Category Archives: Understanding the French Way of Life

French Dining Etiquette: Eating with the Frenchies

Today’s post and pictures are reposted with permission from the HIP Paris  blog.  The author is Erica Berman, an American by birth, who has called Paris home on-and-off for 17 years.  She is also owner of Haven in Paris, a luxury vacation rental company.

by Erica Berman

After over 17 years of Frenchie living, I am largely used to the etiquette of dining chez les Francais – along with all of their implicitly understood rules and regulations.

A brunch with Parisian friends for which the first guest arrived 30 minutes after the announced time, and an 8 pm French dinner party invitation with food finally served at 10 pm, prompted the following list of tips for enjoying error-free dining in the land of berêts, baguettes and smelly cheese.

Les Faux Pas qu’il ne Faut pas faire (errors to avoid), a few pointers for socializing Chez les Francais with hopes of avoiding unnecessary uncomfortable moments.

Rule 1: Never, never, never arrive early. Not even one minute. This is highly unacceptable (and unheard of) behavior in France. Walk around the block a few times, have a café, do some lèche-vitrine (window shop), but do not ring that bell even one minute in advance.

Rule 2: Never arrive right on time either, except for a formal meal, or in a restaurant. Even for a sit- down meal, your host will expect you 5-10 minutes late. For a party, a casual brunch or cocktail, you will be expected 20-45 minutes past the specified time. Arriving on the dot might find your host not only not ready, but also not particularly overjoyed by your presence.

Rule 3: Always bring a little something for the host, be it a bottle of wine, a homemade goodie or a bouquet of flowers. Remember, showing up empty-handed is seriously frowned upon in France. Note: Do not bring gifts of soap or bouquets of mums. Soap makes your hostess feel like you are implying she doesn’t wash, and mums are brought to cemeteries to cover gravestones.

Rule 4: In France, à table (at the table), one does not speak of politics, money, or religion. One does not ask a French person their salary, their religious beliefs or who they voted for. This is the ultimate insult to a Frenchie!

Rule 5: You don’t have to help with dishes. In the U.S. it’s the norm, even rude, not to help your host clean up the mess. In France the logic is that you are the guest and you are there to relax. When you invite your friends over they will expect you to extend the same courtesy and will not offer to help you with any of the clean-up either. The first few times this happened in my apartment I was annoyed at the lack of help. Now, I appreciate being able to relax when dining out and letting my guests relax when they dine chez moi.

Rule 6: Eat what is on your plate. The French have low (up from no) tolerance for finicky eaters. It is very rude to decline what your host has prepared, and even ruder not to finish what is on your plate. NOTE: If you are a vegetarian or have a true food allergy don’t be shy. Your host  just might be sympathetic.

Rule 7: Remain open-minded. Try everything. From blood sausage, steak tartare, pan-fried fois gras, rabbit w/prunes, baked pigeon and deer stew to escargot, raw sea urchins, fried oysters, frogs legs, tripe and andouillette, I have been there and tried that. These dishes are not found in my normal eating repertoire, and there may not be a second time for many of them, but I think my hosts appreciated the effort that went into my sampling of their fare. Not only will the French be impressed by your ability to reach out of your American comfort zone, you may just discover a new favorite.


The Five Stages of the Expat Experience

Frazzled and frustrated?  Been there, done that.  There’s something about being a newcomer to Paris (or perhaps any new place) that turns the most competent of us upside down.  One day, you’re working at a high-powered job, juggling career and family responsibilities, doing the volunteer thing and even whipping up cupcakes for your kid’s birthday party at school.  Then you find yourself in Paris and it seems like it all goes to hell.  The end of the day arrives and your list of things to get done is longer than when it was when you got up.  

