Cultural Observations from France

As when visiting any country, one’s experience is improved by observing certain cultural customs.  Below are a few norms (definitely not an exhaustive or authoritative list) to follow that will smooth your path to successful interactions with French people:

  1. Always use the “vous” form (formal “you”) address when speaking with a server, store clerk, grocery check-out worker, and basically anyone you don’t know, but with whom you’d like to have a mutually beneficial interaction. Merci and s’il vous plait don’t hurt either!

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    Town of Amboise
  2. Make sure to greet those working when entering any type of store.  It is not the job of the store clerk to greet you, and it is considered rude not to say “Bonjour!” especially since most places of business are smaller than the ones we frequent in the US.  Ignoring the one person working in the store becomes painfully obvious when the store is a shoe box, so when in doubt, just say hello. Say goodbye too, even if you decided not to purchase anything at the store you visited.

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    Chateau Amboise
  3. You can always window shop if you aren’t in a buying mood.  Lingering outside a store front display is normal in France (and Spain).
  4. Holler “Hello” and “Goodbye” when you enter and leave the host family’s home. This lets everyone know who is where, avoiding any unwanted surprises, and it shows respect for those staying at home as you traipse in and out.
  5. Try to speak French in your daily interactions!  We were pleasantly surprised to find that most everyone would respond to us in French, and were willing to let us practice, even if we made gargantuan blunders.  It could be that Tours is a small town with more limited tourism, so English isn’t quite as widespread as it might be in Paris or another large city.  And, if someone does switch to English, that’s okay too!  People are generally flattered if you notice their English, and comment on how well they speak.  This is another way to open the door to a friendly exchange.  I used to feel insulted that someone would switch on me to English (it happens all the time in Germany!), but now I realize it isn’t generally done in arrogance, rather for the sake of efficiency, or because they’d like to try out their language skills.  I’d rather have a positive interaction than feel slighted, too, and the power to make a conversation uplifting ultimately depends on me. IMG_3017.JPG
  6. Cars have the right of way in France!  We’d been surprised by how fast cars sped by the zebra crosswalks in downtown Tours, and kept commenting to each other on how drivers weren’t nearly as thoughtful of pedestrians as in Spain or Germany.  Well, turns out, they don’t have to be!  I’m sure we made quite a few French motorists upset by barreling out onto the crosswalk without a second consideration!  After asking our host “mére” what the protocol was, we understood the uncomfortable feeling we’d had, even if we didn’t agree with the law.  We began to stop at the curb before each crosswalk, waiting patiently for oncoming vehicles to pass.  Though some drivers didn’t slow down, just as many stopped out of courtesy for the pedestrian.
  7. Dressing “chic” is appreciated, but not a prerequisite to success.  While packing I panicked!  How could I dress as effortlessly as the French?  How could I keep my blackheads to a minimum when I was sharing a bathroom with Andrew and another German student from the school?  What was I going to do with my hair without access to my beloved heat wands to curl, straighten and flatten? (Just fyi, the converter that ConAir markets that will “regulate” the voltage for your hair tools doesn’t stand up to a flat iron that heats to 450 degrees Fahrenheit or your Dyson hair dryer – thank me later for saving your preciously expensive styling machines). Turns out, in Tours at least, people aren’t as “chic” as I expected.  Hair stands up in the wrong places, a natural wave is expected, and as for clothing, anything goes.  There really was no defined dress code.  I way over-packed in fear that I’d have to have a solid rotation of clothes to keep up, but in reality, I could have packed much more reasonably.  Not that I minded having lots of options, since half the battle of a good attitude in the morning can be feeling good about how you look.

These are a few insights we picked up on while in France!  Anything important you’ve noticed while traveling abroad that would improve our interactions in the wide world for the future?  Anything you think we should add to this list?

Guanajuato

The second half of our second adventure to Mexico was spent in Guanajuato, Mexico.  A brilliantly colored university town set in a valley, it was a quaint spot to relax, but really didn’t charm us as much as our first stop in Querétaro.

A couple of highlights:  The view from our B&B’s balcony.

View from balcony

Dinner at Las Mercedes.  A restaurant reviving Grandma’s traditional dishes with local, fresh produce.  We especially liked the flourless corn cake with strawberry ice cream for dessert.

The white building in the middle is the university

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Exploring a still operating mine that opened in the 1500’s.  As Andrew pointed out, the California Gold Rush happened in the late 1800’s, so they’ve been finding gold, silver, and copper south of the border for a long time.  We’ve got the Spaniards greedy egos to thank for that.

