Although continental France is only about the size of Texas, it is still the largest country in Western Europe. France is a country full of diverse varieties of accents, culture, and ways of life. I’ve had the privilege of living in both Northern and Southern France, and during my time here I have been able to speak with French people as well as with other foreigners, in addition to drawing a few conclusions of my own, about the differences between the two sides. (Please do keep in mind, that these are my opinions, drawn from my own experiences.)
Below you will find a map of France. I made it a point to draw the line down the middle the best I could– between La Rochelle and Geneva, Switzerland (there may be a few cities that “should be” on the other side of the line, but I did the best I could. I also circled the three places where I lived. Check out the differences I have found below!
1. Although France’s weather is not black and white as it touches both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as various mountain ranges, the south, in general, has much better weather than the north. This fact in it of itself influences a lot of the list below.
2. French people all over are wonderfully nice (I was even published about it!). However, I find people in the north to be friendlier and less superficial than people in the south. Although people in the north may tend to be a bit more initially reserved, they quickly become so friendly when you get to know them! On the other hand, southerners are upfront quite nice, but it is often only surface level.
Let me explain: because the weather in the south is so much better, people naturally spend more time outside, and therefore consequently meet and interact with more people on a daily basis. However, it’s sometimes hard to spend quality time with so many people, so the relationships are not always as deep. In the north on the other hand, people spend much more time inside because the weather is not so good during the winter, and as a consequence they spend time with fewer people. However, the people they do spend time with they are very close to. So, although it takes a much longer time to meet people in the north, once you’re friends, you’re friends for life, and you’ll tend to have long, meaningful relationships. (But, of course this is not to say that all people in the south of France are fake, nor do they have less meaningful relationships!)
3. I am cat-called and harassed on the street a billion times more in the south than I ever was in the north.
4. People tend to be less former in the north. I am tutoyée almost immediately, by absolutely everyone, from bosses to students to tutoring clients to shopkeepers to random people on the street. In the south, even after 9 months, I was still vouvoyée, which I found to be quite odd!
5. Life’s pace in the south, especially when it comes to work, is much slower and more leisurely. I guess the best example is that of businesses in my city here in the south being closed for lunch, and then by 7 PM for dinner, and every Sunday. Although Sundays in Normandy and Valenciennes were generally quiet, I do not remember as many shops being closed and having as limited of hours.
6. This may be contrary to the “leisurely lifestyle” but many French people here in the south (as well as Paris) drive like absolute maniacs! People speed through the streets only to slam the breaks at a stoplight; it is so annoying! Overall I much prefer the drivers in the north.
7. The weather also influences cuisine in France! Although each region has their own specialties, the southern-style cuisine uses a lot of vegetables and oil, because the sun shines all year round and as a result there are always markets selling vegetables. On the other hand, the northern part of France uses a lot of butter in its cuisine. Although red wine is drank everywhere in France, the south of France is full of rosé wine, while the north is more known for its beer and cider, mostly due to Belgian and English influences. Both parts of France where I have lived have been on or near the sea (English Channel and the Mediterranean), so there is a lot of sea food entwined in both diets.
8. I’ve noticed that men and boys in the south give bisous (kisses) to other men and boys more frequently than I have seen in the north, where handshaking is the norm between men (think of the influences from the touchy-feely Italians versus the prim and proper British).
9. Just like in the United States, French accents and the overall language vary by region and are quite distinguishable from the north to the south. People in the north generally speak a bit faster, and their pronunciation is generally more what you will learn in school. There are also several dialects in the north, such as Brittanique and ch’tis, which is a special accent sometimes heard in Haut-de-France, the most northern part of France.
In the south people tend to speak slower but the accent is much more pronounced– people sometimes say the ends of their words differently. For example, in the north, people pronounce pain (bread) like “pa-eh” where as in the south it is said like “pa-en.” Each region also has its own phrases and slang.
10. The styles of houses are very different. Houses in the south, specifically in the Côte d’Azur, are very colorful (in fact in Nice it is a law that houses have to be painted a certain color- red, orange, yellow, pink, for example, in order to keep the city looking colorful.) Houses in the southwest of France, near Toulouse, are built with a combination of wood and brick, a style specific to the region. In the north of France, houses are built with wood or stone, but in a very different Nomadic or Germanic style. Lille and Valenciennes, however also have many houses made of red bricks. The roofs in the northern half of France are usually black, and make from slates, whereas in the southern part of France, the roofs are typically orange and made from clay tiles.
I am asked a lot if I prefer the north or the south of France. Frankly, it’s a really hard question for me to decide. Both of my experiences are very different and irreplaceable. I love Normandy, I love the Côte d’Azur, I love Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and I love Paris. But I think overall, the north is where I’m meant to be.
Caen, Normandie, 2013
Nice, Côte d’Azur, 2013
Lille, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, 2014
Have you noticed any cultural differences between the north and the south? Do you agree or disagree with anything I have listed? Leave me a comment below.