You have heard of the stages of grief, right?  Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, world renowned expert on death and dying, neatly defined the emotional stages that everyone goes through when confronted with the worst news possible:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then finally acceptance.   It occurs to me that there is a similar progression for expats and it goes something like this:
Elation:  After months of waiting and wishing, you’ve finally gotten the confirmation.  You are moving to Paris!  How exciting.  What a great adventure.  Your friends are jealous and you can’t stop dreaming about what life will be like in the City of Light:  the sunsets, the bridges, the champagne, the pastries, the art, the style.  The city is beautiful, charming, and elegant.  The food is divine.
Panic:  You can’t find an apartment or your kids haven’t been accepted into school.  Your household goods are sitting on the dock somewhere waiting to clear customs despite the fact that they were supposed to have arrived two weeks ago.  You desperately need those items and don’t want to go shopping for replacements while you wait.  Your French, which you thought was pretty good, turns out to be inadequate.  Or you don’t speak any French and you feel like an idiot trying to accomplish the most basic tasks.   Routines at work make no sense.  You can’t figure out what to cook for dinner and the checker in the market is making faces at you as you struggle to differentiate among the coins in your wallet.   You need curtains, light fixtures, school supplies, a dentist, a vet, a haircut, and a stiff drink.
Frustration:    You’ve been waiting four weeks and you still don’t have phone service.  You’ve gone to the prefecture with all the forms for your carte de sejour and you were missing two critical documents; only no one told you that you would need them.  The relocation company your firm hired to help your family adjust is worthless.  The clerk in the supermarket is still making faces at you because you can’t always figure out which coin is 10 centimes, which is 20, and which is 50.  Your boss is breathing down your neck but no one is responding to your e-mails.  Everything, even the smallest task, takes forever to get done.  It’s raining (again) and you just stepped in a pile of dog poop.
Realignment.  Every day still has its struggles but things are starting to fall into place.  You have successful interactions with shopkeepers, neighbors, and professional colleagues.  Your apartment, while maybe not a showpiece,  is becoming a home.  Your kids start making friends and they’re no longer constantly whining about missing home.  You discover neighborhood gems: parks, restaurants, shops.  You know how to get from point A to point B by metro, bus, or car.   You act like you’ve got it down but there’s still a long list of tasks you’re too chicken to take on.  You’ve managed to get a haircut but the results weren’t pretty.

Adjustment.  It has taken a long time to get to here, probably a lot longer than you would have expected.   For some it’s three months, for others, it takes a full year.   You may not feel integrated into French society but you better understand how things work.    Your level of French has improved.   You have created a network of relationships with locals and other expats.  Your kids never want to leave.  You have gained 10 pounds.  And you have to start the process of renewing your carte de sejour.

Heads Up!

Yes, in France, even artists go on strike.

Most of France’s labor unions have called for a day of strikes and demonstrations on Tuesday, September 7, 2010.  Although you can never tell for sure until the day of (or the evening before when it comes to public transport), be prepared for major disruptions on the metro, suburban, and intercity trains; schools;  government offices (including La Poste): hospitals; and other public services.  If you need to be somewhere, start early.  And if you have an appointment, call ahead to make sure that your party is planning to keep it.    Current plans are for a strike of 24 hours although the unions reserve the right to extend it.

Want to know more?  Check out this post from awhile back.

Talk Like a Parisian

Today’s post is reposted with permission from Paris-Wise, the blog of Christopher Back, long-time Paris resident and California native.   Although it’s written for tourists, there are definitely a few nuggets here for anyone new to France who doesn’t speak the language well.   

 by Christopher Back

I’ve come to the conclusion that since the tours created by my company afford visitors a glimpse of Paris that isn’t in the guidebooks, the people I meet are especially curious about French life and culture.  As a result, we are often asked what French to learn before coming to Paris. 

Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone can actually “learn to speak French” in the course of planning a holiday vacation to France.  However, you can use a few commonly known words to your advantage.  You just have to use precisely the right word at just the right moment. 

The best place to start is to forget everything you think you know.  There is a charming term used in French language schools called the “Faux ami” – pronounced Fauze-amie.  This translates litteraly to false friend and refers to words that seem like they should mean the same thing in English and French but don’t. 

An example is “excusez-moi” which is generally thought by English speakers to work like “excuse me” when it’s closer to “sorry.”  “I’m sorry” is actually “Je m’excuse”  So this is the first thing to remember.  In my opinion you should forget about “excusez-moi”.

