1) The Language Barrier
This is a lot less of an obstacle than you would imagine. The sign, ‘Autres Directions’ is not a bad French translation of English, that is French. Do you understand?
When you have to speak, entire conversations can be elaborated with hand gestures.
For example: Walked into a country shop hungry for some food. I explained right away, “Je ne parle pas français”. Instead I pointed to the things I want. The clerk was more than happy to suggest food options (he’s getting paid after all!) and he even knew the words “cheese, bread and food, eat!” That’s enough for a conversation! I left with cheese and bread, and he left with money. Bingo!
Of course, not speaking the language can get you into trouble sometimes. I.E., when our hitchhike ride dropped us off in the middle of nowhere because we kept nodding our heads and saying, “oui, oui” to everything. Didn’t someone warn us not to wee wee?
Travel Advice, i.e., some solutions to overcoming the language barrier
Learn how to say, “do you speak English?” After that, you’ll be forgiven for wild hand gestures and poorly drawn diagrams. Look like you’re trying really hard. Laugh a lot. If you’re going to be using public transportation, learn how to say, “to where does this go?” or “I want to go to…” The best thing you can do is bring a pen and notebook and write down the name of the town you’re traveling to. Nobody in France pronounces “Rouen” exactly the same, and nobody will understand your pronunciation of it anyway.
Contrary to what we’ve been told, French people are more than happy to meet you half way if you don’t speak the language. Many of them know enough English to say a few words. No Frenchman ever looked angry if we couldn’t speak to him in French, only slightly ashamed they couldn’t speak English. Those who knew some English were happy to give it a try.
2) Getting Around the Country
Trains are prohibitively expensive in France. Think 30€/person for about 50 km. Long distance busses are few and far between. Cheaper regional busses exist, but finding them can be a bit tricky as they aren’t advertised well online, and when they are, the website is in French. Duh. Don’t bother asking people, because most of them don’t know whether or not a bus exists, and they especially won’t know what time the bus runs. Don’t ask the train station because they will conveniently tell you there’s no bus. The tourist information beaureu always directs you to the most expensive transportation – train. In other words, it’s freaking hard to find out where and when busses run.
Travel Advice, i.e., some solutions to getting around cheaply
If you’re not on a time schedule, hitchhiking is the best option. Although they may not always be driving long distances, French people will pick you up.
If you’re in a hurry…
trains are very comfy
…and want travel via train:
There’s the Ter line, local trains that make smaller hops and local stops, and cost significantly less than the long distance trains. Ter lines run on the same SNCF tracks and you can purchase the tickets in the train station. How do you know if you’re on a Ter line? Go look through the station. If there’s a Ter ticket dispenser in the railway station, odds are you can find a cheaper ticket. Sometimes you just get lucky and discover your ticket was way cheaper than you thought. Then you can spend your savings on 2€ vending machine biscuits.
No Ter line? Be under 25, or travel with a chip and pin credit card so you can buy under 25 tickets from the automated ticket machines. If you’re under 25, you get a 10 or 15% discount. Once the counter lady gave me the discount just by asking my age. Another time, a different counter lady didn’t give it to me when I asked for a discount for being 24. I’m not sure, then, how one gets this discount every time, but if you pay via automated machine you can give yourself the discount (only if you have a chip and pin card, though, automated machines don’t take cash!) If you like to plan in advance, check online and some people “resell” tickets they don’t use. Of course, you have to have a mailing address for this and plan far in advance…
Also, train tickets are much cheaper when purchased months in advance. But who plans that far on a busking tour?
…and want to travel via bus they do exist. Especially in the South, there are regional bus lines that will get you a decent distance for a fraction of the price that the train will cost. For example, there’s the Les Mouettes bus line that runs from La Rochelle to Saintes. There’s also a bus line that runs from La Roche sur Yon to La Rochelle. The logo is red and white. I’ve seen it on the side of the road – although I can’t find it on the internet anywhere.
These bus stations are usually located outside the train station, off to the side, around the corner from the main train station, and tucked away into a nook. But they exist and a thorough glance around the train station can save you some serious dough!
On the very, very positive side, every French town has a good network of local busses. A one-way pass ranges from 1€-1.50€. Now that’s a great deal!
3) The Weather
Despite all our research, we somehow missed the fact that Normandy, the Northern Coast of France, rains all the time. This seems to be popular knowledge amongst the French and they have parody cards and cartoons to illustrate this. Normandy rains more than England. And it’s pretty fucking cold. Now that we’ve escaped it, it’s easy to look back and laugh, however the Battle of Rouen happened, and the blow to morale has yet to fully recover.
The general rule is, expect it to rain along the Western coast of France. A lot. Even the tourist destinations: Dieppe, Nantes, Bordeaux were all plagued by rain.
Travel Advice, i.e. some solutions to the weather
Bring an umbrella. Or a raincoat. And if you have packs, bring pack covers. Or trash bags. Expect to get wet. Smile about it.
mobile office in the mackies
4) Finding the Internet/Charging Equipment
Ironically, France doesn’t really have coffee shops. It has bar/coffee shops/tobacco vendors/convenience stores where you can buy coffee. It has outdoor cafes where you can drink coffee. But the hang-out-all-day-with-your-gear-plugged-in shops are lacking.
Travel Advice, i.e. where to plug in three devices while surfing the internet for 3 hours
France does have McDonalds with wifi. And their McDonalds are pretty classy. Instead of being the most upscale citizen in the dining room, you’ll be the vagabond. But that’s okay, they still won’t kick you out. And they’ll have outlets. And you can buy one shot of expresso and hang out all day. They can be a little hard to find in the smaller cities, so stick to bigger cities! The big cities all have McDonalds in the center, and it’s a good landmark because it’s one place the French can give you perfect directions to! FYI, the French call it “McDo’s.”
a cute picture of cows that’s unrelated to coffee
5) The size of coffee
Omg, we thought UK coffee was small? Well, that was luxury! French coffee is usually a shot of expresso, for 1.50€, or you can spend 3€ to get a latte. We never found drip coffee, it just doesn’t exist! No Starbucks either. A sad, sad reality for American travelers.
Travel Advice for those who need their fucking coffee! in the morning
Buy instant coffee. Buy a mug. Fill mug with instant coffee. If you don’t want to buy a mug, use old water bottle. Fill mug with water. Put in sun for a few hours. No sun for the 5th day in a row? Just drink it cold dammit, it’s caffeine!
magical self-cleaning toilets of Bayonne
6) Public Restrooms
They exist. Often you have to pay for them. The train stations always have bathrooms. Usually you pay .30€ to use them. Okay, that’s allowable. A few towns have public bathrooms on the street. You pay .30€ to use them. McDonalds always requires a passcode, so you’ll pay the price of coffee to use those. Only Bayonne had the magical, self-cleaning, french-speaking, FREE public toilets. A very good reason to visit Bayonne.
the horror of a closed market
7) Buying food on Sundays
Some supermarkets are open until 1 pm. Many are closed. Especially if they’re in the outskirts of town, or in the city center, the supermarkets will be closed. Even if it’s a large brand name.
Advice for travelers who don’t want to eat at restaurants on Sundays
Buy your food in advance. Don’t expect any supermarket to be open on Sundays. Eat doner kebab instead. It’s cheap.