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.
Around 80% of French cars run on diesel. In the UK, it is 50%. However, France has realised that they have made a mistake as diesel is very polluting. Diesel fuelled vehicles could be banned from Paris by 2020.
It seems to me that the French take to the streets far more often than any other nation. I often wonder what it is supposed to achieve, except to show the strength and power of the big militant trades unions. On 1 May they traditionally demonstrate in Paris, for or against whatever is the current issue! A friend invited me to demonstrate for Nature Conservation. I asked why he didn’t just write to his Member of Parliament about the issues he was concerned about. That is what I used to do in the UK. His answer surprised me. ‘I could write but they wouldn’t bother to write back!’ That is part of the answer to why the French take to the streets – because they don’t feel represented by those whom they have elected.
A recent TV programme exposed the meaninglessness of ‘Best Before’ dates on food packets. France still has overseas territories namely, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane, Réunion, Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia. French food is shipped to supermarkets in these territories that occupy the four corners of the globe. The sea journeys are very long, so manufacturers put much longer expiry times on those products being exported.
What the French call ‘Viennoiseries’, we call Danish pastries. The French attribute their origin to Vienna and we think they come from Denmark. Who is right? I have learnt that these sweet treats arrived in Denmark in 1840 when Danish bakers supposedly went on strike and Viennese pastry chefs were brought in to fill the gap. The new recipes they introduced gave other Europeans, apricot custard turnovers, pains au chocolat, cinnamon snails and pain aux raisins, etc. Two Austrian men opened a shop in Paris to sell their ‘Viennoiseries’, so actually both names give clues to their origin.
I could write a whole book on the battles I have fought and the victories I have won against poor customer service in France. In one supermarket, the price at the till was nearly always different to the price on the shelf. I wrote to the head office and received a money- off voucher. At my next visit to the shop, I gave the cashier my token. She looked at it and asked me where I had got it from. ‘From your head office,’ I replied. ‘I have worked here for 10 years and have never seen one of these before,’ was her response! It seems I am the only one who takes the time to complain! It takes determination, as contact forms are sometimes not even on websites. My trick is to scroll down to the bottom of the page where ‘Mentions légales’ begin. In there, companies are legally obliged to publish their address even if they make it fiendishly difficult to contact them by the usual means. My French students could not believe their ears when I recounted that I had taken a half-eaten box of chocolates back to Thornton’s in Bedford and it had been replaced it with another of the same size. However, the replacement I chose had been reduced in price, so the staff insisted that I took some more products to make up the value. Customer Service like that is rarely found in France.
There are still mysteries to be solved about French life. One of them concerns crème fraîche. It is a product that can now be found on British supermarket shelves along with fresh cream. Sainsbury’s crème fraîche is cream thickened with tapioca starch and pectin. But, if I ask a French person what crème fraîche is, they will say it is simply ‘fresh cream’! However, theirs is fermented with lactic ferments, but so are French yoghurts. So, what is the difference between the two products? Fresh cream in the UK can be whipped and will hold its shape. French cream, when whipped returns to a liquid if left! I might have found part of the answer to my questions in an American book called, ‘The Loaves and Fishes Cookbook’. The author Anna Pump gives a recipe for crème fraîche. It involves adding 2 tablespoons of buttermilk into heated double cream. If left for 24 hours, it will thicken and keep for 3 weeks. I must try it! But I still don’t know why French whipped cream collapses.
It might seem amazing in the country renowned for gastronomy, that no one learns to cook in school. It is not on the curriculum. People used to learn to kitchen skills from their mother or grandmother, but now with many mothers having full-time work, very little cooking is done in the home. Mid-day meals are eaten in subsidized work’s canteens or in restaurants where luncheon vouchers, that are given as part of wages, can be used. The evening meal is often soup or a snack. In the same way that Jamie Oliver launched a campaign to teach people how to cook, Cyril Lignac, his French equivalent, was appalled to find people living off pasta and take-away pizzas, because they didn’t have any culinary skills. He too had programmes on TV teaching ordinary people how to cook. The one cake that most French people can make, is a yogurt cake where the empty pot is used as a measure for the other ingredients. For one pot of yogurt, use one pot of oil, two pots of sugar, three pots of self-raising flour and three eggs. Mix well and bake.