If you are in a crowed place or in the Métro and want to get by the thing to say is not “excusez-moi”, but “Pardon” pronounced par-DON.  With the emphasis on the second syllable and with a nasal “own” sound if you can manage it.  When the doors open in a crowded Métro car and you are stuck far from the quickly closing door, saying Pardon firmly and emphatically will part the crowd in seconds. 

If you are curious about other ways to attract attention, you can read this post for advice on service in restaurants.

The next thing to learn is when to use the words Bonjour, Bonsoir, Au Revoir and Adieu.  “Bonjour” which means “Good Day” is used from morning until dusk.  “Bonsoir” is “Good Evening.”  Both greetings are used in common speech so there’s no faux-ami lurking here.  While there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule about when to switch, it seems that this often happens around dusk  I notice it also can happen when you meet someone working in a shop in the late afternoon who has become bored and tired.  I think they say Bonsoir out of wishful thinking that their workday is almost over.  I would say, it’s a safe bet to start using Bonsoir about 6pm.  Of course, you will quickly relize that you are using the wrong greeting when you say “bonjour” and the person responds “bonsoir.”  Note: This only works with native speakers, the rest of us are sometimes as confused as you are.

What about Au revoir and Adieu you ask?  Well, just thinking about what each of these words mean will give you a clue when to use them.  “Au revoir” translates to “See you again” and “Adieu” is “To God”.  Clearly the finality of “To God” makes it something that is not necessarily used when saying “goodbye” to people.  The lesson here, unless you are at a funeral, forget Adieu.

I’ve saved the easiest for last.  “Merci” and “Merci beaucoup”.  “Thank you” and “Thank you very much” – nothing tricky here.  At last — Something that you can thank Madame Charles, your Junior High School French teacher, for telling you. 

Now that we’ve reviewed the words, we can now discuss the more challenging part of this effort.  When to use the words to get the effect we want —  Like when we need to get people to step aside quickly to let us out of the Métro before the doors shut.

There is a myth that the French are rude, but I think this is no more true in Paris than any other big city in the world.  In most cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, there are some basic cultural guidelines for being polite to strangers that don’t necessicarily apply in English speaking countries. 

When you enter a small boutique or a café  you are expected to say “Bonjour” (or Bonsoir) to the person working there.  Once you have looked around (and regardless of whether you’ve bought anything) one says “Merci – Au Revoir” when leaving.  This is also regardless of whether the person in the shop has even bothered to come over and offer to assist you.  But I can assure you, no matter how disinterested the person working in the shop may have seemed, when you leave and say “Merci – Au Revoir” they will respond with “Au Revoir.”  

The same is true when you leave a neighborhood café.  I have already written about how to order coffee in Paris, but after a having a coffee at the counter or a table, when you pass by the bar on your way out the door, you should say “Merci – Au Revoir”.  Again, no matter how disinterested the barman may seem they will generally respond with an automatic “Au Revoir.”

The final and perhaps most important moment to use “Bonjour” and “Bonsoir” is when you are asking a question in any store, shop, grocery store or department store.  Imagine you have been looking around inside for a little while and now have a question for someone working there.  In English, it’s acceptable to glance over and say “Excuse me, do you have this in red?” all in one quick and efficient phrase. 

Not so fast there partner, we’re in France;  things are different here.  I learned this the hard way in the first few weeks of living in Paris back in 2001.  Armed with just a couple of weeks of French studies, I went to the Monoprix grocery store in my neighborhood of Passy.  I was looking for something that I was sure they stocked but I simply couldn’t find. 

I looked around and found a man who was stocking the shelves.  I went over to him and said – “Excusez-moi ou est mayonnaise?” — “Excuse me, where’s the mayonnaise?” Okay, it was a bit roughly said, but I thought I was getting my point across.  After all, I’d only been studying French for two weeks.   The man responded with a blank stare and replied “Bonjour”.  I repeated my question differently assuming I’d made a mistake.  “Je cherche mayonnaise” – “I’m looking for mayonnaise”.  Again he replied “Bonjour”.  The third time I thought I should keep it simplesaying only “Mayonnaise” which I probably pronounced slowly “May-onnnn-NAIZZZZZE” to ensure that I was as clear as possible.  By now I became convinced that “Mayonnaise” was not actually a word in French because he responded again with “Bonjour”. 

