Sip Code–A Guide to the French Cafe Experience Sunday, Jul 31 2011 

French cafés are not just a place, they’re a way of life. You can drink, eat, converse, read, watch the world go by, even make it your home away from home. For the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, your café table and the accompanying cultural panorama belong to you for as long as you like. What a way to “own” some French real estate!

But like so many aspects of French culture, it really helps to know some insider tips and info to enjoy your French café time to the fullest. Here are my top 10 recommendations for cracking the French café code. Read on, and make plans to head straight for a café next time you are in France…

1) Which café? Wherever you are in France—in a small country village or in bustling Paris—be sure to choose a café with the most French people (i.e. avoid anybody wearing fanny packs, cameras, and tennis shoes). You want to feel like you’re in France, not in a Starbucks at home.

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2) Where to sit? Hands down, if it’s a nice day, sit outside on the terrace. It’s great for people watching, and weather in France is generally lovely. There’s often some street entertainment going on such as the accordionist below. These days, even winter café going can be a pleasure as many cafés have electric heaters overhead to keep things warm and toasty. On the other hand, if you’re on a strict budget, sitting inside is always a good option since menu items cost more on the terrace than inside the café. On that note, if you’re going in for a drink, standing at the bar costs less than sitting at a table. Ditto in Italy.

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3) Engaging with the waitstaff: To ensure good relations with the wait staff, always greet your (usually male) waiter with a nice “Bonjour, Monsieur!” And attempt your best French. He’ll be more attentive to you if you try. And whatever you do, don’t call him over with a loud “Garçon!” It’s very fifties…and also rude.

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4) Ordering coffee: Coffee is a French café staple. You can order un express (an expresso), un crème (how the French order coffee with hot milk these days), un café américain (black coffee but not as strong as expresso—more like drip coffee) or perhaps un thé (tea). My morning beverage in France is un grand crème, or an extra large coffee with milk. Note that the French do not have milk in their coffee later in the day or at night—it’s strictly expresso for them following lunch or dinner.

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5) What about other drinks? There are a variety of other beverages on offer at French cafés besides le café (coffee). Of the non-alcoholic variety, you can order un citron pressé (fresh-squeezed lemonade where you add sugar and water to taste), les jus de fruits (fruit juices), un Orangina (sparkling orange soda made in France), un coca / coca light (Coke and Diet Coke) and les eaux minérales such as Vittel or Evian (flat mineral waters) and Badoit or San Pellegrino (sparkling mineral waters). It is helpful to remember that Coke can cost more than the house wine in France. Also, hip French people these days forego all the wonderful French mineral waters in favor of San Pellegrino. Go figure?!

If it’s apéritif time, there are a variety of bières (beers) available. Draft is une pression or un demi (half pint). And then of course, there’s wine—un vin rouge, un vin blanc (a glass of red or white wine) or un rosé (glass of rosé wine). In summer in France, I drink almost nothing but chilled rosé as it is the perfect summer drink. If you are celebrating something, or even if you’re not, a nice coupe de champagne (glass of champagne) is never wrong in France. Finally, you can order hard liquor, brandy (France has amazing ones, bien sûr), or something like pastis, the licorice flavored liqueur typical of southern France.

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6) What about café food? Food is almost always very good in France, even in cafés. The menu du jour (day’s set menu) allows you to have a nice meal—often a starter, main dish and dessert—for a reasonable price. Another option is to ask the waiter what he prefers on la carte (the paper menu). He’ll be flattered you asked his advice, and often times will go above and beyond to make sure the plate he brings to the table is excellent!

Or you can order quintessential French dishes such as quiche lorraine or un croque monsieur (open faced hot ham and cheese sandwich) or steak tartare served with a green salad. While most cafés won’t win gourmet food awards, you’ll get a good, honest meal and experience a slice of French daily life at the same time.

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7) How to get the check? In French cafés and restaurants, you must always ask for your check, or l’addition. Make eye contact with your waiter and call him over with “Monsieur.” Then you can say, “L’addition, s’il vous plaît.”

8) What about tipping? Tipping in France is often confusing for Americans. French tipping is included in the price of food and drink; menus will say somewhere service compris to indicate this. So leaving another 15 to 20% can come off as an insult—the waiter might think you see him as a charity case. However, I have seen waitstaff in Europe who take advantage of the fact that foreigners are not aware tips are already included and relish or even encourage the additional tip windfall. In French cafés, the right protocol is to pay your check with cash or a credit card and then leave a euro or two extra in cash as a gesture of good will.

