France: Instructions for Use 

France: Instructions for Use

by Alison Culliford and Nan McElroy

Published by Illustrata Press

128 pages, 2008

Buy it online



When Less is More

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

When all else fails ... read the instructions,” is the tongue-in-cheek advice on the cover of this diminutive book, setting the lighthearted tone for this latest offering in the Instructions for Use travel series. (Earlier books were on Europe and Italy.)

Well, there’s only one way to test out a travel book, so obviously I had to pack my bags, tuck the small compendium into my backpack, and fly to Europe. France: Instructions for Use made for entertaining reading on the plane, although my sudden bouts of laughter may have woken my neighbor more than once.

It’s incroyable how so much can be jammed between such tiny covers. The table of contents covers getting around by car, train, metro, bike, taxi and local buses; offers suggestions on banking, mobile phones and credit cards; demystifies French wines; gives advice on tipping; guides you where to eat and when. It even tells you how to order your coffee like a Parisian. In addition, shopping, shipping your goodies home, booking tours and discovering where to go for assistance and information are all covered. Each chapter also provides the vocabulary you may well need for that activity.

Lastly, there’s a great little appendix with scads of additional data -- from dates on which to avoid traveling by train and rail pass fare comparisons, from travel cost and time estimates to conversions. Here’s where you will also find a smattering of more generally useful vocabulary. A dictionary it’s not, but it’s truly amazing how many of those words and phrases you will find yourself using time and time again.

I’d have bought the book for only the one piece of advice, which I happily learned before the plane’s wheels smacked the runway.

The single most important piece of advice we can give to anyone traveling in France is always to be the first to say bonjour…. Anything else is unfathomable, considered downright rude.

What great advice this was! Time and time again we saw dour faces transformed by a mere “bonjour madame,” and helpful suggestions offered in response to our “Bonjour monsieur. Pouvez-vous m’aider?”

If you’re new to France and possibly even to travel, you may also find the pronunciation guide and the ten tips for travelers at the beginning of the book very useful, and if you want your information in a hurry, the color-coding will rush you along. The wording and boxes in red are intended to help you avoid the most common pitfalls while information in green contains particularly useful and little-known tips.

The guide actually comes in two parts, and the first one, Planning your Adventure, can be downloaded on the Internet free. You can find this 3.0 megabyte, 36-page PDF file online. Go here first so that you can get a taste of what’s in store for you if you buy the handbook. The only sections that are repeated in both are the pronunciation guide and the ten tips for travelers.

The only information we found slightly out-of-date was the advice on breakfasts and brunch. While the book is clear that brunches are unknown in this country of coffee and cigarette breakfasts, in fact we found that restaurants in key tourist towns and regions were now advertising this North American indulgence. Brunch in Paris is now a breeze.

The author of Paris Revisited and Night +Day Paris, Culliford has been writing about her adopted country since moving to Paris ten years ago, and McElroy is the author of Italy, Instructions for Use.

Hopefully more of these invaluable little guides are in the works. | July 2008

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.