This post originally appeared on Meuse-Argonne.com.
The Webmaster and his wife just returned from a week in Normandy where a local organization, Association Soldat Mickael Burik, organized a commemoration for American soldiers killed near Mortain, France during WW2. His wife’s uncle was a fighter pilot shot down on 9 August 1944. Over the last two years, the Association identified more than 5,000 soldiers killed in a 20km (12 mile) radius. It researched 1,500 fallen soldiers, finding 1,800 related family members and sending 800 emails. It received dozens of responses, BUT IN THE END ONLY TWO AMERICAN FAMILIES PARTICIPATED IN THE COMMEMORATION. The Webmaster understands there are a lot of reasons to say no: age, health, income, lack of vacation time, etc. Yet he wonders how many families said no because of fear of traveling abroad, inability to step out of their comfort zone, or fear that this “commemoration” by some small French association was an internet scam. A big part of this website is dedicated to giving readers the confidence, information and tools necessary to visit the American battlefields in France and Europe.
So where does one find information? On this website, one should look at the “Travel Tips” and “Links” pages as well as the “La Vie en France” and “Travel Tips” categories in the “blog” section. One should also look at other travel websites and programs, such as Rick Steve’s productions. He has a lot of practical tips for Americans travelling overseas.
The Webmaster also operates a Meuse-Argonne.com Facebook Group, which has more than 1,600 members; many of whom have visited the battlefields multiple times. Readers should join the group and ask their questions in the group. Alternatively, readers can contact a few of the more experienced group members privately.
Cultural differences abound, but with some planning, research and investigation these differences can be overcome. As a starting point, the Webmaster asked Facebook group members who had visited France only once or twice to give the biggest positive and negative differences that they remember. Their comments are summarized below:
Warmth / Patience / Helpfulness of the locals. Even if one cannot communicate well, the French are generally very helpful and kind to strangers; especially if one makes some effort to communicate in French. Most are thankful for the sacrifices made to liberate France during two world wars.
Food Quality. European food is generally much higher quality, less processed, and quite delicious. Bread, wine and cheese are especially wonderful, as are French deserts.
Slower Pace of Life. Things move at a slower pace in the country, making it much more relaxing than the U.S. suburbs.
Rural France is Beautiful. So many participants in the Webmaster’s “People of the Meuse-Argonne” blog posts remark on the natural beauty of rural France.
Highway Driving. Highway driving is generally a pleasure in France: Highways are much smoother than in the U.S., cars are geared for higher speeds, lane discipline (keep right except to pass) is expected and enforced, and drivers are generally courteous. (Of course, readers should have a quick look at European road sign websites before driving in France.)
Services are Limited in Rural France. Know where the gas stations, restaurants, hotels, B&Bs and supermarkets are situated before traveling. In rural France, there can be quite a distance between services. Good advice is to top-off the fuel anytime one is in Verdun or Varennes. Likewise, one should keep some beverages and snacks in the car.
Lunchtime Shut Down. Almost everything that is not a restaurant closes from 12h00 to 14h00 in France, and there is nothing readers can do about it.
Sundays are Ghost Towns. Almost everything is closed on Sundays. However, in many cases, a nearby supermarket or boulangerie will be open for a few hours Sunday morning.
Monday Closings. A lot of museums, shops and restaurants are also closed on Monday. Readers should research the hours of operations when planning their itinerary.
Holiday Closings. France has more public holidays than the USA, and many things are closed on those days too. However, one can often find a grocery store and a boulangerie / patisserie that is open for a few hours in the morning. On the Normandy trip, the Webmaster travelled two towns over to find a shop that was open on a Monday bank holiday.
Petrol Stations. Readers have had difficulty using their credit cards at some petrol stations; even if the card has a chip and the PIN number is known. The Webmaster has occasionally had to wait for locals to drive up so he could ask them if they would accept cash and let him use their card.
Meals are Long. One can expect to spend 60-90 minutes at lunch and two hours at dinner. That can eat into sight-seeing time. The Webmaster generally eats lunch in the field to save time.
Data Accessibility in the Country can be Difficult. One should always have hard-copy backups of maps and finding guides, as data accessibility can be difficult.
Space is Defined Differently—in Several Ways. Cars are generally smaller, so Americans need to learn to pack lighter and use smaller suitcases. Hotel rooms are also smaller than in the U.S.—especially budget hotel rooms. This means that hotel bathrooms are also smaller. Finally, personal space in Europe is less than in the U.S., so Europeans might stand a little closer than their American counterparts are used to.
Showers are Tight. Showers are generally smaller than in the U.S., and one doesn’t often find the typical glass-enclosed shower stall.
Local Drivers can Drive Crazily. 80 or 90kmh (50 – 55mph) is the speed limit outside of towns, but many locals drive 20km (12 mph) over that on very narrow backroads that they know by heart. The best thing one can do if an aggressive driver approaches is pull over as soon as possible and let the driver pass.
So, is the glass half empty or half full? In the words of French philosopher Anaïs Nin: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Start planning your visit today!
P.S. The above comments are not that dissimilar from comments the Webmaster made in two blog posts: La Vie en France #28: What works in France and La Vie en France #29: What does not work in France.