WAR

Before coming to France, I must admit that I had a percentage of received opinion in me about the lack of resistance to the Germans by the French at the beginning of the Second World War. Not long after arriving, a TV series called ‘Un village français’ started to be screened. It told the story of fictional everyday characters, the doctor, the schoolteachers, the mayor etc., in a village on the demarcation line between occupied France and Free France. As each character’s life unfolded, it became increasingly clear that every day decisions were far from black and white. In the unoccupied British Isles (Channel Isles excepted) everything was morally clear. We were the ‘good’ guys and the enemy were the ‘bad’ guys. What should the young schoolteacher do when a music loving young German soldier offers to mend her radio for her? What should Mr Swartz do when the Germans want to buy wood from his timber mill, and he is to be paid in deutschmarks? Is he a collaborator? Does he have any choice? Even the cold, heartless, cruel French detective falls in love with a Jewish woman and shoots Nazis to protect her. Every character has continual moral dilemmas that have consequences for him/her and then their family members. It was an eye-opener. The series has won awards and I hope that one day it will appear in English. Living on what was the front line of the First World War, we are constantly reminded of the damage done in 1914-18. Arras, St Quentin, Reims and other towns on the front line were in parts razed to the ground. Some villages disappeared completely only to live on in people’s memories by having their name added to the name of the adjacent village. It must have been very hard to have just finished reconstructing only to have another war declared 20 years later.

W

How many letters are there in the English alphabet? 26. How many letters are there in the French alphabet? One could say only 25. All the words that begin with ‘w’ are of foreign origin.  Wagon comes from the German and most of the other words come from English such as waterproof, web, weekend, western, wharf, whisky, whist and wigwam. French towns that have a ‘W’ in them are mostly found in the north-east or the east where Germanic influences were historically strongest.

VOITURE SANS PERMIS – VSP.

Where in the world can you walk into a garage, buy a car and drive it away without having had one driving lesson or passing some sort of test? China? – No! Afghanistan? No! France? – Yes! The vehicles are called Voitures Sans Permis (VSP’s). They are small vehicles with an engine size of less than 50cc, which have a maximum speed limit of 45km/h. They are not allowed on auto routes but can be driven around town. I use a quiet back road for cycling into town. One day I heard a dreadful noise behind me. It gradually got louder and louder and then an old guy in an old VSP slowly passed me. Its engine sounded like a ride-on lawn mower. Newer models are quieter and blend in with normal road traffic. A friend who moved to the depths of the Normandy countryside bought a VSP for her trips to town. People who have lost their licence through dangerous driving or driving while under the influence of alcohol can buy one and continue to drive!

VEGETABLES.

Our family’s Christmas dinner consists of turkey, potatoes, broccoli, roast parsnips, Brussel sprouts, carrots, leeks and baked onions. French meals don’t often include vegetables. Meat is served with only potatoes, rice or pasta. I like dishes where every mouthful is different. A Sunday roast fits the bill, so I am often disappointed with a restaurant steak, shallot and red wine sauce, because, although it’s a dish I like, it is crying out for more vegetables! A French meal has a separate salad course.

UTILITY BILL.

You can’t do anything in France without an electricity or a gas bill! It proves where you live. For any administrative procedure you will need to present one and hand over a photocopy of it. When I looked at what asylum seekers needed, the site listed passport photos, identity papers and for those who have lodgings ……a utility bill!

UNIONS 

My husband had a student who was doing a sandwich course that included twenty weeks in an industrial setting, working on a project to improve some particular aspect in a factory. The student said that he had never before had to choose his words so carefully. If he implied that better efficiency might have the effect of reducing working hours the unions would call a strike because reducing hours meant losing jobs. I often tell my students that France needs a Mrs. Thatcher. She stopped the unions being so powerful by insisting that strikes would be legal only if voted for by a secret ballot and more than 50% of the workforce was in favour of a strike. The power of the shop stewards to call for a walk-out was over. Unions had to be democratic. In France their powers have never been curbed. There have been transport strikes because the new trousers of bus drivers were too tight! There are the continual air traffic controller strikes. I have taught air traffic controllers and have asked why they are going on strike. Often, they don’t know! I always ask the bus driver, why there is going to be a strike, I just get a shrug of the shoulders! On the other hand, the unions have won tremendous advantages for their workers. In French pay packets there is often a 13th month. If you haven’t saved for Christmas it doesn’t matter as your salary is doubled each December. Some companies give a double salary just before the holidays! There are also restaurant vouchers, subsidized travel tickets, outings and paid days off for weddings and funerals, Christmas presents for your children, birthday presents for you and more. If a company has more than 50 employees there must be a union, yet overall only 7% of French workers are members of one. I recently read that one of the most powerful unions receives 1% of the income of a big energy company. Money always equals power unfortunately. When I heard a French union leader say that ‘compromise’ was a dirty word, it was enlightening.

UNIVERSITY.

University in France is very cheap compared to the UK. Fees are only 500-600 euros per year. At the end of the first year there is an exam. Those who fail it either have to leave or start the year again. About 15% of youngsters give up at that point. There are grants of 100-200 euros per month depending on your family situation. If you fail the exams and quit, the money has to be paid back. That seems to be a good motivational idea. Lecturers really are lecturers with hundreds of students in front of them taking notes especially in the first year. There is very little interaction with the professors.

TWELTH NIGHT.

In the UK January 6 is the time to take down Christmas decorations. In France it is the day to eat ‘Une Galette des Rois’, a puff pastry tart filled with almond paste, eaten in honour of the visit of the Three Kings to the baby Jesus. The inside used to contain a real bean, ‘une fève’. Nowadays the beans have been replaced by little ceramic models. Some represent the nativity characters, but the latest children’s film inspires new figures every year. The person who gets the bean in their slice gets to be the king or queen for the evening. The way to make sure that no one cheats is for the youngest person present to hide under the table. They call out the name of the person who will be given the next piece of tart that is cut.

T.V. PROGRAMMES.

Don’t worry that you will miss your favourite T.V. programmes if you move to France. The rights have been sold over here. We regularly watch David Suchet in Poirot and Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer Murders. Many programmes have a French equivalent, The Great British Bake-off becomes ‘Le meilleur patissier’ with the same challenges and the same format. Britain’s Got Talent becomes ‘La France a un Incroyable Talent’. Countdown becomes ‘Des chiffres et des lettres’. Who Wants to be a Millionaire becomes ‘Qui veut gagner des millions. How Clean Is Your House – ‘C’est du propre!‘ had two very disapproving French ladies finding incredibly messy homes and recommending Worcestershire Sauce to clean brass objects. But the French voice-over guy gives Wor-ces-ter-shire four syllables! Spitting Image became Les Guignols. Flog it and Bargain Hunt type programmes look for valuable antiques, Location, Location, Location, becomes Maison à Vendre. The presenter of which, Stéphane Plaza, appears so regularly on TV programmes in the same genre that he now has his own chain of estate agents. Gardener’s World is Silence ça pousse’ .Supernanny has a French double so has Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmare. Our Gordon Ramsay is replaced by the equally big, butch straight talker but with a hidden heart of gold –  Philippe Eschebest. It’s called ‘Cauchemar en Cuisine’. Jamie Oliver’s programmes here star a chef called Cyril Lignac. Cyril’s restaurant in Paris is called Le Quinzième ‘the fifteenth’ and Jamie started restaurants to train new chefs and called them ‘Fifteen’.  How weird is that?! Who is copying who?

T.V. LICENCES.

The sum of 137€ is automatically included in your Taxe d’Habitation for a T.V. licence. It is assumed that you own one, unless you tick the box (with a cross), to say that you don’t.