Exasperated, I didn’t know what to do.  It was clear that I was not going to be buying any mayonnaise that day.  So, I started to walk away.  “Monsieur” the man called after me “En France on dit Bonjour d’abord” — “In France we say Bonjour first”. 

Ah, I finally understood, and started over.  This time I said “Bonjour”.  He replied “Bonjour”, then I said “je cherche mayonnaise” and he replied “Aisle five”.  Success!  It was my first cultural lesson, and it happened right there in the middle of the Monoprix where I recently had another cultural awakening.

One last moment when I think it’s very important to say Bonjour is on the bus.  When boarding the bus, most people greet the driver who says “bonjour” in return.  A nice custom I think.  In general, when you come up to someone and you want to ask them a question, start with “bonjour” or “bonsoir” and you’ll never go wrong.

So, it’s not necessary to learn a lot of French to blend in a bit and give the people you meet in shops and cafés the impression you are making an effort.  In reality more and more people speak English in France and so it’s generally not so difficult to communicate in most shopping, eating or sightseeing situations.  In most shops even if the person you first greet doesn’t speak English, they will find a colleague who does.

So instead of studying French, I recommend you spend your time reading guidebooks and scouring the Internet for places to go, things to see and hidden restaurants to discover.  Or, you can let our concierge do the planning for you and simply enjoy the result.  Bon voyage!

Toujours en Grève (Always on Strike)

Strikes are a way of life in France.   Complain about them if you will but they will persist.  Here are just a few tips to keep in mind when strikes are in the news.

For the most part, strikes are scheduled well in advance.  If you watch the headlines in the newspapers, watch or listen to news over the airwaves, or even just pick up those freebie newspapers they give away on the metro, you will see coverage.   

Most of the time, strikes are called for one day only.  There are circumstances, however, when the unions involved will invoke their right to renew the strike each day as they see fit.  What typically happens is that the effect of the strike is worst the first day and then things get progressively better as the days wear on.  But they can wear on.  A transport strike in 2007 lasted three weeks; a SNCF strike in the south of France in spring 2010 lasted several weeks as well.

Transport strikes typically begin at 8 p.m.  the evening before the called strike and continue through 8 p.m. the following day.  In general, the subway tends to be more affected than buses, and the RER A and B more than other lines of the subway and suburban trains.  Expect longer waits between trains, crowds on platforms, and crowded cars.   The RATP posts information on the number of trains and buses expected to run on its Web site.  For the RER C, D, and E,  and suburban trains operated by the SNCF, consult the Web site  (Note:  This site is only operational when disruptions in service occur, whether due to strikes, technical problems. or weather.)  For information on intercity travel, you have to check the main SNCF Web site.  For airlines, check with your carrier.

When a national strike is called, you can expect disruptions in the mail, street cleaning, trash pick-up, and government offices.  Schools and hospitals may also be affected as well as state run television and radio stations.

Laws passed in 2008 affirm the right of workers to strike but also require that sufficient workers be available to provide a minimum level of service, particularly for public transport and schools.  For transport, this means that a certain number of trains and buses must continue to operate.  For schools, it means that personnel must be on hand to supervise children although not necessarily to teach.  The definition of minimum service is not well specified in law, however.  The bottom line is that workers retain the right to strike and while life can get quite inconvenient (for commuters, for parents, for businesses, and for people trying to do business with public agencies), nothing ever comes to a complete and utter standstill.

Que Sera Sera

Moving to another country takes you out of your comfort zone, a change that can be tough when you are used to being at the top of your game.   It can be particularly rough for trailing spouses who don’t have a structure to their days or a defined network of people with whom they interact each day.    Adjusting takes time, sometimes a lot longer than you expect.   In today’s  post, guest author Ashley Benz reflects on her own process of adjustment.  So take a deep breath, relax, and realize that you are not alone.

 by Ashley M.  Benz

My elementary school music teacher Mr. Cross (whose name was oh-so-perfect due to his militant demeanor) forced us to sing Que Sera Sera in fourth grade. Standing there, pigtails disheveled, having no idea what I was singing, I remember finding it both very exciting, as I was speaking another language, but also quite frustrating, as I had no idea what I was exactly saying.

