Day 1. We wanted to see Greenwich, and as the weather was fine, why not go by bus? My husband planned the route which started by us catching the 94 from Notting Hill. Like excited children we climbed the stairs and took the front seats. Hyde Park was on our right for half the journey far as Marble Arch. Arriving in Regent Street, we were not in a rush so decided to have coffee in a very posh looking little restaurant. From outside we could see a sign on the counter that coffees were £2.20 – not bad prices. Having sat down and looked at the menu coffees were nearly £5.00 each. I checked the sign on the bar and spotted ‘take-away prices’ in smaller print! Grrr!
Another bus took us to Elephant and Castle, and then we completed the last leg to Greenwich. With our Oyster cards the complete journey had cost us £4.50 each – less than that cup of coffee!
Greenwich Park boasts a small herb garden which was perfect for somewhere to eat our packed lunch. There were not very many different herbs, but the mint flowers attracted a huge hornet that I hoped was not an agressive Asian one.
Greenwich Park is enormous and the Observatory is on the top of the hill to the south. We wanted to see the International Date Line, but discovered it was in the courtyard of the main building where a ticket needed to be bought. We had seen various free exhibitions and were feeling a little a bit cheated, when we saw people queuing in an alleyway below the courtyard. Ha, ha, the date line had been extended down the wall and across the pathway. We got our picture after all without being forced to pay.
We hadn’t realised that there were so many attractions in Greenwich. The Maritime Museum merited a longer visit, but we wanted to walk under the Thames via the Greenwich tunnel. Passing the Cutty Sark we found a small domed building that looked more like a Victorian public toilet than a tunnel entrance. However, spirals of steps took us down several levels from where we could walk under the Thames to the beautifully named Island Gardens next to the less beautifully named Mudchute Park. The Docklands Light Railway took us through the mass of high-rise and tower blocks of the amazing, new Docklands development.
Jaffa Cakes were one of the challenges of the week on ‘The Great British Bake-off’. When Paul Hollywood, one of the judges, dunked his in his tea, Mary Berry exclaimed, ‘We don’t do that in the south.’ The Daily Mail ran a whole page article on the subject of whether to ‘dunk’ or not! A top French Chef was asked to comment. He said that the French are the champions of dunking! They love to dip their croissant into their morning coffee, and their buttered tartine into hot chocolate. Anyone who has watched the hilarious film ‘Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis’ will know that one of the jokes is about people who live in the north of France dipping their ‘maroilles’ stinky cheese sandwich into their morning cup of chicory coffee. An iconic moment in French literature was when Marcel Proust wrote about eating a madeleine sponge cake while drinking lime flower tea. ‘I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses…’. French literature would be poorer by far if Marcel Proust had not been in the habit of dunking! Not forgetting the champenois custom of serving a ‘biscuit rose de Reims’ with champagne as a dunking biscuit!
I love duck. One of our Saturday night treats used to be a Marks and Spencer’s aromatic crispy duck with pancakes, hoisin sauce, cucumber and shredded spring onions. If there is duck on the menu, I enjoy eating it. On the other hand I, like many Brits, hesitate when it comes to ‘foie gras’. We don’t feel comfortable with the idea of putting a tube down the throat of an animal and force feeding it until its liver is 10 times its normal size and takes up most of the bird’s body cavity. So it was an, ‘Oh, dear’ moment when I read, ‘Le confit de canard est un plat phare de la cuisine Sud-Ouest et l’un des éléments incontournables du cassoulet. Le magret est issu du canard gavé pour produire cette perle de la gastronomie française, le foie gras.’Of course! The meat that goes into cassoulets and served as ‘confit de canard’ and ‘magret’ in the South-West is the leftover meat from the carcasses of the force-fed ducks – what else would they do with it? On the bright side it is another reason to avoid the delicious looking chocolate or coffee eclairs that appear in freezer shops at Christmas time. They contain foie gras! I can imagine the terrible feeling of deception as an unsuspecting person bites into an inviting looking aperitif only to find that there is a greasy, meaty, savoury filling and not the light, whipped, sweet, cream they were expecting. To spit out, or not to spit out, that would be the question? To add to the strange concoctions I have seen, what about ‘Crème brûlée au foie gras de canard’?
