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Get ready for beginners’ French
Get ready for beginners’ French

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2 Observe the local way of life

So you’re getting together your checklist of sights to see. You just need to figure out how to fit everything in during your stay! If you have the language skills to buy tickets and traverse the Métro (the underground train system in Paris), you can get from one monument to the next in no time.

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Figure 2 Métro

But if you want to get an insight into the authentic life of Paris residents, rather than just the tourist hotspots, you need to visit the places they go. This is where having some cultural knowledge will help you make the most of your stay.

Despite the growth in supermarkets, most French people still buy their bread from the neighbourhood bakery, and will often visit the local open air market to stock up on fresh, locally produced fruit and vegetables, and meat. Spending an hour or two at a marché, observing people and noticing what the stalls sell, will tell you a lot about the importance of food in French culture.

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Figure 3 A market in Paris

If you take a stroll through any neighbourhood in Paris, you will soon notice how many cafés there are. When you want to take a break, or have a bite for lunch, do visit them. Immerse yourself in the sound of chatting customers, and gauge how important these places are for people to socialise with their colleagues and friends. If you are on a budget, you only need to order a coffee and you can take your time absorbing your surroundings – as long as the café is not in a highly touristy area, where the ‘rules’ will differ. Be aware of cultural differences in coffee too: if you order un café, you’ll be served a single espresso, the locals’ drink of choice. If you prefer a larger, weaker coffee, ask for un grand café or un café allongé. For a white coffee, order un café au lait.

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Figure 4 A French café

You will learn about other cultural differences during your studies and travel experiences. For example, you will find out that the typical time for dinner in France is around 8 p.m.. If you come from the UK, you might find that very late. If you are Spanish, however, you will be used to dining much later. Your own cultural reference points will inevitably influence your experiences in French culture.

This section has hopefully demonstrated to you that food and meals are important cultural touchstones in Paris, central to the way people socialise. Of course, this isn’t exclusive to Paris – as you will now find out.