Fast forward twenty or so years, and that very same feeling has hit me once more. This time, however, I can’t put down the sheet music and run out onto the playground, completely forgetting those feelings of confusion, frustration, and yet, every once in a while, a little jolt of excitement. It also is quite fitting that the translation of que sera sera means “whatever will be will be,” a phrase and ideology I grapple with daily as an American in Paris. Of greater irony, however, is that song itself was introduced in Hitchcock’s movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. Currently, my applicable title would be The Woman Who Knew Too Little.

It is not as if I didn’t know that moving abroad, and away from my native tongue, wouldn’t be taxing. And, I can say that after five months and change as a resident of Paris, I am slowly getting my bearings. I have learned the five or so words to get my intoxicating pain aux raisins from the patisserie; I can tell you where the main rues and boulevards are, and how to buy a Metro ticket. I have even made French Facebook friends! What I am still grappling with, however, is assimilating with the true French culture — a que sera sera attitude that is making this Type A American want to pull her dried up, over-calcified hair out.  (Another small change that they fail to mention predeparture is that calcium is no longer gunk you find solely in your pearly whites and involuntarily hiding out in your dairy products.) 

I grew up in a bubble, went to college in a bubble (endearingly termed “The Bucknell Bubble”), and until now, I was not aware of or prepared for the cultural changes that I would meet moving to Paris. I am a vocal woman (or was a vocal woman — now I can’t even tell someone my name in French without stumbling), and to have my vocal cords cut is frustrating. Perhaps it is making my assimilation slightly easier though, because yelling apparently gets you nowhere here. Customer service is not a booming industry like it is in the U.S.: you wait your turn, and you will like it. This goes for everything from insurance cards to internet installation. For those of you who think that Verizon should be dissolved because it takes a week to get FiOS, try moving over here.  (Actually, don’t do that; getting your visa is your first introduction to the escargot-pace of the French government, and should have been our indication of what was to come!)

We are used to a “go, go, go” culture in America. My weeks were stressful blurs, and my down-time was spent getting ready for the mayhem of the upcoming week. There is a good reason the French pooh-pooh our way of life — it is drastically different from theirs. As I come upon the six-month mark of my time in Paris, my insight is far from perfected. What I can say, though, is that moving to France has made me re-examine my modus operandi. I am no longer running sprints, but instead running a marathon (in overpriced Adidas). Living here is not simply about a change in clothing style, or learning a new language. It truly is a paradigm shift, and one that is quite difficult for any American that does not know how to slow down and how to let go (moi in a nut shell).

Had I truly understood the journey I was about to embark on, I might have reconsidered.  But that would have meant stopping to do so,  something I was incapable of doing back home. So, moving forward, I will do by best to reassemble my pigtails, recover my sheet music, and hold my head high while singing loudly (although not correctly or with complete understanding) “Que sera sera.” Because as I now know, what will be will be, and there is nothing I can do to change that.


Ashley M. Benz is a recent transplant to Paris from the U.S., having spent her previous life in public education working with both middle and high school angels in Washington, DC and Philadelphia. When she is not serving on the board of the American Women’s Group, cooking with Enfants du Monde, teaching English, bootcamping in the Tuileries or volunteering with Gifted in France, she likes to spend her downtime with her adoring beta, Reuilly-Diderot (and occasionally her husband).

Required Reading

There’s a kazillion books about France out there — cookbooks, travel guides, memoirs, histories, you name it.  But if you’re going to buy one book before you move to Paris, make it Polly Platt’s French or Foe.    Were it not for this book, I would not have learned that it is absolutely necessary to say “Bonjour Madame” (or “Bonjour Monsieur”) upon entering a shop, nor the importance of asking for help by starting with the key phrase, “Excusez-moi de vous déranger.”   Platt calls the latter the “five magic words” and she’s right.  They automatically establish the relationship in which you the client recognize the expertise of the shopkeeper.  As Platt notes, “this is the charm that warms the hearts of impatient Parisians on the street, of inquistorial telephone operators, and even of those most preposterously maddening of creatures, bureaucrats in post offices and police headquarters.”

