Capital Letters

Many parts of your personal information have a lower case letter and not a capital. Month of birth – janvier; where you live – rue/allée/impasse/avenue Aristide Briand; nationality –  anglaise; religion –  chrétien.Plus, days of the week are not capitalised either.


If you work a full day for a company over a certain size, they are obliged by law to give you a midday meal. This can take the form of a meal voucher ‘chèque déjeuner’ of around €9 or they must provide a restaurant. These are unmarked and often in the basement of the building. Just watch where people are disappearing to at midday.


There are 8,500 km of navigable waterways in France. Canals are still used to transport grain and goods. Champagne is sometimes transported by barge as it is harder to hijack a barge than a lorry. One barge replaces 15 lorry loads of merchandise. If you want an environmentally friendly holiday, a canal barge ticks all the boxes except one. Sewage is discharged directly into the river. There are very few waterside facilities for it yet in France. The England and Wales have only 2,270 miles of rivers and canals for your pleasure. But, did you know that Birmingham has more canals than Venice?



You will never be short of a calendar in France. From November onwards people knock at your door holding calendars of various qualities. It is illegal to ask for, or to give, a ‘Christmas box’ to tradesmen, so they turn up with a calendar, for which you give a donation. It was our first year in France, and one evening I was alone in the house.  I heard a knock on the door. When I answered it, there were three men standing there who just said, ‘Poubelles’! I could not understand why they wanted my dustbins at that time of night. They repeated it, another couple of times before disappearing down the road. I was completely mystified. As I mulled it over, I vaguely remembered a passage from the book ‘Living and Working in France’. I got it out and started hunting through it. Eventually, I found the passage where the author explained about tradesmen and Christmas boxes. He wrote, ‘If you do not want your rubbish spread out in the street for the next year, give a donation and get a calendar’. I was very worried until the next bin collection, but my rubbish was taken away as usual and I realized the author was writing tongue in cheek! Not only the dustbin men, but the postman and the firemen, will call holding calendars and expecting at least 5€. I wonder if they would like a pot of homemade marmalade instead?

Buses and Butter

BUSES. I don’t understand why state bus companies, that are operating at huge losses, let people get on without expecting them to pay. On UK buses, you have to pass the conductor/driver and pay for a ticket. On French buses passengers are expected to blip their pre-paid ticket at a machine. Many people do not bother to pay and the driver says nothing. Perhaps it is part of Liberté, Fraternité and Eqalité? When bus inspectors get on, it is interesting to see how many people get off! The inspectors catch some people who have to pay a fine of between 30-40€. As many people are aware, ‘C’est statistiquement rentable de payer seulement les amendes.’ = ‘Statistically it is cheaper to only pay the fines.’

BUTTER. The French prefer unsalted butter, but we prefer salted. When I served a scone to a friend in my teashop, she immediately noticed that there was a salty taste to the butter. During our first few months in France, we were looking for ‘salted butter’, which is a rarity in our region. Beurre salé, which is a speciality found in Brittany is very salty with more  than 3 % of salt. Beurre demi-sel has up to 3 %.  The lovely British Yeo Valley butter has 1.5g per 100g but some other UK brands have more. Demi-sel ismost likely to match your tastes.


The French take this skill to heights most of us have never experienced before, after all, bureaucrats or ‘functionaires’ make up over 22% of the workforce. For example, my husband recently mislaid his driving licence. He looked on the French government website which said that he must go to the local Mayor’s office. The lady there said that she didn’t deal with such things, but he needed a form from the police to say that he had lost the licence. He went to the police station, where he was told that they had not dealt with such things for 5 years and that he should to go to the Sous-préfecture. Meanwhile he had gathered all the necessary paperwork. He had bought 2 tax stamps, that are only sold at tobacconists; 2 passport photos, from a machine at the supermarket; a photo copy of his passport; official form ‘A’ in duplicate; official form ‘B’- single copy and of course a copy of our gas bill. As it was August, the office was only open every other day of the week because of the holidays, and people were queuing outside the doors. When he got to the counter, the man looked at all the papers and said everything was OK. The official took most of them, but gave two back. He said that my husband would receive the new licence through the post within 14 days. A few days later, we received a letter from the Sous-préfectureto say that they couldn’t send it, as his dossier was not complete. Please could he send a copy of our gas bill and a copy of his passport – papers he had taken, the official had seen, and then had handed back! All of this keeps many people in employment! When we relate stories like this to our French friends, they shrug their shoulders. C’est la vie! C’est la France!


