How taking my family to France for 45 days was the best learning experience we could have asked for.
Thinking about taking your family on a trip to France? First some basics. France is a larger country than I thought. It’s about the size of several Midwestern United States. It’s linked together with a good system of highways. Autoroutes (starting with letter “A” and blue) are often tolled, but are the most efficient. National roads (with letter “N” and red) often do not have tolls, but are still direct two-lane highways. And local roads (“D” and yellow), offer the off-the-beaten France with fairytale villages and lots of roundabouts. Depending on your itinerary, you can save money taking the local roads, though not time. A good website to use is Via Michelin, which will lay out your options with various costs that factor in tolls and fuel consumption.
We rented a small car from Sixt. It was a smaller car than I originally was comfortable with, but we only paid $44/day which was crucial for our budget and length of rental. I promptly received not one, but two speeding tickets from photoradar. In my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, photo radar is the bane of existence. France takes it to a new (annoying) level. But I can overlook that for what the country offered us.
Should I Know How to Speak French to Enjoy My Trip?
Everything I was told pointed to not needing to know French to enjoy the trip. But I was skeptical. I was sure we could survive without French, but I wanted to do more than just survive! Therefore I took the initiative to embark on an online language course. I chose Babel, but there are other fungible options. Given I had a fulltime job, and a lack of overall intelligence, I tried to do about 15 minutes per day of lessons. After a few months, I had risen just to the end of the beginner level prior to entry into France. Congratulations was in order: I could now speak French like a four-year-old.
The word gamba means shrimp in English. Despite my breadth of French language aptitude and newfound confidence, I did not know that. One evening, we had a dinner out on a terrace in Montreuil-Belay. This is a fine-looking town, but like many of the towns we visited, it seemed to have a very faint pulse. Very few shops were open. Very few people on the streets could walk without a cane. But we did find the single open restaurant. The menu was all French, and our kind waiter spoke English like a six-year old, so between the two of us, this would be fun. I had gotten into the recent bad habit of replying with a simple “oui” when I didn’t understand the question. This worked in shoeing away pestilent waiters and their probing questions. On this particular night, after I ordered my poisson (fish), and the gambas for my son, the waiter turned and ask a question to me which had the word poisson in it. So I went next level and repeated back poisson? to him, to which he said yes, and then a few more words I didn’t understand. Going back to my bag of tricks, I said oui, and he left. I’m finally getting the hang of this! Much to my dismay, I had ordered an additional shrimp dish. These babies weren’t cheap. And I learned a lesson. My family would henceforth call me Monsieur Gamba, ensuring I would not forget the lesson.
Walking The Fine Line
Half the battle in France for an American is acting the part. Life on a trip in France follows some predictable patterns. Often the American is forced to figure out the mores and customs of the local restaurants. The American will inevitably figure out that breakfast means a bunch of different drinks (boissons chauds) and no food save for an old croissant, and that dinner begins at 7:00 p.m. at the earliest.
But the American will inexorably stumble over the nuances of obtaining the check, paying for the check, and even placing the order. Mastering this is tricky, and often comes with an audience of amused locals. Confidence is key here. N’ayez pas peu, I can speak like a four-year-old; problem solved. Or so I thought.
The American must learn how to be confident, but not abrasive. Neither defiant nor subservient. The Frenchman can smell fear, but can just as easily snuff out hubris. Both of which will result in humiliating defeat for the American. But mastering this fine line can lead to truly delightful experiences and a genuine interaction with the French people. For years. we were told the French were rude, and the Americans were obnoxious. Neither absolute rings true.
The dance requires practice, and at times I felt like we had made little progress. You will crash and burn, doubtless. But when my daughter got a smile out of a waitress by asking for more cacahuettes (peanuts), and I finally allowed myself to enjoy the apero hour, it was worth it. The process is part of the destination.
On one of our drives in Normandy, we had been on the road for 15 minutes when my kids started asking for pizza. We’d had ample time to eat a healthy breakfast at home just moments before. Yet, here we were in rural France, with hungry kids asking for pizza, and it was only 10:15 in the morning! I was beginning to explain to the kids that some things just weren’t going to be possible, when something caught my eye. In a town of less than 5,000, in rural Normandy, France, there was a machine in a parking lot, with what looked like a pizza on the side. What is this, I thought quietly. I’ve heard of water mirages in the desert when people are dying of thirst. This seemed like the equivalent. All I needed was some pizza, any pizza, and the odds were long. I must have been imagining this thing–whatever it was.
Nope, it was real. This was the almighty pizza machine. There we were (did I mention in rural France?), paying seven Euros on a credit card, and having a box of hot pizza spit out of the machine, with a small disposable pizza cutter, in three minutes. The pizza was the best we’d had on the trip thus far. When my son asked me how the machine worked, I truthfully told him that some things are just magic, son. While the family took the pizza back to the car, I stayed for a moment. I knelt before the machine, with a tear in my eye, and quietly prayed. Almighty pizza machine.
The French people we encountered were friendly. They were also tolerant. Anyone that puts up with my attempts to speak French without punching me has a high level of humanity. Any misconception of curtness or rudeness I’ve abandoned for good.
The Frenchman is reserved, however, and shows little emotion. That is, until you are driving in the left lane on a highway. The Frenchman then allows a passive-aggressive fury that channels the anger of a thousand burning suns. I first noticed this on an Autoroute while I was lackadaisically passing a semi. Within a few seconds, a vehicle was close enough to my rear bumper that I could have touched it. Where I’m from, this type of behavior is called “road rage,” and is a serious crime. In France, it is just a Tuesday. After I hurriedly got back to the right lane to allow the vehicle to pass, I watched closely as I expected a follow through of hand gestures, glares, anything. Afterall, it seemed like I had committed a great infraction. The driver didn’t even look my way. I almost felt cheated. This happened several other times during our trip. Is it possible that this behavior is not personal? I know what I saw. I think this is where the reserved Frenchman blows off steam. He won’t admit it, perhaps not even to himself, but this is a release of blind rage that any human feels at times. We must remember, though difficult at times, that the French are human.
Reflections On 45 Days In France
The only way we could pull this trip off is through staying in budget accommodations. Do I regret allotting that much time in France? Not at all. Partly out of necessity, and partly out of morbid curiosity, I wanted to see if we could actually succeed. Western Europe in general is very expensive compared to Asia. Our US passport allows 90 days of travel in Europe and we intended to use all 90 days. France does not suffer as much from high inflation as other countries, thereby offering another incentive to stay in the Country. Our predictions were prescient–the cost of living was low in France, and the lodging was cheap as long as you stayed in out-of-the-way Gites (France’s low cost airbnb equivalent). We plan to return to France in the future, of course, and when we do it will likely be in more touristed towns on a shorter, more conventional vacation. But we will never forget the lessons we learned and experiences we had on our France Bootcamp trip.