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Uncovering French Etiquette and Social Graces

By Amy Lively Jensen

Bonjour Francophiles! If you’ve traveled to France, or just love the food, wine and culture, there’s always more to learn about this intriguing country. I’ve gathered some unique customs, laws, facts and traditions that may surprise you.

Here’s interesting factoid that I’ll bet you don’t know: in France, a law makes it illegal for couples to kiss on train platforms. But doesn’t that happen in most French movies? How can it possibly be true? This law was passed in 1910 to prevent the amorous French from delaying the departure of trains. While on the subject of trains…Gare du Nord in Paris is the busiest railway station in Europe and in the world (outside of Japan.) More than 214 million passengers pass through it each year. That makes a fun rush hour. Contributing to congestion is the whopping 89.3 million people who visited in 2018. This makes it the most popular tourist destination in the world. In addition, the famous Louvre Museum is the most visited museum in the world. Located in the heart of Paris, the magnificent museum is home to around 38,000 works of art and artifacts dating back to prehistoric times.

Of course, France is famous for its gastronomy; it was added to the list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2010. From croissants to brioche to crusty bread, France’s boulangeries are filled to the brim with these legendary pleasures. Since the residents take their breads very seriously, the recipe for classic baguette dough is actually defined by French law. When eating it in France, place bread directly on the table, not on your plate. This would be a serious breach of what is known as “baguettiquette.” Also, don’t turn it upside down on the table as superstitions considered this unlucky. Here’s a startling statistic about the French: they eat around 30,000 tons of snails a year. This classic French delicacy is served with garlic, parsley, and butter. The cost of them is relatively high, so if this is a consideration, don’t travel with them. If you take snails on a high-speed train in France, the law states that live snails must have their own ticket. A couple of other food facts that you will discover when visiting France are that fish is served with eyes to prove it’s fresh, and you’ll usually see organ meats (like pancreas called sweetbreads) on the menu because French people eat every part of an animal.

The French have unique dining etiquette. If you are invited to a dinner party, try and arrive at least 15 to 20 minutes late. This is an unwritten rule so that guests don’t surprise their host while they are finishing up preparations. However, always be punctual for restaurant reservations. Dining is considered an event, so you may spend two to three hours eating, even on weekdays. You’ll typically be served in courses, at least three or more. Each plate is brought to the table consecutively and eaten before the next plate is brought. Portions are much smaller; American main dishes could be twice or three times as large. The petite serving size can be a blessing; you should finish your plate or your host will be offended. After your meal, typically three to five cheeses are served on a plate with a baguette. To say that the French love their cheese is a huge understatement. They consume more cheese per capita than anywhere in the world; every person eats about 66 pounds of it each year. France produces around 1.7 million tons of cheeses a year in over 1600 varieties. One last piece of advice on eating in France: never eat on the go. Munching on anything while walking around is highly frowned upon. Eating on Metro trains and buses is strictly prohibited. Transit police can issue citations or make arrests to enforce the law, Metro warns.

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What is French food without pairing it with some of the best wines in the world? In this issue of Chicago Wine Press, you will read about outstanding 2020 Bordeaux wines that were tasted by our panel of experts. They were fantastic right out of the barrel, and most collectors will cellar their French wines for many years. A 73-year-old bottle of French Burgundy became the world’s most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction, fetching an eye-popping $558,000. Many collectors like to share their wines, but in France, taking a bottle of wine to a dinner party is offensive to the host, indicating that his wines aren’t up to your standards. Also, he usually will have already paired wine with the meal. Wine is a must with dinner, even for the children. As the French saying goes: “Repas sans vin, repas chagrin”, meaning “Dinner without wine is a sad dinner.”

When speaking of French culture, it is unthinkable to forgo a discussion about fashion. Paris is considered the fashion capitol of the world and is the birthplace of Haute Couture and the modern fashion show. While the fashion show has existed for more than 170 years, the catwalk sensation we know as Paris Fashion Week came to life in the 70’s. The late designer Karl Lagerfeld created quite the spectacle to present his fashion creations from staging a makeshift rocket launchpad, to creating a Chanel supermarket composed of real products, shopping carts and fruit stands. Another designer house, Louis Vuitton allegedly burns its old bags to keep the brand’s complete exclusivity. There are many “firsts” in French fashion. Denim jeans originated here; they were then imported to California by Levi Strauss to supply gold miners with hard-wearing pants. The two-piece bathing suit, called the bikini was invented by French designers in 1946 and first sold in a beach shop in Cannes, France. The first fashion magazine was published in 1678 aimed at male readers. A female fashion magazine followed 16 years later.

Unique holiday celebrations are a treat for tourists lucky enough to visit on a special day. There are 11 public holidays, numerous seasonal celebrations, and countless other traditions during the year. On November 25th you’ll see green and yellow hats adorning young women’s heads. It’s St. Catherine’s Day when it is customary for unwed women to pray for husbands and for those over 25 to receive outlandish hats from their married friends. The hats are colored yellow for faith and green for wisdom and they must wear them all day. You would think this would set most women into a feminist rage, but it still continues which may be in part to the enthusiasm of the French fashion industry. One summer event not to be missed is the French pig imitation championships in the village of Trie-sur-Baise. According to artist Perry Taylor, “Grown men wear fluffy onesies and a spongy pig nose and make some pretty explicit noises as they are asked to portray impregnation, birth, feeding piglets and being slaughtered.” The prize is a pig carcass: about 440 pounds of pork.
Weddings in France are a celebration of ancient traditions combined with the latest trends in stylish dresses, décor, venues, and reception extravaganzas. Unlike at many American weddings, there is no Bridezilla; the bride is not the center of attention. Instead, the focus is on the two families coming together. To be legally married, the marriage ceremony must be performed by the mayor at the town hall. It is meant to be a public event and the doors of the room must stay open. This is traditionally to allow somebody who wants to oppose the marriage to do so. French couples often choose to have a religious ceremony as well.
This gives you an idea of what makes French culture unique and in some cases, quite amusing. And you’ve got to love them!

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