On Expectations and Surprises: France Edition

¡Hola Muchachos y Muñecas!

Last week was our second wedding anniversary, and to celebrate the occasion we took our first trip to France, which is actually closer to us than any of the major cities in Germany.  We stopped in Metz, a wine country town along the Moselle River. Metz is only about 30 minutes past the border, but it has a distinctly French feel. I can see why so many become Francophiles, the place has a kind of magic. Here are the differences we noticed:

French Demeanor

If you read our first impressions of Germany, you might remember that the drivers are notably aggressive, such that crossing the street is high risk endeavor. In France, we were pleasantly surprised to find drivers stopped when they saw us walking with our stroller and waved us across the street with a smile.   Germans are not known for their sunny dispositions, even customer service providers rarely smile. They aren’t necessarily rude, just serious. There is a French term that I have grown to love, “Bon Vivant”, which is used to signify a person who does life well – with leisure and luxury. There is a relaxed and joyful energy there that is contagious.

Diego meets his first horse!

Everything I’ve ever heard about French people is that they are snobbish and hate Americans, but that doesn’t match my experience. We took a horse drawn carriage ride around town, and the driver was one of the friendliest people we’ve encountered in Europe. He gave us his own coat to shelter the baby as the evening wind picked up, and offered to take countless pictures of us in front of town landmarks without being asked. The restaurant where we ate dinner also had very friendly service.  They accommodated our baby in an environment better suited for adults, and nonetheless treated him like a guest of honor.

French Food (Duh)

Coming from California, we researched the food in Germany, and were pleasantly surprised to find that it isn’t necessarily as bad as its reputation. There are a handful of award-winning restaurants in our area,  and I’ve had a few memorable restaurant meals. German markets are small, with limited selection, but I have been able to locate most and specialty food item I desire with a little hunting.  However, the bulk of food here is meat, thin German pizzas called “flammkuchen”, pickled veggies, and every imaginable preparation of potatoes. Tuna is the only fish I’ve seen on most menus. Many military wives drive across the border to France just to do their grocery shopping, that’s how much better the markets are there.

Painted in Waterlogue
I have a new obsession with French bistro chairs.  I want my kitchen to feel like a cafe.

In the town of Metz alone, there are 14 Michelin Guide restaurants. 11 of these restaurants have the “Michelin Plate” designation, which represents “good food done simply”. These are farm-to-table restaurants where the food isn’t fussy, but it is impeccably prepared. We went to dinner at a place that does a French spin on Middle Eastern flavors, and it was definitely worthy of an anniversary celebration.

Perhaps the best thing about the restaurant was the wine selection. France is known for its spectacular wines, and many of the varietals are the same as those we grew to love in California, where bold reds reign supreme. I had a Syrah that easily rivaled the award-winning offerings back home in Sonoma County. In Germany, wines are predominantly sweet and white, which is the exact opposite of my palette, though I’m learning to expand my taste out of necessity. The reds, when you can find them are thin-bodied and lacking in complexity, with limited exceptions.

French Style

I had an image in my head of French style, and it involved stripes, berets, and neck scarves. I didn’t see any of those things. But I still noticed a distinct difference between the style in Germany and the style in France. My initial summation of French fashion was that the men look dirtier and the women look more chic. Germans are obsessively neat and clean. In France, no one looks like they own a comb, and yet their hair is disheveled in the most perfect way – more sexy bedhead than crazy rats nest.

Neutral Fashions while shopping in the German border town of Saarbrucken

Both countries tend toward muted and neutral colors, but the silhouettes are different. In Germany, there is a lot of loose draped clothing reminiscent of a hippie grandmother. I have a terrible habit of dressing like a hippie grandmother, so this doesn’t actually bother me, but I’ve heard complaints about the shopping options from other military spouses. Whereas stores in the states seem to target their offerings toward millennials, German target either the middle-aged crowd, or club kids, and have little to meet the needs of younger adults. French clothing is more tailored and more timeless, even when it’s casual. There’s also a vaguely rock-and-roll vibe to it. I must have grabbed Shawn’s arm a dozen times as we walked, just to point out a woman’s outfit and squeal “I want to start dressing like that!”

Side Note:  Because he’d seen how much I wanted to upgrade my usual mommy uniform of leggings, flip-flops, and polar fleece, My amazing husband snuck into a boutique and surprised me with some gorgeous black leather platform sandals and a blush-colored coat from our new favorite European brand, Maison Scotch.  I think I’m going to keep him.

French Architecture

Painted in Waterlogue
Houses in the German Wine Country town of Bacharach

The most prominent home style in Germany is “Fachwerkbau”, or half-timber houses, in which plaster covered boards fill the space between exposed wooden beams. You will find these in most every town in Germany, with ancient ruins, Romanesque churches, and gothic cathedrals sprinkled between. Metz has both a Romanesque church and a gothic cathedral, but the other landmarks are largely done in the neoclassical style. While half-timber houses are customarily white and brown, the most popular home colors in Metz are pastels, particularly the color yellow. I commented to Shawn that the whole town had a mustard cast, like it was viewed through a warm Instagram filter.

The gothic cathedral in Metz.

One missing architectural element is something that one who has not been to Germany might not be aware exist. In Germany, due to the early-rising and late-setting sun, all windows have what looks like a small metal roll up garage door outside of them. Called rolladens, these contraptions provide relief from the unrelenting light. Though Metz is far enough north in France as to have similar light conditions, they address it with brightly colored shutters, which I find to be a much more attractive solution.

French People

In Germany, we live in a village of only 700 people, surrounded by farms.  Though Metz is a quaint little city, its population is markedly metropolitan.  Shawn commented throughout the evening that he was happy to see so many black people. We have black Americans in Germany, but I’ve only encountered one black German. I also spotted many women in hijab. The diversity was a pleasant change for us as an interracial couple.

However, there is also a negative side to city life. The first person I spotted in Metz was a homeless woman. The sight of her made me realize that I had not seen a single homeless person in the 2 months that we have occupied Germany. Sadly, I saw dozens during my first night in France.

My overall first impression of France was overwhelmingly positive. I can’t wait to return, and to build a wardrobe full of appropriately fashionable clothing. Y’all aren’t ready for how hard I’m gonna style on you!

Hashtag Swag.

Have you been to France?  What part?  What were your first impressions?  Message me or post in the comments!  I look forward to hearing your stories, and thank you for taking the time to read mine.

Besos, Abrazos, and California Love,

Rachel “Reji” Gregoire


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