The Le Mans 24 hours may seem like a home from home to Brits but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a different country and that the race is organised and run by the French. To some this is a major irritation, but it all adds to the holiday flavour and a few tips about how to get along with the local populace never go amiss.
Remember, contrary to some beliefs, the French are by their very nature, an incredibly polite nation (outside Paris, that is). It is, for instance, considered incredibly rude not to say “hello” when you enter a French shop, go up to a bar, arrive at the circuit ticket barrier, pay your Autoroute toll at the booth or even to the concièrges outside the loos! This is probably the root of so many misconceptions which some Brits hold about their counterparts across the channel. If you don’t say hello, they think you are the rude one and will respond appropriately. Those in the service industry consider themselves to be in an important business and do not take well to being ignored or treated like imbeciles.
So, a few basic rules when you meet a French person for the first time: Smile, say “bonjour” (this can be changed to “bon après-midi” after lunch or “bonsoir” in the evenings) and look them in the eye when you talk to them, and if you don’t speak French, say so (Pardon, je ne parle pas français) don’t just speak English and hope that they do. And don’t forget to say goodbye when you leave. It’s also customary to greet fellow shoppers/drinkers when you enter and leave, with a quick “bonjour/ au revoir messieurs, dames” (depending on their sex!)
You will be amazed at how much more pleasant the French seem if you do this!
The French shake hands with everybody they meet. Should you break down, for instance, it is customary to shake the hand of the guy who turns up with the tow truck. If some kind person stops to offer you help, shake their hand. If you bump into somebody you’ve met before and who recognises you , shake their hand. You will be amazed what dividends this can pay!
If you know somebody well enough to “bisou” (peck on the cheek) then remember the custom is four in the Sarthe – 2 on each side. This can make encounters with very large groups of friends extremely long-winded!
|Good day, hello||Bonjour|
|Good afternoon||Bon après-midi|
|Have a good evening||Bonne soirée|
|Goodnight/ sleep well||Bonne nuit|
|Ladies and gentlemen||Messieurs, dames|
|Enjoy your meal||Bon appétit|
|Cheers||Santé (a vôtre santé)|
|I don’t speak French||Je ne parle pas français|
|Please||S’il vous plait|
|Can you help me?||Vous pouvez m’aider ?|
Note: NEVER use Mademoiselle to somebody you don’t know, this is considered rude, no matter how old you think she is, except for children and then “petit” (for a boy) or “petite” for a girl is better.
Say hello and greet other drinkers when you come in! There are two types of service in French bars. If you buy at the bar, you will pay less but you should then remain standing up or at a bar stool (if there are any!) When you sit at a table you can expect to be served. Do not be tempted to refer to male staff as “garçon” – this literally means boy and is as derogatory in French these days as it is in English, refer to them as “monsieur” or “madame” according to their sex.
|A beer||Une bière (grande for large, demi for 33cl and galopat for 25 cl – the latter probably isn’t of much interest here!)|
|Draught – as in beer, not a cold wind!||Pression|
|A glass of wine||Un verre de vin|
|Water||L’eau (plat = still; gazeuse = fizzy)|
|Black coffee||Un café|
|Large coffee with milk||Un grand crème|
|A light (for smokers)||Du feu|
You will probably be asked which beer you want, as most bars sell several, they invariably then turn up in the correct “corporate” glass with a matching coaster! If you don’t mind just say “n’importe” – it’s not important.
Beverages: The French just cannot make tea, and that’s a fact. A tea bag on a string and a cup of luke warm water is the best you can expect, so avoid it like the plague. If you are desperate, thé citron (lemon tea) is by far your best bet. When ordering coffee, you will get black unless you specify. The closest thing to a cup of coffee with milk is “le grand crème”, which in fact rarely turns up with cream as its name might suggest – more often it’s milk, probably in a little jug.
You will normally pay for your drinks all together just before you leave, except when it’s really busy such as on Mad Friday or during scrutineering. The bill is “l’addition”, so just say “l’addition s’il vous plaît” when you are about to go. A 10% tip is a good idea, even if the bill says it is “service compris.” Emptying your pockets of the little bronze “centimes” – as the French still refer to them - (1c,2c and 5c coins) is also considered an insult – round up to the nearest 10 cents. It’s quite OK just to leave the correct money on the table and leave, but be sure to say goodbye, so that nobody thinks you are trying to leave without paying; or you can pay at the bar – you are not expected to wait until your server turns up again.
Most bars sell a small range of snacks and sandwiches but by no means all. You can ask “on peut manger içi?” (Can one eat here?) Many bars not selling food allow you to eat your own, but do buy all your drinks there if you try this, and take any resulting litter with you. Say goodbye when you leave – please do not leave the French with a poor impression of the English abroad – especially if you are wearing a Club Arnage T-shirt!
