You Bought Your tickets to France, Now what?
(Interviews like this are featured in Sojourner Tours' monthly newsletter called "After the Sojourn". Subscribe now so you can be "in the know" about all things French in Austin and abroad.)
In France, you'll be struck by similarities with American culture... but what appears the same on the surface isn't always as it seems. Before your trip to France, you may want get ready for these cultural differences. Sojourner Tours intern Kayleigh's questions give you the perspectives from Sojourner Tours owners Lisa & Francis as well as Suzel Bastide, a native French speaker and local Austinite who works at the Alliance Francaise. (The Alliance Francaise d’Austin is a non-profit that promotes French language and francophone culture in Austin and other major cities throughout the United States and the world.) Lisa has a MA in Anthropology and an MA in International studies. Francis has a PhD in French Literature. All three divide their time between France and the States.
These insights on French cultural differences and cultural misunderstandings of visiting France should get you ready for your next big sojourn!
Kayleigh: What are generally some of the most important things to remember when in a foreign culture?
Suzel: To respect local culture in order to adapt easily, to be curious to discover more, and to meet people to share experiences and differences.
Francis: My favorite literary quotation on this topic is Marcel Proust's "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Your perspective is what counts most.
Lisa: Traveling abroad is one of the most enriching and educational experiences you can offer yourself if you are open to experiencing another culture. Culture Shock has a cycle of four phases: the honeymoon stage, the shock or rejection stage, the adjustment or reintegration stage and the adaptation or assimilation stage. Most of us can only get abroad long enough to experience the "honeymoon stage" of culture shock when everything seems new, exciting and different... sure, you'll have frustrations figuring out how to get around, trying to order food in restaurants in a foreign language, and more --but overall these challenges are outweighed by the magic of discovery.
Of course it is possible to come to France and remain in a bubble of American culture: stay at the Hilton, eat at McDonalds, drink at Starbucks or travel with a huge group of other Americans and protect yourself from as much potential frustration as you can. Why should you bother dealing with the local food and culture when you've just come to see the sights? It is true that during a short stay in another country, you cannot hope to develop an understanding of the local culture but you will be rewarded from immersing yourself in the local culture even for a short time by gaining a much deeper understanding of what defines your own culture by seeing alternative ways to do things that once probably seemed like the only way to do things.
When in a foreign culture it is important to remember:
Be patient (there is more than one way to do things);
Be curious (locals tend to open up and enjoy sharing their culture with interested visitors;
Feeling uncomfortable means that you are having a "growing experience" -learning to appreciate things you take for granted in your own culture;
Reserve your judgement and ask friendly questions to gain a new perspective on things: what seems wrong at home might be right... you just don't have the cultural knowledge to understand why;
Make friends with strangers (Imagine you bump into two foreigners in your hometown: one is a cynical-looking quiet person with a scowling face that criticizes everything and the other is a smiling, curious person who is eager to chat and learn about your culture and try your strange food... Think about how would you treat them, then decide how you'd like to be treated abroad and behave in a way that invites that treatment.)
The whole point of Sojourner Tours is to give a short cut to a deeper cultural experience than you could usually have traveling for the same period of time on your own without the frustrations like accidentally ordering a pig ear for yourself dinner. Francis and I want you to feel like we are friends you are visiting in France and we take you to the places where locals like to go and eat so you get an insider experience.
Kayleigh: What cultural recommendations do you have for people traveling to France, specifically?
Francis: Start every interaction with "Bonjour". Like American children are taught to say "please" and "thank you" French children are taught that the basic tenants of politeness are saying "hello" and "goodbye". Americans often mistake the French for being rude because Americans mistakenly believe it is polite to just simple begin a conversation without a greeting or by simply saying "excuse me" --this is the cultural equivalent of a French person you don't know turning to you in the States and saying "Gimme that right now." It ruffles feathers and often inspires a rude reply in return.
Suzel: For dinner, not going to restaurants before 7:00pm, they won’t be not ready yet! To try pastries and bread, they are great!!
Lisa: Get out of the cities! Go to the countryside. Go to villages that aren't tourist destinations where you eat in the best restaurant in town and then hang out in the local bar to watch a soccer match with the locals. Go without a plan, ask the locals what to see in the area. Stay in locally owned hotels, frequent locally owned businesses, buy from local producers. Express an interest in learning about the local culture. Use as many French words as you can and invite people to teach you more.
Kayleigh: What are some helpful ways in which people learn or practice their French language skills while still in the United States before going abroad?
Suzel: Take French lessons in adult schools such as Alliance Francaise d’Austin. Become a member of French-related association such as Alliance Francaise d’Austin or Austin Accueil to attend French-speaker events and activities. Watch TV in French (possible now on Netflix, many of movies are available in French language too). Go to Alliance Francaise Austin cine-club, where there are movies are in the French language with subtitles in English.
Francis: It takes years to learn a language. Don't try to master the language before you go. Just learn a few important words including greetings, polite phrases and take a pocket guidebook to help you decipher menus.
Lisa: If your objective is just to get by during a short trip in France and you haven't already studied French: a smile, hand gestures, drawings on paper (like maps) and a dictionary or phrasebook should be enough. What French people don't want you to know is that most of them have studied English in school: but, like most Americans who studied a foreign language in high school, they can't speak it. Nevertheless they may be able to muddle through with enough English to get you to the nearest bathroom.
If you have studied French though and want to brush up: look for a French club on the internet through "Meet-up", hire a short-term private tutor using an internet service like "Thumb-tack", audit a class at your local university or community college, sign up for a community education class, contact your local elementary school to see if any French people have recently moved into the area and invite them over for tea.
Kayleigh: What are your top three favorite places in France, and why?
Lisa: I chose my favorite places in France as bases for Sojourner Tours sojourns because they are beautiful, full of interesting things to do and I like to invite Americans to discover places that are off the typical tourist-track
- Provence Villages
- (and Paris, of course)
- St Remy de Provence village, because it is very pretty and authentic.
- Aix en Provence, Avenue Mirabeau – It’s a great place to have a drink, do shopping and enjoy the beautiful of this town.
- Marseille, Calanques – the seaside in Marseille is very peaceful and beautiful.
- BESANCON! It's my hometown and home to a UNESCO world heritage site.
- Collioure. It is historically rich with an ancient castle and fort, culturally rich because of its popularity with 20th century painters, and naturally beautiful with they mountains and sea.
- Paris. As we all know, it's the center of the universe... no more need be said.
Kayleigh: Any closing thoughts or other tips for our readers?
Suzel: French people may seem rude sometimes, but it is only because most of them are reserved and shy, try to know them further before crossing the street!
Lisa: Be our guests! We are looking forward to having you travel with Sojourner Tours so you can immerse yourself in the French culture and we can show you the best France has to offer.
Francis: Bon Voyage!