I love France. Let’s be honest, it speaks to me. It was such an amazing experience, and it opened up my life to European travel (and the miracle of Ryanair).
I studied at the IAU (Institute for American Universities), a small university in the heart of Aix-en-Provence near the Université de Marseille (why was it in Aix? The world may never know…) across the street from the beautiful cathedral Ste Sauveur (If you have been…you know!).
Down the streets Cèzanne once walked (or stumbled from the cafe or pub with his buddies Monet and Manet), I too walked and reveled in the beauty that is this little town in the south, but 3o minutes by bus from Marseille (the Detroit of France).
I ate baguettes, filled my water bottle from ancient aqueducts in the middle of roundabouts, bought delicious 2 euro bottles of wine, attempted to converse with the locals and bought bags of raw green beans and grapes from the vendors who knew my face and greeted me with thick french accents, “Helloooo!! How are yyoouu??’ every day as I walked to class through the square bustling with markets selling everything beautiful and dreamy you could think of.
While in France, I learned a couple of key things, (you’d do good to remember these if you ever decide to explore France). Number one, DO NOT SMILE AT PEOPLE. No, seriously. Smiling at strangers is such an American thing to do. I know I know…You are probably feeling self justified in thinking, “Yeah well the French are just rude. Why do they gotta be that way?”. But that could not be further from the truth. French people are quite nice (I learned this in many ways but most significantly when I had the unasked for help of several french men in the Paris underground as I struggled to carry my duffel bag up and down the steps across town). You must understand that smiling is not part of their culture (smiling at strangers, that is). In France, when a stranger smiles at you it means either, 1) flirting, an invitation for romantic pursuit, seduction, or 2) manipulation, deception. It will make a french person uncomfortable, and want nothing to do with you (or, ladies…it will tell a guy you want them to pursue you. NO. JOKE. DON’T DO IT).
Now, this isn’t to say that if you have an enjoyable interaction with someone and you exchange some kind words or even perhaps a joke or two, that you can’t smile in reaction or in farewell. that is perfectly acceptable, since it has a purpose. But carrying a smile on your face while in town will only get you strange looks…or unwanted advances.
They will also know you aren’t French, you won’t blend in and you’ll be more of a target for pickpocketers (basically, you want to blend in).
The other thing I learned, is that upon entering a shop, make eye contact and greet the shop keeper. This is crucial. It is customary to also say goodbye upon leaving. You may spend an hour in a store and not be approached once by a sales person (they believe that if you need something you will approach them. That’s just how it is), but if you don’t greet them upon arrival and departure they will know you aren’t French and think very lowly of you, so make sure you don’t secretly make enemies!
When I wasn’t in Aix studying or wandering the streets or local shops, I was either gallivanting around thanks to Ryanair (posts to follow) or on archeological expedition field trips with my archeology class and crazy swore-like-a-sailor professor. ‘That’s the idée!’ Ah…those were the days.
I ended my 4 month french affair with a few days in Paris via the TGV drinking vin chaud and gawking at the Louvre before leaving Charles de Gaulle at 2:20 pm, December 23rd 2012 and arriving at Seatac at 2:25 pm, December 23rd 2012….trippy.
Time travel will do that to you.
P.S. my perfume is from France…and luckily you can order it online so I don’t need to make a trip each time I run out. I visited the perfumery Fragonard in the south, had a tour, and discovered Île D’amour.
Tu me manque