We're in the mine

Wandering around in the huerta of a former hacienda.

Garden of hacienda

Getting soaked to the gills by a late night thunderstorm.  Water cascaded down the steps up to our hotel like a waterfall.  I walked through water so deep it covered my feet!

Cathedral

Beverage Guide to Mexico

Thinking about travelling to México meant worrying about drinking the water. It’s fun to joke about Montezuma’s revenge when the water spurting out of your tap at home is 100% safe to drink, but once you’re on the other side of the border, ingesting a piece of lettuce washed in unfiltered H2O or opening your mouth in the shower is suddenly terrifying.  Before arriving in México, I assumed that most Mexicans would drink the tap water like we do here, their stomachs and systems being accustomed to the weird bacteria that would give my plumbing a rude awakening.  Instead, almost everyone imbibes only filtered water bought in giant, thick, plastic jugs. I expected for beer to be considered water and to have to steer clear of coffee, but the culinary scene is a lot more varied than the Tex-Mex we normally chow down and so are your options of what to wash down your spicy poblano sauce with.

Street scene in Querétaro

For breakfast, and breakfast is a sit down affair, with typical Mexican portion sizes (read: generous!), you could try out a café de la olla.  Translated roughly to pot coffee, I thought I was ordering a normal drip coffee, a lá Waffle House, but I was served a cinnamon spiced-sweet caramel liquid in a rustic potted mug.  Charming, but not the strong, bitter brew I hoped for.  It’s worth finding out what café de la olla is, but probably not worth a repeat experience.

Another recommendation for breakfast time is a fresh fruit juice.  Most common is orange juice, but sometimes you might be surprised with a twist, like carrot-orange.

18th century aqueduct

At lunch, I’d recommend you find a restaurant where it seems those on a working lunch break are headed and follow them to their local fonda.  Again, my expectation was for folks to have lunch between 11 and 1:30, but really, the locals don’t sit down for their midday meal until 3 pm (though starving tourists don’t stand out too much if they can make it until 2 pm).  Along with your four course lunch, you should order the agua fresca of the day.  (Filtered) Water mixed with seasonal fresh fruit juice is served in a carafe for the table to share. Our first trip we made the rookie mistake of ordering a cerveza with lunch and then we longingly spied those in the know quenching their thirst the true Mexican way.  A couple flavors we tested were hibiscus flower (agua de jamaica), grapefruit (toronja), lemon (limonada), lime (lima), pineapple (piña) and orange (naranjada).  Grapefruit agua fresca stood out as the clear favorite, followed by the pineapple variety.  The drink can be cloyingly sweet depending on the house recipe, but we did ask once for it to be less sweet, which was no problem, as the proprietor informed us it was made to order.

facade of cathedral in San Miguel de Allende

In stark contrast to Spain, México really doesn’t have an all day bar culture. Students might go out in the evening with friends, but a social life that revolves around a glass of wine and a bite to eat at the local watering hole just doesn’t exist.  The culture still seems family oriented and centered around being with each other- great-grandma to granddaughter, walking, sitting, eating, but not drinking (publicly, anyway) much. Beer does have its place though, mostly at dinner time, and there are two distinct ways to have a cold one.

chelada is a dark beer served over a couple of tablespoons of pure lime juice in a salt-rimmed, chilled mug.

michelada isn’t for everyone.  Spicy tomato salsa and lime juice cover the bottom of your red-pepper and salt rimmed mug, over which a dark beer is then poured. Neither a chelada or a michelada taste much like beer, which is a shame as Mexico can brew a decent lager.

Another drink on your list to try should be pulque, made from the fermented sap of the agave plant.  It has a milky, pulpy consistency, low alcohol content (5%~) and is normally mixed with a fruit juice to make it palatable.  I tried it once and that’s enough.

ancient monastery, now regional Museum of Querétaro

Regional Museum

And of course, tequila, made from the agave plants grown only in the region of Jalisco, and mezcal, the same liquor, but made with agave plants grown outside the region of Jalisco.  Many times these are served as an aperitif or digestive with sal de maguey (salt from the maguey worm-sounds gross, tastes good), red pepper and oranges.   Hope you have as much fun figuring out what to try next as we did!

El cerro de las Campanas- Maximilian was shot here.

Hello From Querétaro