When did you last have your roof cleaned? The idea of needing to clean one’s roof had never even entered our heads before living in France. At least two of our neighbours have had their rooves cleaned. There was no moss or any particular problem, but the job required a young man to climb 10 meters from the ground, spray on a product to loosen the dirt, clean that off and then coat the roof with something that would protect it. When I asked why they needed it done, it was an ‘Il faut le faire’, moment. It must be done! (See MUST)
In the UK we name our roads after trees, flowers, birds, etc. Occasionally we commemorate Prime Ministers, battle heroes or members of the royal family. In France many roads have the names of famous people, often with their dates of birth and a few lines about their lives. Every town has the obligatory rue Victor Hugo (novelist), boulevard Jean Jaurés (Minister of Education who established free primary schools) and place General De Gaulle (war time leader and President). It is possible to trace the progress of the allies in the second world war, especially in Normandy, by the roads containing dates starting from D-day through to August 25, 1944, when Paris was liberated. Fighting was still taking place after that so, rue 30 Août can be found in a town south of Paris. Writing a few lines about celebrities on lamp posts, seems to me, to be an excellent way for children to learn a bit of history.
RIVERS. When I was writing my guide to the A26 I told my husband that the Marne was the longest river in France. He replied, ‘ No it isn’t.’ I replied, ‘ Yes it is, I have just read it on a French website.’ Thus began the debate. We found out that the French have two words for rivers, ‘rivières’ and ‘fleuves’. Rivers are the tributaries that flow into ‘fleuves’, which flow into the sea. The Marne is the ‘riviere’ that flows into the Seine which is a ‘fleuve’.
When the streets are narrow and congested, restaurants have terraces that take up significant parts of the roadway. You don’t get that in the UK. Food is not more important than traffic flow. And you pay more for a coffee if you sit amongst the French traffic fumes and noise. Look at diner’s plates. If you see tinned green beans, the rest of the food is likely to be from a frozen food supplier. If there are hundreds of things on the menu, there is no chef preparing it to order. Look for the label ‘fait maison’ if you want home-made food.
Brazil is not responsible for the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest. A country that requires triplicate copies of every piece of documentation must shoulder part of the blame. I took out a small insurance policy to cover me against any accidents my students might have in my home. It was 34 pages long! The insurance office also keeps a copy and a copy goes to their headquarters. Over 100 pieces of paper that no one will ever read! When I ordered a compost bin from the local council, the very helpful man installed it in my garden, then waited to be invited into the house. I wondered, ‘Why?’ He produced some documents for me to sign – in triplicate. One for me, one for the Town Hall, and one for the suppliers of the bins. Friends have an estate agent’s. I used to go there to teach their son. Behind the public office were stacks and stacks of boxes reaching up to the ceiling and overflowing down the stairs. They explained that they have to keep every document for ever. It was a fire hazard caused by French bureaucracy. The French call this overabundance of paperwork ‘paperasse’.
QUEUING. A queue is ‘une file d’attente’ but don’t expect to see one at a French bus stop where it is every man (or woman) for themselves! However, I was very surprised while queuing in a supermarket, that someone with a trolley load of goods turned and said, ‘N’avez vous que cette course? Allez-y’. = ‘Have you only got that amount of shopping? Go ahead.’ This happens quite regularly, so be sure to hold your two or three items so that the person in front of you can see them clearly. The most chaotic experience we had was when we went to our daughter’s school to see the teachers on parents evening. Outside the doors of 3 classrooms were a crowd of parents waiting to see one of the three teachers. There was no system, no orderly queue, we had to keep our eye on the new arrivals and try to work out who had come before us and who had arrived after us. We had never been to a school open evening that was so disorganised!
To have a degree in France is just the start of having qualifications. To get a good job students go on to take a masters which they feel is the minimum they must have. In the UK experience counts for more than certificates. Many French young people go to the British Isles to get their first job because it is far easier to be taken on if you are keen and willing in the UK.
In the UK we make purées for our babies when they have no teeth and cannot chew. On the other hand, it seems that it is a culinary art form in France. It must be lump free and just hold its shape. To be offered 3 different vegetable purées at one meal is not unusual. I wonder if French people think we are not up to scratch in the kitchen when they eat quite solid mashed potato in the British Isles?
PUPPETS. If you love glove puppets, marionettes and shadow puppets then Charleville-Mézières is the place for you! Every two years they have an international puppet festival that takes over the centre of the town. It is now in its 18th year. When we visited, we watched an old man tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood using props that were fixed onto the front of his bicycle. When he had finished he folded it all up and rode away! I assumed that nothing like it existed in the UK, but I have just found out that Beverley, near Hull, also has a puppet festival every two years. Beverley has 9,000 visitors and Charleville 150,000! Charleville not only hosts the festival it has a School of Puppetry.
For a country that is bankrupt, there always seems to be plenty of public money being spent. Since we moved to Reims 10 years ago, we have seen a new bypass being built, a new football stadium, a new east-west TGV railway line and station, a new tramway system, the old station has been turned round and a new frontage built, the old derelict market halls have been repaired and modernised, many old houses have been pulled down and replaced by modern flats, the cathedral has been cleaned and statues replaced and the canal bank has been made into a recreation area from the north to the south of the town. By contrast the town of Lowestoft, Suffolk, where I was born has been waiting for a third river crossing for nearly 50 years to relieve the crippling congestion.