I (Melissa) realized on this trip that it has been a whopping 22 years since I first visited France, on the first of my two solo backpacking trips around Europe. From a traveler’s perspective, a lot has changed in France since then. As in most places, those changes are more evident in cities than in rural areas.
Food in France is much more diverse than it was two decades ago. There are many more non-French restaurants and ingredients available, from Asian to Mexican to the ubiquitous hamburger. Burgers, once thought far too American by the French, were served on an amazing 85 percent of French restaurant menus in 2018, according to Forbes magazine, often outselling more traditional dishes.
Also, as my host in Annecy said, “the French have finally jumped on the healthier food trend.” Combine that with the newfound interest in international cuisines and you find many restaurants that now serve couscous salads, wok stir fries, “poke bowls” (rice bowls with vegetables and meat, though generally not Hawaiian raw fish), “French tacos” (flattened, grilled burritos filled with meat, potatoes, and cheese sauce), and even vegan dishes. It’s a far cry from the early 2000s, when I was hard pressed to find food even from a different region of France! Even the famous French bakeries have gotten into the act: Many now sell multigrain bread in addition to the traditional baguettes and pastries.
Chris and I have noticed a lot less wine being drunk in restaurants, especially at lunch. Twenty years ago, it was on every table. Now many people just drink tap or mineral water or soft drinks. Tap water at restaurants used to be available only on request and was considered an odd, cheap, American quirk. Now it is required to be free and easily available. We saw carafes of water on tables more often than not.
At the same time, fast-food and carry-out places have proliferated. In the university town of Grenoble, I swear there were kebab and take-out Asian places on every block. At lunchtime in good weather, it’s not unusual to see people eating carry-out salads or rice bowls while sitting on benches—or (quelle horreur!) while walking down the sidewalk. That just wasn’t done by the French even a few years ago. Meals were (and generally still are) considered something to sit down and savor, and people definitely frowned on foreigners who thought grabbing a quick bite on the move was a good idea.
Along with portable food, the idea of eating between meals has really caught on, and many cafes now advertise “snacks” and “snacking.” Both of those activities seem to be mainly popular among young people.
When I first started traveling to Europe, I saw so much advice telling me not to wear sneakers, especially white ones. They were considered the ultimate sign of an American tourist. These day, sneakers (especially white ones) are all the rage. If people are under 60 and not at work, they are likely to be wearing athletic shoes.
Never fear, though, scarfs and berets are still around. And the urban French still tend to be very stylish. Moreover, as in Italy, it’s always striking how much more put together and polished Frenchmen look than men in the United States.
Despite the best efforts of the French Academy to keep it out, English is everywhere. It’s common on signs and in advertisements, and there are lots of English loan words (like “snacking,” “happy hour,” and “shopping”). Most people aren’t fluent, but at least in cities, many people speak a little English.
Chris, who learned French at school in the 1970s and 1980s, has found some big shifts in spoken French in recent years. For example, people traditionally expressed a negative action in French by putting ne and pas around the verb: Je ne sais pas (“I don’t know”). In informal conversation, the ne has pretty much disappeared and just the pas remains (Je sais pas), which means that beginning French speakers have to listen extra carefully to understand what’s being said. That’s even harder now that pronouns like je and tu are frequently squished into the word after them, becoming half a syllable, or are dropped entirely (il y a, which means “there are,” is now frequently said as y a).
Also, it’s becoming very old-fashioned to invert the subject and verb when asking a question, as many people were taught in school. Now, you just keep the same word order as in a statement but raise your tone at the end at make it sound like a question.
The French still smoke. A lot. But complete bans on indoor smoking (starting in 2008) mean that Chris and I can now sit inside cafes and restaurants without choking on smoke. Yay! Outdoor seats are still the preserve of smokers, though, so we rarely linger on restaurant patios.
My first trips were before the introduction of the euro, and you definitely couldn’t use credit cards in most places. Now, the vast majority of shops prefer cashless transactions. In restaurants, waiters bring a small card reader to your table, and if the transaction takes longer than just tapping your card on top, they sometimes look impatient.
The traditional kiss on each cheek when meeting someone seems to have been wiped out by Covid! I don’t think I saw it done once during our visits last year or this year. Now French people greet each other with a handshake, a fist or elbow bump, or a smile and a nod. I’ve read that during Covid restrictions, many women were very relieved not to be in such close contact with all of their male coworkers and bosses multiple times a day and hoped the kissing tradition wouldn’t come back. It seems they got their wish!
The French are famous for frequent union strikes, by everyone from transit workers to museum staff to public officials. That definitely hasn’t changed. What has changed is that strikes are often announced a few days in advance so people can prepare and avoid problems. It’s a relief to know that I won’t get to the train station and find that the trains simply aren’t running that day!
Another welcome change (at least for customers) is that shops in France are now allowed to be open on Sundays and holidays. In urban areas, quite a few of them are, though you sometimes still have to time your shopping to avoid the midday lunch closure.