The Notebook Aisle (or, Back to school in France) Tuesday, Aug 30 2011 

The French do a lot of things well. A few things that immediately come to mind are art, architecture, literature, fashion, the Paris Métro, technology (yes, technology), wine, and of course, food and cuisine. I would also throw in the French art de vivre, in other words, their style of living. In general, they work to live rather than live to work, and they take time for life in the midst of life.

By the same token, there are some things the French don’t do so well. Examples include habitual cutting in line, the notorious less-than-friendly Parisian (thankfully a disappearing breed!), innovation-numbing bureaucracy, terrible hair highlights, and politicians living like monarchs.

But back to French genius. There is an even more mundane item I would add to the French ‘do well’ list: school supplies. You can see the French talent for organization in all its glory during la rentrée (back to school time) in the fall. The same gene that endowed the French with a spectacular eye for symmetry and order in architecture shows up in the tools students use to étudier (study) and apprendre (learn). Enter any papeterie (stationery store) or the school supplies rayon (department or aisle) in Monoprix (the French equivalent of Target) or department store Galeries Lafayette and you will experience un régal (a fabulous treat) of the organizing kind.

Cahiers (notebooks), agendas (calendars), blocs-notes (notepads), chemises (folders), and classeurs (binders) of every size and shape line the shelves. Many notebooks and pads take on a mathematical air as the French prefer graph paper to lined paper. As I wander theFrench notebook aisles, I am on the verge of dreaming up projects to organize just so I have a reason to stock up on the French paper goodies.

And then I spy the signature sturdy orange covers of the Rhodia brand of pads. The high-quality paper goods have been a French icon for more than 75 years. In fact, Rhodia’s motto is “Orange & black since 1934″. And true to France’s mania for ‘designer collections’ in all things–clothes, shoes, pastries, chocolates, macarons–Rhodia offers its collection of fabulous paper products and more.

Every time I am in France, I stock up on the simple yet oh-so-useful Rhodia pads. I like the small ones that fit in the palm of my hand for grocery and to-do lists. The medium-sized ones are handy to keep in my purse for meeting notes or the spur-of-the-moment brainstorming ideas. And I adore the large ones (close to our 8 ½” by 11″ size) for major projects. Did I mention they are made of graph paper?

I made a major find in the Rhodia section of Galeries Lafayette in Nice in 2008. Not only did they have a smorgasbord of pads, they also carried bound notebooks with elastic closures. And they even came in black. My favorite travel journals are of medium size to fit in my purse, black so they look new despite the wear and tear of travel, and thick enough to handle my musings on the highlights and lowlights of multiple days on the road. But at 14 euros apiece (nearly $25 each), only two of the fantastic Rhodia black journals went home with me on that shopping excursion. 

Next time you are in France, be sure to pick up some Rhodia products–the selection there is quite extensive. But note that French people love Rhodia too so there’s often a run on the classic ‘orange et noir’ around back-to-school time in September.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

Fortunately for Americans, Rhodia now distributes its products in a variety of stores across the U.S. You can visit the web site for a list of retailers who carry Rhodia paper items. Click here to visit the official Rhodia U.S. web site.

Rhodia

Main article originally published October 15, 2008 at www.frenchaffaires.com.

Package Makes Perfect in France Wednesday, Aug 24 2011 

Shopping in France has its obvious pleasures. Creative window displays are a perpetual source of eye candy. Beautiful goods tempt in small boutiques and in les grands magasins (department stores). And when a French shopkeeper learns you truly appreciate his wares, he will bend over backwards to be helpful and informative whether or not you purchase a thing.

But there is an additional aspect to shopping in la belle France that is often overlooked–the gift wrap. The French can work a special magic with wonderful papers, ribbons, boxes and bags. I am so enamored of this part of life in France that I often request un paquet cadeau (a gift wrap) for my own purchases just for the pure bliss of opening the packaged “works of art” later.

Pastry shop compressed

Chocolate shop compressed

Les pâtisseries et les chocolateries (pastry and chocolate shops) in particular devote considerable artistic talent to their gift wrap offerings and even to their regular packaging. One of my favorites is Ladurée, the legendary pastry shop that has been in business since 1862. Their ribbons and boxes are a sort of ‘pastel heaven’ of sherbet-esque pinks and greens. After polishing off a small coffret of their famous macarons (almond macaroons) or a ballotin of chocolats, I use the delightful boxes to sort things on my desk or in drawers, making the packaging pleasure last that much longer.

How does the French gift wrap process work? In my experience, gift wrapping in France is always free for both expensive and inexpensive items. And even if there is a line of ten customers in a shop, the salesperson will not consider your sale complete until all your gifts are wrapped. But here’s the catch: You do have to ask for it–the salesperson cannot read your mind.

There are two common ways to ask for a gift wrap. You can say: “C’est pour offrir” (say poohr oh-freer) meaning ‘It’s to give as a gift.’

Or you can say in the super-polite French way: “Pourriez-vous me faire un paquet cadeau, s’il vous plaît?” (pooh-ree-ay voo meh fair uhn pah-kay kah-doh, see voo play?) which translates as ‘Would you gift wrap this for me please?’