The French have come up with an ingenious method for vets, and anyone else who wishes, to know the age of an animal. Each year is given a letter of the alphabet. For example, 2016 had the letter ‘M’; the year before was ‘L’ and next year was ‘N’. Everyone with a dog or cat is expected to choose a name that begins with the letter of the year. You simply type ‘nom de chien’ into a search engine and up pop lists of masculine names for you to choose from. One list offers 600 names beginning with ‘M’. If you have a ‘chienne’ the list could only offer 570 female names from which to make a selection. However, the list of female names scored them according to their popularly. ‘Molly’ was the most popular while, ‘Mitzi’ hardly got any votes. How embarrassing to find that your parents have named you with an ‘M’ name in 2016 and that your name is one of the most popular names according to animal owners! For a female dog, the names proposed in 2014 included Joy, which got 93 votes, Joya (25), Joyce (86), Joye (3), Joyeuse (19) and Joys (15). How enriching to find that your name is quite highly rated, for a dog! (See CHILDREN’S NAMES)
Dog mess been such a problem that it was cited as one of the reasons why Paris lost the 2012 bid for the Olympics! It used to really upset me to have to walk on such filthy pavements. But I must say that things are improving and on recent trips to Montluçon, Paris and Lille, I noted that the streets were quite clean. One is now far more likely to see a dog walker with a small black plastic bag than 10 years ago, but there are still many miscreants – a word from Old French! In the UK there were campaigns by local groups of mothers to shame people into picking up poop. I recently saw that one UK council was threatening people with a fine of £1000 for non-conformity. In Paris it is 68€.
It is not the done thing in France to ask for a doggy bag if you have too much food on your plate in a restaurant. However, I asked for one once. I had seen that instead of having to choose a desert you could order a ‘café gourmand’ and receive a tiny example of many of the desserts on offer, plus a coffee. I thought it was an excellent idea. The plate arrived with about 10 mini portions, including two or three little ice-creams. Wow, this was far too much to manage, so I ate the meltable delicacies and asked if they had a plastic container for the rest. They were surprised but obliged me. Breaking news. In the week of writing this, I read, in our regional magazine, that microwaveable ‘Gourmet Bags’ have been distributed to local restaurants in an effort to reduce food waste. The tide is turning! (The initial idea of ‘café gourmand’ is now widely abused with bought-in mini cakes that are nowhere on the menu. I was even once given a child’s lollipop as one element!)
If you think that Sunday afternoon is the ideal time for mowing the lawn or doing a bit of DIY, you haven’t read your local community magazine! It is clearly stated that noisy work that will disturb the peace of the neighbourhood is forbidden, not just on Sunday afternoons. No noise is permitted at any time on Sunday and only allowed between 8.30 and 12 on Saturday mornings and from 2pm until 4pm on Saturday afternoons! On weekdays the noise must stop at lunchtimes, but you can continue until 7.30 in the evening! The ban covers lawnmowers, chainsaw, drills and something I did not recognise – ‘les raboteuses’.When I looked online for pictures, I saw monstrous sawing tables that would make light work of the biggest planks of wood. No wonder, they were included in the list!
In 2014 the UK had 2.8 doctors per thousand people and France had 3.3. It is reasonably easy to find a doctor and to get an appointment. An appointment is scheduled to take 15 minutes. Expect to have to jump onto the consulting couch and to have your blood pressure taken and your heart listened to during each visit. Because you pay your doctor a fee at each examination and because you can go and join a different practice, doctors try to give good value. Two items on the prescription are normal. The average French person has 1.5kg of unused drugs in their medicine cupboards according to a Minister of Health. If they have that amount of unused medicine, just think of the quantity they did take! The figures are per person, so families must have even more!