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You can also leave a cute note to your waiter. I once took some college girls on a February trip to Paris, and they thought our young waiter at Les Deux Magots was handsome enough to merit a quick thank-you note in English with a nice “Happy Valentine’s Day” in French. We left the café before he came back by our table—I wished I could have seen the look on his face when he read it!

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9) Toilettes: You can use the facilities in a café if you are a paying customer. Note that café restrooms are often in the basement so look for a small stairway going downstairs.

10) Good Paris cafés: Next time you are in Paris, drop by the Left Bank café icons Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore. They’re pricier than some but the people-watching is divine. While there will be tourists, enough French people fill the tables to make these cafés endlessly interesting. A little more off the Left Bank beaten path is La Palette on the Rue de Seine. Very French and what most cafés used to feel like.

If you have a great café anecdote to share, let other French Affaires readers in on your experience by posting it here. We love to hear about any and all French cultural adventures!

 

French Market Moves Saturday, Jul 16 2011 

If you’re like me, spending time in France’s open-air markets is an endless pleasure. The sights, the sounds, the colors, the smells, and the people all come together to create a festive and unique experience for French and non-French alike. Markets in France are a culinary experience as well as a social one–people from all classes and walks of life rub elbows in the common pursuit of good cooking and good meals.

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I often get asked about how to get the most out of various aspects French life, in particular the open-air markets. So today’s posting is a quick primer on the spoken and unspoken rules for participating in French market life.

1) When: Markets operate roughly from 8am to 1pm. Get up and go early for the top offerings. Depending on the town or city, markets run once or two to three times per week all year long. For example, the Boulevard Raspail market on Paris’s Left Bank happens every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, with Sunday featuring the completely organic, or biologique, market.

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2) Seasons: Take advantage of the intensely seasonal offerings in France. Buy strawberries and melons  in summer, figs in late summer and early fall, apples and mushrooms in the fall and winter, lettuces in late winter and spring, you get the idea. And be sure to buy local so that the food products are super fresh. French vendors are great about noting where their food is from.

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“Very flavorful” strawberries from Carpentras in southern France

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3a) Choosing your food: Most vendors will choose food items and bag them for you. Always assume that this is the case and you won’t have any problems when shopping in French markets.

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Note that vendors have spent a considerable amount of time on their beautiful displays so you don’t want to make a lovely mountain of artichokes come tumbling down…

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3b) Part 2 of why vendors consider it their job to choose your food items: After all, this is their métier (career) and they have the expertise to pick perfect peaches or a camembert that will be ready for your lunch tomorrow, if that is what you want. In this interaction, the better the rapport you have with the vendor, the better service (and often better products) you will get. So how to you get a vendor to warm up to you? Compliment him on his products and his know-how—and he’ll give you the world, or almost!

3c) A few vendors will let you choose your own food items—keep your eyes open for a sign such as the one below so you’ll know it’s ok to serve yourself!

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“Bags – please serve yourself. Merci.”

4) Bags and baskets: Vendors will put food items into disposable plastic bags for you to carry away, unless of course, you have your own market basket. Baskets distinguish locals from tourists…so pick up a basket from a basket vendor and blend in with the French. (Click here for a previous article on French market baskets.)

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5) Prices: Market prices on food and the like are usually not negotiable. Sometimes vendors will throw something in for free, however, particularly as they wrap up for the day or occasionally you get a price break for buying multiples of something. Purchases are payable in cash so have some euros on you.

6) Tastings: The French love to offer tastes of their products. You can almost make a meal out of tastings at some markets. If you sample a product a vendor is offering, you are not obligated to buy. Say, “Merci beaucoup” and move on. But usually everything is so good that you’ll end up wanting to buy it anyway.

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A tasting of tapenades and pistou rouge at a Provence market.

7) Ready-made foods: Some vendors sell prepared foods such as this paella vendor in Aix-en-Provence. If you want some paella for lunch, be sure and buy it early as he regularly sells out!

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8) Don’t always buy from the first vendor you see: When visiting markets and vendors for the first time, I like to check out the entire market and then come back to the ones that have the best quality and/or price. If in doubt, note which vendors have the longest lines—the French always know good food and good bargains.

