Photo: Denis Kuvaev/Shutterstock

7 Things You Can't Understand if You're Not French

by Kate Robinson Apr 17, 2015

1. Hot morning beverages belong in bowls, not cups.

Ah, breakfast, king of meals. Contrary to popular belief, not all French people start the day off with a cigarette and a coffee, “bien serré s’il vous plait”. If you’re of the bon vivant variety, you probably like to feast on a generously buttered tartine (that butter’s salted if you’re Breton). And then comes the fun part: dunking it in your bowl of piping hot tea, coffee, or chocolaty Banania! Your American friends recoil in horror at the soggy state you’ve put your baguette in, but they have no idea what they’re missing out on. You’ll sweep the crumbs off the table when you’re finished because who needs a plate for bread anyway?

2. Your electrical bill is the most important document you own.

Ah, the justificatif de domicile. Proof of residence is perhaps the most sought-after document in your personal arsenal of administrative papers. If you want to get your driver’s license, renew your passport, open a savings account (yes, at the same bank where you’ve had a checking account for the last two years) or do anything else involving a visit to a guichet, you’ll need to prove where you live. No, the address on the back of your state-issued id card doesn’t cut it. You’ll need to print or dig out an electrical bill less than three months old. Okay, last month’s rent receipt will do if EDF still hasn’t updated your file after you notified them of your address change six months ago…

3. Milk does not have to be refrigerated.

Any trip to a low-ceilinged, halogen-lit Franprix includes a trip down the milk aisle. Shrink-wrapped six-packs of waxy paper cartons and blue- or red-capped opaque plastic bottles of entier and demi-écremé jostle for space on shelves neighboring the eau pétillante. You probably don’t drink a lot of milk (except for that dunking bowl of Banania in the morning) so a liter is just fine and it’ll fit in the half-size fridge that doubles as counter-space in your studio apartment. If you don’t get around to opening it in the next six months, no problem: ultra-high temperature pasteurization has killed everything living in it. For your foreign friends who poo-poo UHT milk, you point them to the fromagerie-laiterie where farm-fresh milk with a two day shelf-life is still sold in glass bottles.

4. The best you can ever be is “not bad.”

You just made your first quiche; you finally mastered watercolors; you won the Nobel Prize. Chances are, when you tell your friends of a recent accomplishment that has you bursting with pride, they’ll respond with a nonchalant, “C’est pas mal” and a slightly more interested eyebrow shrug. You probably followed your own announcement of achievement with a self-deprecating comment. Despite your best efforts, you’ll only ever be “not bad.” But that’s okay because we’re all just not bad. Remember back in school where teachers graded papers out of 20 and you were thrilled to get a 12? Even the head of the class only got 16s. Everyone knows, no one gets a 20, ever. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to go to class.

5. Saturday is a school day.

While other children were getting up at the crack of dawn to settle in with a bowl of Lucky Charms and watch Saturday morning cartoons, you were packing up your cartable for a morning at school. The debate whether a four-day school week or nine half days best suits young children’s natural rhythm has been around for about twenty years, but most French children have had to sacrifice their Saturday morning at some point. On the upside, this means you probably had Wednesday afternoon off to relax — in your dreams. You either spent mid-week cramming for your English and German tests or practicing your scales at the conservatory down the street. At least on Wednesdays you made it home from school before 6pm.

6. No one plans anything but vacation in May and August.

A fun pick-me-up in dreary February, when the only thing to look forward to is eating crêpes on Chandeleur, is opening the office calendar to May: if you’re lucky, Labor Day, V Day, Ascension and Pentecost all fall on a Thursday or a Tuesday, turning the month into a series of long weekends, or les ponts. Between that and the tradition of taking 3 or 4 consecutive weeks of vacation in August to faire des randonnées in far-flung regions of the globe or chill on the in-laws’ patio in the Sables d’Olonne, these two months are basically a wash. Foreign colleagues dread the end of July, as they scramble to send anything urgent before your away message kicks in. You might connect now and then if your position warrants it, but vacation is as sacred as respecting meal times, and you’ll be taking full advantage so you can come back ready to work hard—until Toussaint rolls around at the end of October.

7. Magnesium is the ultimate cure-all.

Are you feeling a little down lately? Or perhaps a little sluggish? Maybe you’re having trouble shaking off an indefinable restlessness? Fear not, there is a remedy: magnesium. If you report any of these symptoms to your general practitioner, nine times out of ten you will leave with a prescription for a two-week magnesium “cure”, fortified with vitamin B6 if you’re lucky. Heck, if it’s winter, you’ll probably leave with one even if you don’t have any of these symptoms. To fill your prescription pronto, you know to follow the green glow of the pharmacy plus-sign that beckons on every street in France.

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