This post is divided into two parts: What I have learned about life and travel in France, and what I have experienced doing triathlons in France. Each is rated as an upgrade or downgrade.
1) Many cities have bikes that you can rent for short periods of time to ride around on. They are very cheap, and make life very convenient for getting around. It means you don't need to know the metro routes, and you see way more of the city than you would have otherwise.
There are stations all over Paris where you can park these.
2) Buy your tickets online. For museums and other attractions, at least in Paris, you can buy tickets online. There are two reasons to do this: you avoid the lines as there is usually a line for people who already have tickets, and frequently, you can buy tickets to multiple museums at once at a discount. You want to see the Musee de Rhodin and Musee d'Orsay? Combine them. There is an all Paris museum pass that you can buy and use over several days if you are staying for more than one or two days. I would recommend this; it is simply not possible to take in everything. I stayed 3 days in Paris, and I could have spent 10 looking at everything.
3) Travel by train and bus from city to city is pretty easy. For France, unfortunately they do not offer a Eurail one country pass (where you can buy a pass for a certain amount of access), but it is generally cheap and fast.
Life Related:1) When you walk up to a group of people that you know, you greet each one individually. I went to dinner with a group from the tri team, and there were 14 of us. Whenever a new person walked up, a new round of greetings. It makes things entertaining before swimming with the team because it is a bunch of men and women in speedos exchanging the greetings for several minutes. I am not sure if this is an upgrade or downgrade.
2) Every guy gets a hand shake and a greeting (salut, ca va), every girl gets a kiss on each cheek, and little kids get one kiss on a cheek. I haven't figured out at what age the kids stop getting the one kiss.
3) If I lived in France, I would be obese, diabetic and have hypertension. Besides having nutella, they have this:
Yes- that is butter with sea salt- combining fat and salt into something delicious. You put on baguettes, which you can buy for usually less than one euro. With the family with whom I staying, we eat this after dinner with a type of cheese that I had never heard of before called camembert. Eat till you are full from dinner, then have a piece or two of baguette with the delicious butter or camembert. This is a definite upgrade.
4) You can buy giant things of cereal, like this:
For those of us that use pounds, that is almost three pounds of cereal.
You can't buy the normal cereals (cheerios, frosted mini wheats, etc), but you can buy cereals made by Nestle, which usually combine chocolate, caramel or nutella. They are delicious. Large cereal: upgrade. Not the usual choices? Downgrade.
5) Grocery stores are like Walmarts on crack. Walmart has everything, and generally low quality food. If you want to go buy a plasma tv, and risk getting some fresh produce, you can do that. But not at the grocery stores in France. You can get fresh produce that is of good quality, new pairs of socks, and that inflatable backyard pool you have had your eye on. You can also order your goods online, and then go to the store, and pick them up. It is awesome.
You think I am kidding? This is from the local supermarche's catalog. You can get your cat food, gaming system, and backyard pool all at once. This obviously doesn't show the quality of the food, but it is good.
Rating? Definite upgrade for the consumer, downgrade for the small business.
6) Milk is not refrigerated when you buy it. First of all, if you ever truly want to feel like a foreigner, walk around a grocery store in another country. While you may know a certain amount of the language, do you know how to say things like basil/potato/corn/paper towel? Probably not. I definitely struggled the first couple of times when I had to ask for help.
But back to milk: milk in France is UHT- ultra high temperature pasteurized, which means it doesn't have to be refrigerated until it is opened, and can stay on the shelf for a month. It looks like this:
I was a little skeptical the first time I bought it, but it tastes just the same, so I definitely think that this is an upgrade.
7) Dinner takes place after 8pm. This means I snack all afternoon on cereal, baguette, etc.
8) They love the Tour de France. It is on two tv channels, and on two different radio stations. For most Americans, they think the tour is booorrrrrring. In France, they listen to it. On the radio. While I thoroughly enjoy watching the tour, listening to it takes it to another level. Upgrade if you love the tour.
9) You can get mayonnaise with your french fries, and ketchup with your fajitas, and this is normal. I don't understand why french people are not more obese.
10) Cooking is based upon mass, not volume. You need two cups of flour? Well, get that much flour, you must know the density of flour. Fortunately, there are websites available to you that give the information you need.
11) Everybody smokes. Ok, not everybody, but a significantly higher percentage than in the US. and they smoke everywhere. While places are "smoke free", like some restaurants, the moment people step outside, they light up. People will walk to the door holding a cigarette. Also, you can buy bags of tobacco and roll your own; I saw someone doing this on the train from Rennes to Paris.
1) Races are in the afternoon. Yes, they don't start until 2 or later in the afternoon. This means you don't have to wake up at 4:30 am to be at the race site by 5:30 am for the 7am start. Upgrade.
2) There are no age group awards. Awards are only handed out to the top 3/5/10 depending on the race. I don't know if this is an upgrade or downgrade, but it definitely speeds up the awards ceremony. They sometimes interview the podium too. It was a little awkward when I was asked about the race when I made the podium. "Uhh.... Je suis fatigue, et content. Merci."
3) Winners get good stuff- like money, gift certificates, or gear. In the races I have done, the race that I won, I got a 200 euro gift certificate to a sports store, and the race I placed 7th in, I got a bag full of overstim, the french equivalent of gu. Way better than a little plaque.
4) There are a lot of clubs. Almost every city has one, and they are populated with individuals of varying skill. Because there are clubs, there are club exclusive races, and team races. This makes things much more entertaining.
5) The races usually have the roads closed, and the races are looped. This makes the race safer, and means that races are much more spectator friendly.
6) Team races are awesome. I usually take any form of motivation I can get to race, but now I am racing for a team placing as well as individual placing, best time, etc, I push harder. It also means that the cheering is much more intense. While you may have some friends, family members or teammates out cheering for you at a race in the states, telling you to go faster, in France, they are yelling at you to pull back the competitors in front of you. While it is motivating to have a teammate tell you "Hey John you are the fifth placed girl!" (thanks Mike, and just FYI, I ended up only getting beaten by three professional women at that race), it is much more intense to have someone yelling "ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ JOHN CATCH HIM".
7) Race photos are free. Free. Posted to the website, you can download at your leisure, not $24.99 for one download. Definite upgrade.