I wanted to write something on this subject because there are big differences between British law and French law. However, the subject is so complex that I am out of my depth and still wanting answers for our own situation. However, I found this interesting letter in the Telegraph written by Nicholas Wightwick. “In the UK, large estates are left to the eldest child. The Napoleonic Code has destroyed large estates to no one’s benefit. It decrees that estates, property and money must be divided equally between all direct claimants. Furniture, pictures and other valuables are quickly distributed and probably sold, while the house – now belonging to several people – becomes no one’s responsibility. Moreover, there is no organisation like the National Trust in France, which means that large, unwanted houses are often left to rot.”
The division of property into smaller and smaller pieces can be seen in the vineyards. An owner might have many small fields all over the village. As a result organic production is often laughed at as an impossibility because the plots are small and surrounded by owners who use pesticides. However, the organic samples I have tasted speak for themselves.
Travellers to the UK are very surprised to find that British people do not need an identity card. French people must carry their card at all times. They can travel abroad with it to certain countries, so do not necessarily need a passport. By contrast when part of our family wanted to visit us with their three children, they needed to spend over £500 on passports before they even stepped out of the door.
Can you guess which product is being talked about here? ‘For more than 50 years our company has put all of its enthusiasm into making for you XXXs with inimitable, unique flavours. With this brand of XXXs, made in the traditional way you will be taken back to the original pleasurable taste which brings together the crispiness, the finesse and the good taste of the vegetable from which it is made. We select the best ingredients for our recipes, made with sunflower oil and with varieties of vegetables chosen with great attention that are exclusively grown in France. To be able to always satisfy you and to limit your consumption of unhealthy oils we only use sunflower oil with a high level of omega-9. It is at the foot of the Garlaban hills, amongst the thyme, rosemary and the summer savory that we thought up this recipe. This is why our XXX’s with sea salt have the delightful flavour of Provence.’ Did you guess the product that is being described with such expansive writing? The correct answer is – salted crisps! On one hand, I am amused and astonished that someone can be so creative on the subject of the humble crisp, but on the other hand, I wish that self-effacing, modest Brits would blow their own trumpets in the same way about our quality products. Perhaps things are improving because I found this on a packet of Piper’s crisps. ‘Made by farmers. At Piper’s we endeavour to make Britain’s tastiest crisps. We hand select the best locally grown potatoes, remove just enough skin, slice them to the right thickness and then batch cook them in pure sunflower oil. Still warm, we then season them with ingredients carefully selected from producers who care as passionately about the quality of their products as we do about ours. Our cheddar cheese is supplied by Lye Cross Farm situated at the foot of the Mendip Hills near the village of Cheddar. Here traditional methods and skills are employed such as ‘cheddaring’ – the practice of turning and stacking the curds until mature and full of flavour. Pipers…crisps as they should taste.’ I think Piper’s win on factual content as ‘finesse’, ‘great attention’ and ‘delightful’ are subjective rather than objective.
Hunting on foot is very popular. It is often the way to progress in your job. It is like joining the outdoor activity branch of a Masonic lodge. Wild boars are a nuisance and can destroy a lot of crops in a short time. Farmers can claim money from local hunts if deer and wild boar are not kept under control. However, I didn’t expect to see posters advertising a Hunting Exhibition to feature two small boys in their waxed jackets – an image that would cause an uproar in the UK. I can remember the fuss that was made when Prince Charles took William and Harry out just to watch hunting. Hunting toys are on sale like ‘Tir au Pigeon’ = ‘Shoot a pigeon’ or its variant ‘Tir aux canards’ = ‘Shoot at ducks’. On the other hand, I would like to visit the ‘Musée de la Chasse et la Nature’ -The Museum of Hunting and Nature, in Paris, which is housed in two old residential houses, it has over 9,000 works of art to look at.