If remembering this much French poses a challenge, you could communicate your desire for a French gift package simply by saying “paquet cadeau” (pah-kay kah-doh).

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but in France, I would say you can do pretty well with exteriors of the gift package kind. So keep the gift vocab handy, and try it next time you’re there. Bon shopping et bon gifting! 

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter™

Ladurée has a great web site where you can check out virtually their shops, pastries, chocolates, books, home and beauty accessories, and more. There is even a page dedicated for ordering gifts and gift cards, which are known as “les bons cadeaux.”

Laduree web site 2011

You can also send a Ladurée-inspired postcard to your Francophile friends. Click here for an array of choices.

So far, Ladurée has shops in France, Switzerland, Monaco, London, Japan and several other countries. And the bonnes nouvelles for the U.S. is that a Ladurée boutique is opening THIS MONTH in New York City. Mark your calendar for August 27 at 1pm when the French macaron headquarters opens its first American doors at 864 Madison Avenue.

Main article originally published September 2, 2009 on www.frenchaffaires.com.

Laduree entrance site 2011

Tips on French Tipping Wednesday, Aug 10 2011 

I am motivated to write this week’s post for a couple of reasons. First, this week’s New York Times Magazine ran a short article on “Where to Get the World’s Best Service” which recapped the results of an informal survey on tipping practices related to quality of service. It turns out that veteran international travelers ranked service very highly in countries where tipping is not customary such as Japan and Thailand and also in countries where substantial tips are the norm such as in the U.S. and Canada.

Unsurprisingly, countries that fall in between on the tipping spectrum such as France, Italy and Spain, rated fairly low on service satisfaction. (For what it’s worth, Russia came in dead last on service.) I think confusion on French tipping customs likely contributes to this dissatisfaction in France, as do lingering stereotypes–and some real examples–of rude French waiters, but that’s another story.

In addition, it is prime travel season at the moment, and I have received a lot of good questions recently on how and when to tip in France. So, here are some suggestions for handling tips in a variety of situations on your next French trip:

Meals: In French cafés and restaurants, a 15% tip is already included by law. Menus will indicate this by saying “Service compris” somewhere on them. As such, you are not required to leave anything more. However, you can leave a little extra change as a gesture of good will for good service, particularly for a waiter who has gone out of his way to make your meal memorable.

PA120891

So how much is a “little extra”? For a cup of coffee at a café for 3.5 euros, then you can leave 20 to 30 centimes on the table. For a 75 euro restaurant meal, I would leave 3 to 4 euros for the waiter. The rule of thumb is to leave between 5 and 10% in cash (there’s not usually a place on the credit card receipt for tips) if service has been good. For bad service, one doesn’t need to leave anything at all—period.

And then you might get a waiter to tries to get another 15 to 20% tip out of you. Not long ago, I took a group to a well-known Paris restaurant for lunch and as I paid the bill, the waiter tried to indicate that tips weren’t included  in the addition (bill). I challenged him on this—in French—and he backed down somewhat. Of course, we did not leave anything extra since his behavior was in such bad taste. When I later told this story to some French friends, they were appalled and agreed this was pas normal (not normal). So it definitely helps to know the tipping rules in France!

Taxis: No need to overtip on taxi rides in France. An extra 1 to 2 euros on your fare whether large or small is fine. If you are going to or from the airport, tipping 5% or so is a good gesture. If you have luggage, be sure to tip an additional euro per suitcase.

Hotel Porters: If your hotel has porters to carry your luggage to your room, 1 euro per bag is customary. If you have especially large or bulky luggage, then 2 euros per bulky bag would be well received. For bringing a lovely tray with your morning petit déjeuner (breakfast) to your room, then 1 to 2 euros is nice, especially if they remember to bring along your prefrred morning newspaper as well.

Hotel Housekeeping: You can leave 1 to 2 euros per day for your housekeeper. I tend to leave the amount appropriate for my length of stay with the front desk and let them distribute it to right personnel. You never know if you leave 20 euros on the last day of your stay whether the housekeeper that day has taken care of your room during your entire visit or not.

Hotel Concierge: For a couple of basic restaurant reservations, your hotel concierge should help you without expecting anything in return. However, if your concierge has obtained hard-to-get restaurant reservations, opera tickets, or the like, then a tip of 10 to 20 euros depending on the effort would be appropriate. I have a friend who stays in high end hotels in Paris and gives the concierge 100 euros on the first day of his stay. Accordingly, the concierge helps take care of whatever my friend needs during his week in Paris!

Coat Check: You can tip 1 euro per coat in upscale restaurants that have a person dedicated to checking coats. In more casual establishments where the waiter or owner hangs up your coat, no need to give out a separate tip.

Tour Guides: If you go on a public walking tour in Paris, you can tip your guide 1 to 2 euros for a job well done. For private guided tours, my recommendation is to tip up to 5% on top of the tour fee as I find that private tour prices are already pretty well padded before tips.

While tipping protocols are always subjective, the basic guidelines above should give you a good feel for how tips happen in France for both natives and visitors alike. And it helps to remember that you will come across all types on your French travels so be sure to evaluate each situation on its own. Bon voyage!