Platt decodes French culture and codes of behavior in the home, workplace, and marketplace, reaching back into history to help newcomers understand why things work the way they do.  Some of her advice is a bit dated (for example, sending calling cards to follow up a dinner invitation) but even that offers insight into French customs and ways of doing things.  She covers the territory from the minute (don’t bring chrysanthemums as a hostess gift as they are associated with funerals) to broader cultural themes (like the French hesitancy to admit blame or take risk).  

As you transition to life in France, you will at times find it frustrating and difficult.  Platt’s advice won’t solve all your problems but it will sure get you off on the right foot.

French or Foe is available from Amazon; any independent bookseller worth his salt will also order it for you.   Although Platt passed away in 2008, her Web site is still active and includes a number of articles and interviews.

How to Order Coffee in Paris

Today’s post is reposted with permission from Paris-Wise, the blog of Christopher Back, long-time Paris resident and California native.  A true Renaissance man, Christopher studied French art, architecture, and decorative arts at the Sorbonne and Christie’s France, the world renowned auction house, and trained as a chef at the Cordon Bleu and l’école du Ritz-Escoffier in Paris.  In addition to blogging at Paris Wise, he is also the founder of Paris Private Guides, a travel company offering private museum, city and walking tours with an additional focus on offering tours for people with reduced mobility.

by Christopher Back

It would seem that in the past couple of decades, America, Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) have caught up with the rest of the world, namely Italy and France with their understanding and taste in coffee.  One notable exception seems to have been Australia.  Even when I was living there in the ’80s you could get a good Italian style coffee drink at any corner milk bar or sandwich shop.

Out went the dishwater-bland over perked coffee our parents and grandparents favored for the rich, dark roasted coffee that comes in a dozen forms.  In the US and UK, the point of reference for naming coffee drinks is Italy.  We have all become familiar with the words cappuccino, latte, espresso and the like.  So today, an American or Brit travelling in Italy can order coffee in Italian like a native.  For the same reason, I’ve always felt a certain comfort going to Italian restaurants in countries where I don’t speak the language.  Because, even in the furthest reaches of Anatolia for example, the menu is in “English”.  Well, it’s actually restaurant Italian which simply seems like English.  Who wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing the words  lasagne or spaghetti Bolognaise on a menu in Turkish.  

Well, in France, things aren’t often as easy.  As my good friend J always says “Those French, they’ve got a different word for everything” and this is certainly true for coffee.  So here’s a quick primer on how to get a satisfying cup of joe just like you enjoy on your way to work back home. 

The first thing to forget is the café au lait.  This is what many people seem to associate with coffee in France, but no Frenchmen are ordering this in their local café.  The closest thing is a café crème which comes in two sizes, one called a café crème and the larger a grand crème.  This is a steamy combination of espresso coffee and steamed milk topped with foam – much like a cappuccino.  For those of you that prefer a drip style coffee, there is the café allongé.  This is espresso diluted with hot water.  Sorry, but aside from a few hotels, real drip coffee is only made at home here.  If you like drip coffee with milk, and I’m sure you do, then you have to ask for it.  You’ll say “café allongé avec du lait à coté” – cafe ah-longe-ay ah-veck doo lay ah co-tay.  If these seems too complicated, you’re right.  I say unless you drink your coffee black, stick with a café crème.  

After that, if you only know one French word for coffee you’ll probably order a café and perhaps be disappointed when you are served a tiny espresso.  But here’s where it gets complicated, or for some of you — interesting.  Like nearly everything in this food obsessed culture, there are rules about coffee. Just like the rules for cutting the cheese or what to serve at a dinner party that I’ve written about before.  Okay, these are not really rules, but more like cultural expectations.

The big milky coffees favored by Americans are only drunk in France for breakfast.  At home, morning coffee is usually from a bowl, not a mug.  This makes it easier to dunk the leftover baguette bought for dinner the night before into your coffee.  Yes, besides the idea of ordering café au lait, the idea that Frenchman head out merrily each morning to buy a baguette is also something of a myth.  Sure, people head out to buy croissants on the weekends and perhaps the odd occasion when they want to impress someone new who’s spent the night.

