France & the French
A Few Things to Know About France
If you're going to be spending any amount of time in the smaller cities & towns or countryside of France, there are a few things that are helpful to understand.
First, remember that in the countryside, and especially outside of high tourist season, almost everything closes for lunch between 12:00-12:30 and 14:00-14:30 and often later. This includes stores, including grocery stores, banks, museums and other attractions that you may want to see. The only thing you'll find open are the bars, cafes & restaurants, and pretty much everybody goes to lunch. In Paris & other big cities, this isn't always the case, but in the countryside, it's all but guaranteed.
So, if it's lunchtime, and the weather isn't conducive to a picnic, your best bet is to do like everybody else, sit down and have a nice lunch. At lunch most restaurants offer a menu, with a starter (entrée) plat principal & desert, or some combination thereof, for a price that's usually well below the cost of the same items separately.
Again, especially in the countryside, restaurants may only open certain hours. It's not unusual for restaurant to open at 11:30-12:00 for lunch, close at 14:00, are reopen for dinner at 19:00. So, if you show up for lunch at 13:45, you may be out of luck. And since there aren't a whole lot of restaurants in the countryside, that may have been your only choice.
The other thing to keep in mind when biking in rural France is that things tend to be closed on Sunday, particularly after noon, and that many restaurants don't serve dinner Sunday night. It's not unusual, in a small town or village in the countryside, to find absolutely, positively nothing is open Sunday evening. Not a cafe, restaurant, convenience store, gas station, nothing. On the other hand, Sunday lunch in the countryside is often a much bigger deal, and it's frequently necessary to make a reservation for Sunday lunch.
There's some variability here, and the Internet makes it easier to know the exceptions, which are becoming more frequent, but, in the countryside, never assume that anything will be open at any particular time.
One of the nice things about France, especially the countryside & small villages, is that people tend to spend a lot of time in cafes. We find that you can learn a whole lot about a place just by sitting in cafe in the central square, having a apero, and watching what goes on around you.
When it comes to eating & drinking, the French do some things a bit differently. Breakfast (petit dejeuner) in France is almost always skimpy by American standards. Coffee, juice, a pastry (croissants or something like it), bread with jam & butter is the best you can hope for. Maybe some yogurt and a bit of fruit if you're lucky. Unless you're staying in a place with lots of foreigners who expect better, you're not going to find eggs, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes, or any of the other things we think of as morning food.
In general, the French eat dinner later than we do in the United States. In big cites, restaurants frequently do not open until 7:30 pm, and often won't serve after 10:00 pm. In better restaurants, you usually have the table for the evening, so you can stay as long as you like. This is true even in the countryside.
Brasseries are restaurants that generally serve a limited, largely traditional menu, but many are open all day. Cafes can be open all day, occasionally serve a limited menu but aren't usually open for dinner.
Bakeries in France are known as boulangeries. These vary in size and quality, but generally have an assortment of pastry, breads, and simple sandwiches. We get a lot of our lunches from the local boulangerie
If you happen to be staying someplace with a kitchen, it's a lot of fun to do your shopping in the local farmer's market. Sometimes weekly, sometimes daily in bigger cities, markets abound all over France, and you can often get wonderful local products in just the right quantity for a dinner for 2!
How many times have heard, usually from Americans, than France would be a wonderful country if it weren't for the French? We don't agree. We find France to a be wonderful country because of the French, who, for the most part, are warm, helpful and generally delightful.
That said, in French culture there are a few things that are different from Anglo-Saxon culture and this where difficulties can arise. The French insist on a certain degree of politeness in normal everyday interactions that may be different from what you're used to. For instance, it's consider rude in France to begin any conversation without saying "Good morning/afternoon/evening" first. Omit this and you're guaranteed to start off on the wrong foot with the majority of the French. If you don't know any other French than this, begin every single conversation with anyone about anything with the greeting "Bonjour monsieur/madam" This one simple thing will grease more wheels than you can imagine. A pleasant smile won't hurt either. At the end, "Merci monsieur/madam, Au-revoir" will also take you long way, even if the rest of the conversation was in English.
The French hold themselves to the same standard. Almost universally, if you walk into a store or other place of business, however casually, the shopkeeper or the employees will look you in the eye and say "Bonjour monsieur/madam". It's considered very rude not to to acknowledge the greeting, however briefly, and respond in kind. So, when you're in the boulangerie, look the Boulanger/Boulangere in the eyes and say "Bonjour monsieur/madam" before ordering your croissant or sandwich. Keep in mind this one simple thing and you'll have a much better time in France.
Finally, in France, the customer is not always right. The French have a somewhat idiosyncratic idea of the nature of business relationships, and you will likely find their idea of customer service different than what you get at home. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is different, and can take some getting used to.