9) Lines:  Speaking of lines, it is necessary to faire la queue (stand in line) to be served. When it’s your turn, you can make sure the vendor knows by saying “C’est à moi” (sayt ah mwa), or “It’s my turn.” When it comes to food markets, the French are pretty good about lining up in an orderly fashion. However, it can be a free for all in other venues such as the French post office, so beware!

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“Thank you for lining up in this direction…”

10) Crowds: Note that weekend markets are the most crowded. This means they are more festive but it can take longer to see what’s on offer and make your purchases.

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11) Key phrases for use in the markets: It’s good to have a few French phrases handy to enable smooth market transactions and relations…and also to know how much to buy since the French use the metric system!

“Bonjour Madame / Monsieur!” (Always greet French vendors with a Bonjour and Ma’am or Sir. This goes a long way towards a good shopping experience.)

“Je voudrais un kilo de pommes, s’il vous plaît” (“I would like about 2 pounds of apples, please.” Since a kilo is about 2.2 pounds, you can ask for a pound of some by saying “un demi kilo,” a half kilo, or “400-500 grammes” which is about a pound.)

“Une tranche de pâté, s.v.p.” (A slice of your paté, please.)

“Encore un peu, s.v.p.” or “un peu moins, s.v.p.” (A little more, please, or a little less, please.)

“C’est combien?” (How much is it?)

“C’est parfait, merci.” (That’s great, thanks.)

“Merci beaucoup, Madame. Au revoir.” (Thank you, Madame. Good-bye. Be sure and close your shopping transaction with a nice thank-you and good-bye–it’s required French etiquette.) 

After you’ve finished shopping, take a rest at a nearby café with the locals. You’ll overhear the latest gossip and can enjoy people-watching as the market winds up for the day. Have a coffee or do as many French do and celebrate market day with a glass of wine or pastis—even in the morning!

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To find great markets wherever you are in France, consult guidebooks for the towns or cities you’ll be visiting. Markets are always noted there. In addition, you can browse the French tourist office websites “Office du tourisme” which will post market days.

For a visual tour of Paris or Provence markets, check out these books (they are a few years old but as interesting as ever with great market resources at the back):

Paris in a Basket: Markets—The Food and the People by Nicole Meyer and Amanda Smith.

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Markets of Provence: A Culinary Tour of Southern France by Dixon and Ruthann Long.

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Sparkling Paris Friday, Jul 1 2011 

The air is crisp and cool. The sky is clear. The tourists are long gone. Transatlantic airfares are super low. And Paris is dressed up in her holiday best.

Christmas-time is a feast for the senses everywhere in France but especially in Paris. The whole city sparkles with dazzling Christmas lights, fabulous window displays, marvelous gifts, endless champagne, to-die-for gourmet seasonal cuisine, and festive happenings. This year’s French Affaires Fall Trip celebrates the best of the Paris holiday season with all of this and more for a truly insider stay in the City of Light.

Our Paris journey begins just after Thanksgiving on Tuesday, November 29, and wraps up Monday, December 5, to get everyone back to their families and friends in plenty of time to enjoy the holidays at home. If you’ve never “done Paris” at this time of year, then treat yourself to a unique cultural experience and a fabulous vacation too!

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“Paris at the Holidays” Itinerary

Join French specialist Dr. Elizabeth New Seitz and other French Affaires patrons for this exclusive holiday excursion to Paris! This festive & unforgettable journey to the French capital will include everything that sparkles in Paris—Christmas lights, holiday markets, gourmet Parisian dining, champagne, art, culture,  jewels, gift shopping, & more. We’ll also get a personal Parisian touch with private events such as our own holiday cooking class with Susan Herrmann of “On Rue Tatin” French Cooking School, Insider tours & events with Paris friends of French Affaires, a Champagne Tasting class, & our special holiday dinner at an exquisite museum in the Marais. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!  A once-in-a-lifetime immersion into the French holiday spirit. Trip cost covers everything except airfare & two meals. For a customized & superlative French travel experience, our trip is limited to 8 participants.

TUESDAY, NOV 29 – Depart U.S. for Paris!

