always a good choice. Inexpensive and available by the quarter, half, or full liter carafe it can make a meal or just a break in the day more enjoyable. Blanc, rouge, rosé, surprisingly rose’ wine is a respected wine choice here.
5. It is true that French people are more reserved and formal. One will get an odd look if you wish a stranger a bonjour while walking down the street. But it is expected and polite to say bonjour and au revoir when entering or leaving a shop or restaurant. Please and thank you, s’il vous plaît and merci, are a necessary part of our vocabulary. But we have also found French people to be extremely friendly and helpful. Not as many people here speak English as we found in Italy, but all are patient with our broken French, pantomime, hand signals, and pre-translated notes. Attempting to speak French is normally greeted with a smile and an attempt to speak some words of English back.
6. The “reserved and formal” aspect of French behavior will often melt in the face of a two pound Chihuahua. Kiara is often greeted with smiles, praises, and even kisses. She is an amazing icebreaker in a sea of formality.
7. At least in this time and place we are frequently seen by French people as “generic English speakers” and most often mistaken as being from the United Kingdom. We assume the majority of English speaking visitors here are from the UK. We haven’t met any one that can differentiate a British from an American accent yet.
8. French people take great pride in their work. Baristas, wait staff, ticket agents, sales people, conductors, information desk staff all have a great work ethic and try to completely satisfy you. They often add personal touches above their basic job tasks. I was watching a window washer clean windows with a perfectionist’s attention. It seems the attitude was a job is required to be dome completely and right the first time. The éclairs that I picked up on the run today were exquisitely wrapped and in a precisely sized box, like a gift from Nordstrom’s at Christmas time.
9. Amazing the conventions you take for granted. Keyboards here are not the “QWERTY” style and surprisingly difficult to use after years of typing in the US. The hand sign for “one” is not the index finger, but the thumb. The French start counting with the thumb. Holding up an index finger will make a counter person assume “two.” Good table service is being left alone to enjoy your meal. Your coffee or meal “rents” you your table for as long as you want it. If you want your bill you need to request l’addition.
10. It is much quieter here. The volume is at a very genteel level in restaurants, stores, on the train, or walking down a city street. The volome of speaking is at a much quieter level. There is still the outburst of laughing, children playing, and public dispute between people, but in all the general tone of conversation is closer to what we expect in a library.