A note on smoking: In France, as in the UK, smoking is now banned in all enclosed public places, even bars with who sell tobacco. Although rumours abound about this new law being generally flouted, this is not the writer’s experience.
Self-service restaurants are rare in France – apart from the big chains like Flunch. When you arrive, wait to be seated by the owner/manager/waiter. You should explain how many there are in your party by saying : Je suis seul (I am on my own) or, “nous sommes deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six , sept, huit, neuf, dix “and so on – literally, we are two, three, four, etc.
Do not expect the world’s fastest service when you dine in France. Eating is the be-all and end-all of life here and meals are expected to be lingered over and savoured. They are the centre of France’s culture and its social and family life. Enjoy it –try not to get too uptight if things seem slow. If you are in a hurry, then go to Flunch or another self-service eatery such as La Brioche D’Orée. If you have no choice, then explain to the waiter at the beginning of the meal, that you are in a hurry “je suis (I am) “nous sommes” (we are) “pressés” (pushed for time).
In Le Mans itself, you will usually find that menus are provided in English as well as French during the race season and even so, there is not enough space here to translate the names of all the dishes you might come across. If you’re concerned about what you might end up eating, the best thing is to carry a small pocket dictionary. If you are not fussy, then as a general rule it is best to go for the “plat du jour” (dish of the day) the “suggestion du chef” (chef’s suggestion) or “specialité de la maison” ( the speciality of the house.) The first two will invariably provide the best value. The “menu du jour” (menu of the day) usually includes a starter – often of the help yourself variety from a cold buffet – and a pudding, and quite often a cheaper option where you can chose one or the other.
If you order steak, you will be asked how you like it cooked – “comme cuisson?” Bleu = blue, saignante = rare (literally – bleeding); à point = medium; bien cuit = well cooked. Be warned – the French (quite rightly, imho,) believe that an overcooked steak is a ruined steak, so you’re best advised to go for a more cooked option than you would in the UK. Equally, with duck and lamb, you may be asked how you like it cooked – the options here are “rosé” (pink) or bien cuit, as for steaks. And for omelettes – “baveuse” means runny!
In cheaper restaurants, it is customary to re-use the same cutlery for you starter (entrée) and main course (le plat) – if you’re having cheese, you should hang onto it for this too. In France, cheese is always served between the main and dessert courses – as they believe it is better to eat all the savoury courses together before moving on to something sweet. When you have eaten enough, you should place your cutlery apart, with the knife and fork on opposite sides of the plate – if you leave them together - as is done in the UK – they will not think you have finished! You might be asked “vous avez terminé?” which means “have you finished?”
A word about bread. This turns up with every meal, regardless; the French do not see the necessity for butter, so just put it on the mat or tablecloth alongside their meal, which is why you won’t get a side plate. If you do want butter, you have to ask for it. “Du beurre, s’il vous plaît”.
You should also be able to assume that you will automatically get a jug of tap water with any meal. If you don’t and you want some, just ask for a “pichet” or “carafe d’eau” and it will be provided, free of charge. It’s customary to leave a tip of between 10 and 15%, even if it is specified that service is included. You can usually pay with a UK credit or debit card these days in most restaurants – but don’t forget your PIN number – you will need it.
Loos: Most public loos are looked after by a concierge whose responsibility it is to keep them clean. At the circuit, they also keep the stash of loo paper on the table outside with them – so don’t forget to help yourself before you go in or things could get unpleasant! They expect to be tipped (30 centimes is about right) but on the up-side also expect to be told if there is a problem. So, if you find that the previous occupant has left his or her dinner behind, then you will cause no offence by mentioning this!
Bureaucracy is a way of life in France and you’ll encounter it wherever you go; it’s hard to get away from!
The supposed idea that the French don’t queue, is a very bizarre one. In fact, why queue once, when you could do it twice? Even in supposed quick service places (Flunch is a good example), you will be expected to line up once at the till to order your meal, and again in a line to pick up your chosen dish.
Anybody who has booked tickets for LM via the ACO will understand this well. First apply for your tickets, then wait to see if your form has been received. Then after your acknowledgement has arrived, wait a few months to see if you’ve been allocated tickets. Wait again to see if your confirmation has been received, then hang around again for a few months in the hope that your tickets have finally arrived. Simple, eh?
It’s easier to do than to say, but the only way to deal with it is with a lot of patience. There is just no future in getting annoyed; you just have to go with the flow. The locals are on the receiving end of this every day of their lives and have been brought up with it so just cannot understand the impatient foreigner who gets hot under the collar about it. Be polite, smile, and get over it. Then have a good moan about it to your mates afterwards.