After about 10am, most people have switched to café (espresso) and after a meal they’d never ever order a big milky coffee.  I’m not sure what comparison to make to define the puzzled look sometimes seen on waiters’ faces, but it’s akin to ordering a bowl of cereal for dinner anywhere but a 24-hour diner.  When you think about it, having a big steaming mug of hot milk with a small dose of espresso after a three course French lunch with wine and cheese does seem a bit strange,  if not a bit hard to digest.  But who knows, maybe I’ve just gone native.

“Hey, wait a minute” I hear you saying, “I hate coffee without milk.”  Well so do I.  So here’s a trick to order like a local and still get a really nice mid-day or post-meal coffee.  Order a “noisette”.  In French, noisette (nuh-wah-zet) means hazelnut and might refer to the color of the coffee.  It is also a cooking term used in recipes to describe a small amount of butter.  In the UK they say “add a knob of butter” where in French one says “ajoutez une noisette du beurre” so who knows.  Besides, we need to order a coffee.

A noisette is an espresso, with a dollop of foamed milk and a tiny bit of milk.  Just like a macchiato in Italy or a café cortado in Spain.   In better restaurants and some cafés they bring you an espresso with a tiny pitcher of milk so you can make your own blend – my personal favorite.

That covers the options for what to order, but budget conscious visitors will be interested in one further tip.  When you are in an average neighborhood café in Paris, you have three options where you can order and consume your coffee.  Outside on the terrace, inside at a table or at the counter:  “au bar”.  The prices are different between the bar and the tables.  A simple café is 2.50€  or more when served at a table, but rarely more than 1.20€ at the bar. Often 1€.  So if you want to have a quick coffee break and save money, order and drink at the bar.  It’s also the fastest way to use the restroom without any hassle, if you are having trouble finding one.  This applies to all drinks, so you can have a budget aperitif at the counter as well.  If you are unsure if the café you’ve entered serves at the bar, look for the tell-tale sugar bowls set out on the bar to indicate they serve coffee there.  After all, coffee without sugar is as unthinkable in France as coffee without milk in the states.

One last tip for ordering coffee in a café, if you arrive around lunchtime and only want to have a coffee on the terrace, choose a table that is not set with silverware and glasses.  Those tables are reserved for people eating, not drinking coffee.  So you will likely be shooed away.  The same is true in the evening when you might like to have an aperitif on the terrace.  But if most of the tables are empty, just ask and they will often let you sit there.


English / Italian         French                  What to say           Prononced
Espresso                         Café                        Café                         Ca-fay
Cappucino                     Café Crème          Un creme              Uhn khrem
Macchiato                     Noisette                Une noisette       Eywoon  muh-wah-zet

School Vacations: A Snapshot of the French School Year

Elementary and secondary schools are run by the French national government with the calendar set centrally each year.  To minimize traffic jams (both on the roads and on the ski slopes), the country is split into three zones to somewhat stagger school vacations.  Paris lies in zone C,  along with two other administrative sections of Ile de France (Créteil and Versailles) and  Bordeaux.   Most of the international schools in Paris roughly follow the French calendar although often shortening the vacations at Toussaint and in February.

The schedule typically goes as follows:

Start of school (known as la rentrée):  first week in September although not necessarily a Monday

Toussaint:  a break of 10 days at the end of October always encompassing November 1st which is All Saints Day

November 11:  Remembrance Day

Christmas: Two weeks at the end of December encompassing both Christmas and New Year’s Day

February:  Kids in Paris typically have no school the last week in February and the first week in March.  It’s a good time to go skiing although only if you make reservations well in advance.  The ski stations in the Alps (such as Chamonix,  Megève, Les Arcs and Portes de Soleil) fill up quickly; those in the Pyrenees less so.

Spring:   Spring vacation is almost always the last two weeks of April regardless of when Easter occurs.    Easter Monday is a public holiday.

May:  The month of May is riddled with public holidays including  May Day (the 1st), Victory Day (May 8),  Ascension (40 days after Easter), and the Monday after Pentecost (50 days after Easter).   

