Apparently, there are 7 separate agencies in France that deal with combatting terrorist attacks. That sounds very reassuring, except that I read that they don’t talk to each other or share information!
In the UK, if you don’t know where someone lives, you can look them up in a telephone directory. In France the ‘annuaire’ lists the villages of the region in alphabetical order. Firstly, you must know the name of the village where the people live, then the inhabitants are listed. It makes genealogical researches difficult.
Tea is seen to be more refined than coffee. French people find it ‘très british’ that we drink our tea with a ‘nuage du lait’ – a cloud of milk. Coffee is generally drunk black, as is tea.
A well-dressed table takes as much time to prepare as the meal. On the French equivalent of ‘Come Dine With Me’, ‘Un Dîner Presque Parfait’, contestants are scored on both hospitality, décoration de la table, and their cooking skills.Guests have been treated to such things as tables full of tropical fruit, or a layer of sand to replicate a beach scene. One that was particularly memorable had a fishpond in the middle made by building a low Plasticine perimeter wall, lining the middle space with impermeable material and adding real goldfish! Napkins, flowers, glitter, placemats, many sizes of drinking glasses are often used and there are shops that specialise in selling these items. Candles seem to be ‘de rigueur’. I find it slightly ridiculous that there are sometimes so many things on the table that when the food arrives everything has to be displaced to make room for it!
Men cannot go to a French swimming pool wearing swimming shorts. They could have been worn in the street so are considered unhygienic. Only miniscule, tight trunks are allowed. If you don’t have any, there are often vending machines that will dispense a pair for you.
I recently saw a magazine article promoting French sweets. A map of France highlighted the aniseed flavoured‘Anis de Flavigny’, Montelimar nougat, ‘Betises de Cambrai’, salted caramels from Brittany etc. It started me thinking as to whether we had regional sweets in the UK. Yes, Everton mints, Pontefract cakes, Brighton rock, Devon toffees came to mind. It seemed another example of how we lack the bluster and pride of the French. A sweet is after all, just sugar but in France it becomes a matter of national pride! Did you know that Jelly Babies were invented after the 1WW as ‘Peace Babies’ or that Flying Saucers were voted the most popular British sweet? A recent visit to an old-fashioned Bedford sweet shop opened my eyes to our rich sweet heritage. Pear drops, liquorice allsorts, coconut mushrooms, clove rock, pineapple cubes, wine gums (I don’t know how they have managed to avoid the wrath of the champagne regulatory board – shhh, don’t tell them that the word CHAMPAGNE appears on one of these sweets!), Edinburgh rock – the softer cousin of seaside rock, and many more! Not forgetting the quintessentially English rhubarb and custard sweets. We should do more for our cultural heritage! Love Hearts helped to teach my daughter to read. “If you can read it, you can eat it”, I used to say. ‘Learn English with Love Hearts’ could be proposed on posters at our ports! Sweets I have actively promoted in France have been ‘Fishermen’s Friends’. Every time someone coughs in my lessons, they are offered one. I warn them that they are very strong because they were invented for fishermen working the freezing waters of the North Sea, so they are very effective. On the ‘Boston Memories – Lincolnshire’ site, I learned that Jakeman’s throat and chest menthol cough suppressants are manufactured in the town and sold all over the world. Why had I never heard of them before? Recently I found some on sale. They are worth having a sore throat for. The ‘Original’ has the same taste as a glass of Pastis! Something that is completely unknown in France is fudge. When I try to describe it, students say, “Ah, caramels!”. “No, they are softer and melt in the mouth and have a delicious buttery, creamy taste”, I reply. There is definitely a gap in the French sweet market for fudge!
When Sunday trading was debated in the British parliament in 1993 one of the arguments was that we must ‘get in line with Europe’. Anyone who has lived on the continent will know how blatantly untrue this appeal was. Fortunately, the late Ray Powell MP fought against the proposals. The local boulangerie will be open but everything else is closed. Sunday in France is still considered as a family day. Driving through villages on a Sunday could make you believe that they are uninhabited – they are so quiet. People often visit their parents or grandparents and have a meal with their wider family. One of my students agreed to organize a ‘cousinade’. It was a word I had never come across. She was inviting all her cousins to a weekend get-together. I think that is an excellent idea and one that British people could copy.
You don’t have to speak to someone for long before you are being asked what your star sign is. Astrology, palm reading, tarot cards are part of French culture. Fliers are put into your letterbox advertising clairvoyants and people phone offering to tell you your future. It is a big business. Call centres in North Africa try to get people hooked by telling them what they want to hear while charging premium rates for the service. Interestingly, although black cats are considered as goods symbols that will bring luck in the UK, they are seems representatives of the Devil in France!
When we first arrived, we used the hypermarket 10 minutes from our house. At every visit we were asked if we had a ‘carte de fidelité’ so eventually we signed up for one. Practically all of our shopping was done there. Suddenly, we realized that all of our points had disappeared. When we asked, we found that if you don’t exchange them for a free gift you lose them at the end of the year! It’s written in the small print, ‘Le compte est valable jusqu’au 31 décembre de l’année en cours; tout compte non débité à cette date est perdu par le client’. It’s a really mean policy because Christmas is traditionally a time of heavy spending, then comes a week of skiing, and ‘hey presto’ all your points are taken back!The next year, I was determined to get a free gift. After 25 years of marriage our teaspoons had progressively disappeared from our cutlery drawer. I needed 350 points to get six new ones. I even went and bought things with double points just to get to the total. The big day came. I went to Customer Service and asked for the gift I had set my heart on. “Sorry there are none left”. I was not expecting that! “Won’t you be getting some more in stock?” I asked. “No, once the things on display in the cabinet are gone, that’s it.” For my 350 points, I could have a teddy bear, a flannel for a baby or some scented wooden discs to keep away moths. As I had no toddler, baby, nor moths I was at a loss. In the end, I found a bottle of organic red wine was all that I could have – to drown my sorrows with, I suppose! Reading the small print is vital to life in France. I was astonished to find that not only does a small French supermarket chain take back your points but also the biggest international supermarket does as well. I was not expecting that!
Don’t expect to find a large range of British or European goods and brands in French supermarkets. In one small corner shop in the UK, I could buy cheeses from 11 different countries. In France 95% of the produce is French. You will have to search hard for a piece of Cheddar or a Californian wine. Jordan’s cereals seem to have found a niche. Don’t expect to find fruits and vegetables out of season. ‘Cash back’ doesn’t exist, and woe betide you if you dare to buy 11 items and take them through a ‘10 item only’ till. Keep your till receipt and learn to argue until you get receive a refund on faulty goods.