WEDNESDAY, NOV 30 – PARIS HOLIDAY SHOP WINDOWS TOUR, CHAMPAGNE RECEPTION & WELCOME DINNER

We’ll arrive in Paris Wednesday morning where pre-arranged transport will take us to our hotel, the charming & gracious Hôtel Duc de St. Simon on the Left Bank. Then, we’ll lunch at the celebrated tea salon Ladurée on the Left Bank in its lovely chinoiserie-styled dining room. We’ll be sure to taste Ladurée’s famous almond macarons. That afternoon, we’ll take a walking tour of gorgeous French shop windows dressed up for the holidays & also browse the annual Christmas market along the Champs-Elysées. In the evening, we’ll celebrate our arrival with champagne in our hotel’s wine cellar followed by a delicious dinner at an authentic Parisian bistrot.

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Holiday lights & shop windows along Paris’s Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré

THURSDAY, DEC 1 – SPARKLING PARIS—JEWELS, ART, CHRISTMAS LIGHTS

Today in Paris includes everything that sparkles. In the morning, we’ll be treated to private viewings of well-known Place Vendôme jewelers, including a private jewel workshop & jewelry museum. For lunch, we’ll stop at the casually elegant Le Soufflé & try the best savory & sweet soufflés in the universe. Then, we’ll take in a current art exhibition at a prominent Paris museum. That evening, we’ll be treated to a private dinner & guided tour at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in its stunning 17th century mansion in the Marais. Our magical day ends with a car tour of Christmas lights in Paris at night!

FRIDAY, DEC 2 – HOLIDAY COOKING CLASS WITH SUSAN HERRMANN LOOMIS OF ON RUE TATIN COOKING SCHOOL

Celebrated cookbook author & chef Susan Herrmann Loomis of “On Rue Tatin” Cooking School will take us on a special open-air, food market tour where we’ll buy seasonal ingredients for our multi-course holiday lunch. Then we’ll head to a private Paris Left Bank cooking studio where Susan will lead us through a hands-on cooking class of quintessential French dishes that are wonderful to make at Christmastime. Finally we’ll sit down & enjoy our culinary creations paired with French wine. Late afternoon free for shopping or sightseeing. Dinner & night out on your own.

SATURDAY, DEC 3 – GOURMET FOOD SHOPS TOUR & GOURMET HOLIDAY DINNER

This morning, we’ll tour some of the best chocolate, pastry & specialty food shops in Paris with the opportunity to purchase Christmas gifts along the way. We’ll lunch at a casual Parisian café amongst the locals. That afternoon, there will be ample free time to shop for gifts–be sure to bring an extra bag for your shopping treasures! Or you can go ice skating in front of Paris’s town hall in the center of the city! In the evening, we’ll dress up for our gourmet holiday dinner at a celebrated two-Michelin starred gastronomic restaurant & enjoy breathtaking holiday dishes paired with French wines.

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Shop windows & holiday lights at Paris’s grand department store Galeries Lafayette

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Ice skating French-style in front of Paris’s town hall

SUNDAY, DEC 4 – NOTRE DAME CHRISTMAS TREE & PRIVATE CHAMPAGNE CLASS

This morning, you can sleep in & enjoy brunch/lunch on your own or sightsee as you wish. We’ll meet in the early afternoon to visit Notre Dame Cathedral with its spectacular 50-foot Christmas tree & French nativity scene. After a brief stroll of the islands, we’ll head to Paris’s best Champagne bar for a Champagne class & tasting since Champagne is THE French drink for the holidays. That evening we’ll have our final celebration dinner at a charming French restaurant & be treated to a wonderful discussion of French etiquette & holiday table traditions by Marie de Tilly, the renowned French manners expert. Walk back to our hotel along the Seine for beautiful views of Paris at night.

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Annual Christmas tree in front of Notre Dame Cathedral

MONDAY, DEC 5 – Return to the U.S.

For those interested, we will pick up your custom order of Poilâne breads & holiday cookies to take home for wonderful holiday entertaining. Pre-arranged transport to Charles de Gaulle airport for travel back to the U.S.

Poilane’s famous Christmas cookies!

Trip Registration & Cost:   For the “Paris at the Holidays” full description & registration form, please email us at info.french@frenchaffaires.com . The trip cost is $4450 per person double occupancy & includes hotel, most meals, cultural excursions & events, tips, transport in Paris & trip guiding (airfare & one lunch / one dinner not included). Single supplement additional. Please call us with any questions at 214-232-5344 . There are a few spots remaining so make plans to enrich your travel experience AND your 2011 holiday season!

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Happy Holidays!!