Five things I’ve learned, as a twenty-something UK citizen embracing French culture

From major Netflix shows to endless Instagrammers revealing what it’s like to live in Paris, French culture has always been of fascination to many.

In fact, there is a Disney exhibition that cites the French decorative arts of the Rococo period as inspiring Beauty and the Beast. Walt Disney himself made many trips to continental Europe in order to find creative inspiration, gazing at decorative items and furnishings from the 1730s period in museums. Writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Françoise Sagan, certainly weren’t averse to the Southern sun. The Impressionist movement, led by Monet, Cézanne and Renoir, saw artists flock to Provence in order to build houses that let in just the right amount of sunlight.

liberte egalite fraternite

It’s clear our love, fascination and companionship with our neighbours across the channel has been extra since the beginning of times.

1. It’s better to work to live than live to work

Although the portrayals of French culture in Emily in Paris and the like are contentious, and even unhelpfully reinforce Parisian stereotypes, the romance of the French way of living has probably not been exaggerated.

The more relaxed way of being is a lifestyle that many travellers dream of, and even save up for, nearing retirement. But perhaps for the generation who find it impossible to buy a home (no matter how many caramel lattes we eschew), international travel at an earlier age has been turned towards recently.

Sustainable travel, if that is ever achievable, is a phrase on most people’s lips, especially if they’re a certain age, and have lived through the past few years. Most twenty and thirty-somethings (and the rest) realise that it’s far more fulfilling to spend money on experiences than things. As a lover of French culture, stemming back to when I was taken to La Rochelle by a best friend, I was applying for all kinds of work for months, hoping to relocate to France.

Then the pandemic hit, and I wasn’t able to experience these one-and-a-half-hour lunch breaks with an office full of people, who shut the door firmly at lunchtime in order to eat croissants in the sunshine. So, when the international restrictions were lifted, and I had the opportunity to work for a French travel agency, I was thrilled. The role I achieved did not involve international travel or relocation - it was freelance copy work. However, I did get the sense from the company that people were really valued for their input, and that their input was somewhat cushioned by an emphasis on breaks.

The working day, just like the act of sitting on a balcony with bread, was meant to be enjoyed.

2. Conversations don’t have to have a purpose other than to enjoy them

Although the French citizens are infamous for their philosophical debates (Simone de Beauvoir and Héléne Cixous in particular), the roundabout style of conversation has been well-loved by the book How the French Think.

Many scholars of the language and culture adore the way that conversations don’t have to have a "point". They’re just there to be enjoyed for the fun of it. Questions don’t have to necessarily have answers to them. Indeed, it’s even better if they don’t, because it’s proof that much nuance has gone into the conversation, and allowed for Jacques Derrida’s middle ground between binary oppositions.

3. There’s not much better than sitting down in a café with bread and a hot drink

French food - baguettes

Glennon Doyle says words to this effect in her book on authenticity, Untamed, which is about a gay woman who comes out later in life and visits Paris.

After travelling through Europe recently, I realised that life’s simple pleasures really do lie in the first taste of coffee of the day, and grabbing a cheap but lovingly made piece of bread with a view of the continent.

There are sleepier cities than Paris to explore, with just as much history, like Carcassonne in the South (where Kate Mosse’s novels are set) and Bordeaux (the land of ancient vineyards).

Out of all the communities I have interviewed on their French lifestyle, the British expats and immigrants have cited the food and wine as being one of the major draws to the country.

4. Gender-non-conforming and queer Parisians have existed FOREVER

From the scholarly books available such as Mathew Rickard’s Against the Grain, which discusses dandies and gender-fluid individuals, to Jeffrey H. Jackson’s wartime Paper Bullets, the LGBTQIA+ community have been ever-present in the city of Paris.

French books

Its liberating ideals and creative views attracted the likes of James Baldwin in the 1950s. As a gay writer of the Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin sought refuge in Paris during the aftermath of the Second World War, after his deep disappointment and unease surrounding American violence. Because of the racism present in his own home country, he fled to the South of France and Paris for much of his years as a writer, where he spent a lot of time writing about his old home from a critical distance. One of his best works, Giovanni’s Room, which is about homosexual desire, is set in the nightmarish, yet liberal, city of Paris.

5. There is a slow pace of life in the South that is unlike anywhere else I’ve seen

The French friends I have met from Coté d’Azur have filled me with tales about shops closing for lunchtime for hours. One person I dated spoke of two-hour dinners late at night filled with wine, endless conversation, and gatherings around wooden tables in the gardens. Rose archways, fairy lights, and lovingly placed decor twinkling in the twilight.

It’s all so relaxing, and one thing I was so surprised about is that the French don’t quite see the home as "the castle" that British people do. Because of this, their property prices (especially in the rural areas) tend to be much cheaper, and first-time buyers can easily achieve the dream of settling down for a third of the price of an English home.

Nice France seaside shore

I am going to visit Nice in a few weeks, and everything about its history appeals - from the artists who flocked to the South in order to create paintings in the ideal sunlight, to the 1920s writers and bohemians who preferred the sun-soaked way of being.

Have you visited France before? If so, tell us your favourite thing about French culture in the comments!