Take note!  National holidays are always celebrated on their proper date, regardless of which day of the week they fall on.  For example, if May 1st happens to land on a Sunday, there is no school holiday.  On the other hand, if one of these holidays falls on a Thursday,  people often faire le pont, taking off both Thursday and Friday.   Or if the holiday falls on a Thursday, the French schools may hold school exceptionally on Wednesdays (usually a day off  in a normal week) and then take off both Thursday and Friday.

End of the school year:  Sometime around the first of July although the exact date varies from year to year.

The French take their summer vacations in July (with the largest numbers after Bastille Day on July 14) and August.    The last weekend in July/first weekend in August is considered the worst day of the year to travel since it’s the one time when all of the country is en route, either going to or coming home from vacation.    August is quiet in Paris.  While chain stores stay open all summer, smaller businesses often close their doors for the entire month.  Pharmacies and bakeries coordinate their vacations to ensure that neighborhoods remain served throughout the summer months.

For the latest info on the school calendar, go to

The Rhythm of the Week

There’s a certain rhythm to the week in Paris and it’s better to know what might be open when than to be caught short.  For smaller shops, you may have to ask specifically as to their opening and closing schedules.  Some shops and restaurants post their hours on the door but these are not always strictly observed.   And unfortunately, it’s been my experience that Web sites are not completely reliable on this matter.

Open air and covered markets are typically open at least twice a week, usually from around 8:00 a.m. to around 2 p.m. but the schedules vary by quartier and town.    A handful of quartiers also have afternoon and evening markets.  Consult the complete list here:

Mondays:  Many smaller food shops are closed, including butchers, greengrocers, and bakeries.   Restaurants that are open on the weekend are also often closed on Mondays.   Beware: many supermarkets restock on Monday mornings; if your cupboard is bare, you might think about shopping after 2 p.m.

Monday is also not a very good day for museums.   Among those closed are all museums run by the City of Paris (such as Musée Carnavalet, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Catacombes), the Musée d’Orsay, and Versailles.

Tuesdays:   Don’t try to go to the Louvre on Tuesdays; it’s closed as are the Centre Pompidou and the Cluny.

Wednesdays:  No school today for kids attending école maternelle ( ages 3-6) and école élémentaire (ages 6-11).  Older kids go to school half day.   Book your doctor’s and dentist’s appointments in advance to avoid the crush, and sign up early in the year for extracurricular activities like dance, sports, and art.   Wednesday is a great day to take little ones to cultural events; many museums have special workshops on Wednesday afternoons for them.

And while we’re on the subject of kids, one savvy mom recently pointed out to me that playgrounds can be crowded and crazy between 4:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. during the week; better to go play between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. when daylight permits.

New movies come out on Wednesdays as does Pariscope, the guide to all cultural events available at the news kiosk for just 40 centimes.   Today’s issue of Le Figaro includes Figaroscope, a similar guide to cultural events but with feature articles.

Fridays:  Think twice before doing your grocery shopping on Friday afternoon; it can be a zoo.

Saturdays:   Since Saturday is the one day pretty much everything is open and most people are off work, it is an incredibly busy retail day.   If you need to go shopping or run errands, do so early in the day.  There is no such thing as a quick run to the store on a Saturday afternoon.  Expect long lines for cash registers and often a lot of cranky people.

Many Parisian restaurants are closed on weekends so if you want to go out to dinner on Saturday night, make reservations.  In fact, making a reservation is pretty much always a good idea in Paris.

Sundays:  For the most part, Sunday is still considered a day of rest in France.  Most shops are closed all day.   Food shops, such as bakeries, fishmongers, butchers, and the like, are often open on Sunday mornings until around 1 in the afternoon.  A limited number of small supermarkets are now also open on Sunday mornings.  

One notable exception to Sunday closures is the Marais.  Once primarily a Jewish quarter, the area has changed its character but remains a lively place on Sundays.

In the weeks before Christmas and the first week of the annual sales in February and July,  other retailers, including those selling clothes, electronics, and gift items, are allowed to open their stores on Sundays.

Finally, the first Sunday of the month is always free museum Sunday.   Go early to avoid the crowds.   Click here  for the list of  participating museums.  Note:  The list changes with the season with more museums open for free on Sundays during the winter months.