Be careful to check at the pharmacy if the items are reimbursed by social security. I was once prescribed some B vitamins. The pharmacist was trying to be helpful (or using the opportunity to practise her English) and I thought she said ‘sixteen euros’. When the sum came up on the till, I saw to my horror that I was expected to pay ‘sixty’! If you work, you can ask for a ‘Carte Vital’,which, when presented at the doctor’s, the pharmacy and for any medical need, will ensure you get the reimbursements. The social security will pay back part of the money for the doctor and the pills. Everyone is also expected to have a ‘mutuelle’, which is a private health insurance scheme that covers most of the rest of the sum. As medicines are not sold cheaply in supermarkets people will often go to the doctor with minor ailments, such as sore throats and colds, that Brits would treat themselves with over-the-counter purchases. I once had a student who owned a pharmacy. When I showed her the medicines that I had bought over the counter in the UK she was horrified. A bottle of Kaolin and Morphine made her eyebrows shoot up. ‘But this is very dangerous, you could overdose on the morphine.’ I don’t remember if ‘Buttercup Syrup’ was considered as too dangerous to be confided into the hands of a French person. As for being able to buy paracetamols for 25p a packet from Superdrug, that will never be allowed to happen in France – too many local pharmacies would have to close. You can usually get a doctor’s appointment on a Saturday morning.
A study done by the University of Copenhagen tracking over 1,000,000 women over 13 years has found a link between hormonal contraceptives and depression. Depending on the type of pill there was a 23-34% likelihood of being depressed with teens worst affected. French women come second from top on the league table of European women using contraception at 89.9% after Hungary at 91%. Interesting!
A study in 2006 found that French doctors had prescribed 120 million mood-altering drugs such as anti-depressants, tranquillisers and sleeping tablets. A quarter of the French population, 15 million people, had taken them in the previous year. Nearly a quarter of all adolescents had been prescribed them. Two of my daughter’s school friends were taking anti-depressants for stress. When asked to rate their happiness level on a scale of 1-10, French people are less happy than most other Europeans. A very well thought out article in the Financial Times asked, ‘Is it France, or being French that leads to unhappiness?’ Even when French people leave France they are still pessimistic about life. So the article concluded that they were brought up to be unhappy, which points to the education system. We were surprised at the way French teachers mark children’s work. They start with 20 points and a point is removed for every fault. Our daughter entered the school system at the age of 14. It was disheartening for her to get 0/20 for pieces of work where she had really tried hard and to have no recognition for the things she got right. Especially galling was when she didn’t know if a word was masculine or feminine and so adjectives didn’t agree correctly and sometimes the verb too. Because of one mistake she would have 3 marks deducted. We have heard of people who have never had anyone say, ‘Well done’, to them. There is rigidity in the educational system too. She was struggling with some Maths problems. Her brother showed her a method of doing the calculation and she handed in the work with the correct answers. The teacher didn’t give her any marks because she had not followed the method being taught. The method she had used was one they would learn the next year! The concept of being marked and judged against others doesn’t stop at the school gate. I decided to enter the village ‘best kept garden’ competition. My garden is very small, so it was not too onerous. The judging took place and I was invited to a gathering of all the entrants for the presentation of the prizes. I counted about 20 people and 15 identical poinsettias which were obviously the prizes. The mayor did his duty by announcing the winner, who received a poinsettia, a kiss and an envelope. The second prize winner was called forward and received a potted flower, but no envelope. After the third prize everyone was called according to their position in the competition. My name was called last as I had come 15thout of 15. I did not mind at all, as I got the same prize, as all the others, got to drink a glass of champagne and chat to people from the village. Even my certificate says 15th/15. Does this encourage people to take part? Would people feel awful if 150 people took part and someone got a certificate saying their garden was judged the worst of all? This need to grade people, could be seen as discouraging and literally judgemental. Others might say that it fosters competition and a striving for excellence. The entry into medical school is also very punctilious. All the students take an exam at the end of their first year. Those who get above a certain mark are allowed to be doctors, those that get the next tranche of marks can become dentists. There must always be a doubt that your dentist, however good he/she may be, was someone who failed to become a doctor or that your midwife has failed to become a dentist.