A friend of ours was staying with his fiancés family. At breakfast, he asked for a cup, in which to drink his coffee. He was given a bowl. Thinking that he had not explained what he wanted, he said that he wanted a cup and not a cereal bowl. He was surprised to find that many French people drink their morning coffee or hot chocolate from a bowl. If I had had a smart phone I would have been able to add a photo here to illustrate this. A French friend was drinking tea from a cup but holding it with his first finger inside and the two adjacent fingers around the outside edge.  The handle of the cup was on the other side being completely unused. He was holding a cup as if it was a bowl. It would have been a good picture for the cover of this book.

We stayed with friends when we first arrived in France. Croissants and jam appeared on the breakfast table, but there were no plates. We were waiting to be given some, when we noticed that the children were helping themselves and not using plates. I think the theory is that croissants and French bread make so many crumbs that a plate cannot possibly contain them. At the end of the meal the plastic cloth was simply wiped clean.


French people abroad get withdrawal symptoms if they are not offered enough bread to eat. Breakfast traditionally consists of a‘tartine’, which is a long ways slice of baguette with butter and jam. In a restaurant at lunchtime a basket of bread will be put on the table. In the evening soup is accompanied by bread. I have spoken to my students about this and one sighed and said, ‘Yes, it’s true, we eat bread all the time. My father expects bread to be on the table even if the meal is pizza!’ If you host a French student, make sure you offer bread with every meal.



Liquid bleach,  ‘Eau de Javel’ was first manufactured in the Javel district west of Paris. French people seem to use it for anything that needs cleaning. When I burnt food onto a saucepan, I was advised that ‘Eau de Javel’ would get it off. As undiluted bleach can burn a hole in stainless steel, I thought it best to ignore this advice. When a white garment gets stained, Eau de Javel seems the obvious solution. However, the slightest splash on a coloured garment leaves a pale spot. ‘Je vois que tu as utilisé de l’eau de Javel cette semaine’ = ‘Been using bleach again, I see?’, could be a useful phrase in your French vocabulary. Since living in France, I have managed to get bleached spots on at least 2 garments.


Tourists In London (5)

I had seen that the Natural History Museum  had an exhibition called ‘Dark’. We bought tickets online.

Many creatures are nocturnal, such as foxes, badgers and bats. We were encouraged to stroke a stuffed fox by the unusual sign ‘Please touch’. The writer of the newspaper article had described the bat cave exhibit as having little gusts of air that made you feel as if a bat had just flown by. Perhaps they were all asleep when I passed beneath. I had no idea that so many creatures have adapted to life in caves, such as pythons, spiders, fish, shrimps etc. I hope the 12 Thai boys just recently rescued met less wildlife than we saw.

The display about the amount  of equipment a cave diver wears was interesting in the light of that incident deep underground.

On leaving, we decided to look at the butterfly collection. The signage was non existant and so simplified that it told us nothing, Red zone, yellow zone, blue zone… past the enormous and imposing statue of Darwin, past signs to the new Darwin centre. Was Darwin the only British naturalist? Did he found the museum?

Asked various guides. We could see live butterflies in the new butterfly house for another fee. No, thanks. After wandering around and getting nowhere we learnt that the old cases of thousands of beautiful butterflies had been removed! How disappointing! Especially as the posters outside the museum feature one of my favourite  butterflies, the fist sized Owl butterfly from South America. The ‘eye’ design on its wings bears close examination. When an artist wants to make an eye look rounded and alive, he or she adds a little stroke of white to represent the light reflecting off the eye. That little flash of white doesn’t exist as part of the colours found in eyes. It is the touch that an artist knows how to use to create the impression of a rounded alive eye. Yet that little touch is found on a butterfly’s wing whose own eye is covered in stripes! How did that happen Darwin?