One of the things I appreciated most about my years living in France was the opportunity it gave me to sit back and watch the French at work, play, and rest, to experience la vie francaise right alongside them, both la belle and la bête.
Here's what I observed:
Beast: All but the big food stores close at Noon. Shop assistants begin to get misty eyed at the thought of lunch at about 11:30. Don't try to make any big buying decisions around that time. I have been in a furniture store with a full load, ready to pay, just before noon, and the assistant told me to come back later, because she had already closed the till. You will be hustled, politely, out. Lunch is sacrosanct.
Beauty: Between Noon and 2 p.m. is a great time to do your grocery shopping. Or do as the French; stop and eat. US$12 is an average price for a delicious three-course meal.
Beast: Don't do your grocery shopping on Friday mornings, unless you want to join the ranks of French retirees for a good chat. They really do park their carts in the aisles, blocking the flow of other shoppers, and chat.
Beauty: Friday food shopping is a lot of fun...if you're not in a hurry. It's when the local farmers come into the supermarkets to sell their farm-produced cheeses. It's when the fishmonger shouts out the day's best catch and buy. It's when the bakery counter has lots of samples and great deals.
Beast: Don't expect to negotiate a better price, even when buying a big-ticket item. Try to negotiate and you'll likely get The Shrug, the Gallic gesture you can generally take to mean, "It's your choice, Madame. I don't mind if I sell it or not. But please hurry up and make a decision, because it's nearly lunchtime!"
Beauty: When you buy a big-ticket item, like a car, the sales process is calm, unhurried, and even gentle. The salesman rolls out the red carpet and helps you with all the paperwork (mounds).
Beast: Retail stores are closed on Sundays. Really.
Beauty: Retail stores are closed on Sundays! I see this as a beauty, unless you've forgotten an essential ingredient and your new French neighbors are coming over for lunch.
Sundays in France are different. You go into the center of town and enjoy the beauty and the history of the place, rather than the squish of retailing madness. The main road is closed to traffic, the cafés spill out onto the streets, people stroll through the parks. Sunday is for leisure, family, and friends.
Beast: To kiss or not to kiss...the indecision can be agonizing. How long does it take to know someone well enough before you can change from a handshake to a petit bisou (a little kiss)? I sometimes see a flicker of indecision run across my French acquaintances' eyes; should I kiss this foreigner or not? If I've met someone a few times, I take the plunge and go for the bisou. But never kiss full on the lips.
Beauty: The petit bisou...the charming way French people greet each other. Note: Do not kiss if you have a cold. "J'ai un rhume" (I've got a cold) is enough to put off even the most determined kisser.
Beast: Smoking. Despite the fact that smoking is banned in airports, railway stations, hospitals, schools, shops, offices, restaurants, and bars, it is still common to see people puffing in the street and at outdoor cafes. Company employees can still smoke at work but only in special rooms that are often located around the entrance.
Beauty: There isn't one...unless you're a smoker, in which case, welcome to the land of chic smokers.
Beast: French drivers. They use their signals oddly, they often beep after something has happened so no one knows who the beep is meant for, and they cut back into line on the freeway, after passing, as if there were a chase on.
Beauty: Compared with other south European drivers, who seem to do everything but concentrate on driving, French drivers are on the ball and considerate. They let you out if you are waiting to enter traffic, and, as with everything else in life, they are generally courteous.
Beast: OK, this is a little beast...nevertheless: Why do the French sleep with weirdly shaped pillows? They're long, thin, and hard or enormous squares. If you're pillow fussy, bring your own or risk a sore neck.
Beauty: The big square pillows make great floor cushions.
Beast: French people are proud and arrogant.
Beauty: It's a myth or at least an over-generalization. Certainly in the countryside, outside Paris, people are not arrogant. Proud, yes, but that can be a good thing if you have a lot to be proud of.
Beast: Strikes. It is true that the French are constantly striking about one thing or another...and costing the taxpayer millions of euro in the process.
Beauty: Sometimes you get an unexpected day off work or school.
Beast: Learning French. It is a tricky language to master; there are so many ways to say the same thing and so many ways to say the wrong thing. How many languages use three vowels for one sound? For example, the word for water, "eau," sounds like "o."
Beauty: French is a beautiful, sexy language to listen to.
Beast: The school system is strict and regimental. I have friends who pulled their children out of primary school because it didn't allow the children to develop their creativity and personalities. And if a child cannot keep up, he won't get personalized attention.
Beauty: The school system is strict and regimental. I have friends who say French high school has been greatly beneficial for their children, improving the children's behavior and their grades.
Beast: French women are obsessed with their weight, and France has the highest percentage of underweight women among the countries of Western Europe. If you're a woman, you'll find it difficult to buy clothes if you wear anything bigger than a size 8. If you're a man, you'll find it difficult to find curvaceous women to date. (Or so I'm told.)
Beauty: French women have great figures. A recent report from France's National Institute of Demographic Studies confirmed that French women are the slimmest (read, skinniest) in Western Europe.