Many French people like Benny Hill and I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t like Mr. Bean. Slapstick, Mr Pastry and clowns are forms of humour Brits associate with our childhood. I like to start an English lesson with a joke. It gives a good indication of people’s level of understanding. The person who laughs first obviously understands the narrative and the punch line. Then, I ask that person to explain to the others why it was funny. During one lesson with a group of mature adult business men, there were 10 minutes left. I told a few of my best jokes and then asked if they had any. I will never repeat the exercise! Their jokes were not the sort that I could or would ever want to repeat! One comic film we love is ‘Bienvenue chez les ch’tis’. It tells the story of a post office manager from the south who dearly wants a transfer to the coast to please his wife. His efforts to secure it result in him getting a transfer to the north of France. The film highlights the stereotypical ideas the southerners have about northerners. It is hilarious. We make all of our guests watch it. However, in the follow-up film ‘Rien À Dèclarer’, the fine line between patriotism and racism is crossed far too many times for us, well indoctrinated, ‘politically correct’ Brits to feel totally comfortable when watching it. British people tell Irish jokes; French people tell the same jokes against the Belgians.
Our town possesses a hippodrome where ‘sulky’ races take place. The jockey sits on a very flimsy two wheeled cart which is harnessed to a trotting horse. The bar in our village is called ‘Le Sulky’. The British Harness Racing Club organises events in the UK, but I had never heard of this type of racing before.
French people take holidays all the time! Usually they stay in France and go south. I joke with my students that it is surprising that the country does not tip up with the weight of the many people on the Mediterranean and southern coasts during the month of August. France has 3 more national holidays than England. The UK is almost unique in the world in not having a day on which to celebrate our Queen or our nation. My students can hardly believe that we don’t have an equivalent to July 14, Bastille Day. Furthermore, mean spirited British politicians moved several of our holidays from their proper date to the closest Monday. British people could no longer ‘faire le pont’ as French people do. In France, if a holiday falls on a Thursday, they take the Friday off and get a long weekend. The practice could cost the UK £3 billion in lost productivity! France has 11 national holidays whereas England has 8, but the French can often get an extra 4 days when the May and November holidays fall on Tuesdays or Thursdays. As the Brits were major players in the first and second world wars it seems odd that VE (Victory in Europe) Day in May and Armistice Day in November are holidays in France but not in the UK. It is also odd that a country that is ‘laïc’, meaning ‘secular’, should have the major Christian festivals as holidays, for example Christmas and Easter, but also Ascension Day, Pentecost and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in August. The tradition that Mary rose bodily to heaven and did not die is no longer a catholic doctrine, but who is going to argue about it, when to do so might risk the loss of a day’s holiday?
Then there is RTT ‘réduction du temps de travail’. Because the law says that people can only work 35 hours a week, any extra hours are put aside as holidays. One of my business students worked so many extra hours when he was on an important project that he was due months of RTT that he was never able to take, but the maximum that can be accrued is 22 days. All these factors mean that French people take on average 37 days (depending on the type of job that could go up to 59 with RTT) a year of holidays compared to England’s 28. (The Scots and people in N. Ireland get more national holidays than the English and the Welsh.)
Not having a holiday is seen as a deprivation. I read in a magazine that, ‘Si la France était un village de 100 personnes, 29 ne partent pas en vacannes l’été.’ If France was a village of 100 people, 29 never go on a summer holiday. To enable children to have a summer holiday, local councils subsidise summer camps for not so well off school children. Big businesses send out brochures to their employees with lists of summer holidays available for their children at very low prices.
The French may have chopped off the heads of the aristocrats, but class structure still remains in their psyche. Bosses have become the new dictators who are unapproachable. Many workers dare not speak to their boss. He or she has taken the place of the old absolute monarch and his entourage. My husband, not being used to this, has always spoken to his head mistress and if he has a question, he goes straight to her. His colleagues would never dream of doing so. The boss must always be addressed with the ‘vous’ form of the verb, never as ‘tu’.
Not saying ‘bonjour’ is a cardinal sin in France. Before we moved to France, we were on holiday in Brittany and needed to see a doctor. I went into the waiting room while my husband went to do a bit of shopping and find a parking place. There were about 8 other people already there, so I took a magazine off the table. The next person to enter said ‘hello’ to the assembly. The following person went round and shook everyone’s hand including mine, as did everyone else that entered. I had never felt so impolite in all my life. When my husband arrived, I whispered, “Say ‘hello’ to everyone”. He turned to the crowd and did a nod and a general, ‘hello’, but to no one in particular. I knew that this was not enough. I had learned my lesson and made sure I said ‘goodbye’ politely to everyone as I left.
I once had a student who worked in the Tourist Office. She thinks that everyone who is not French is impolite because they don’t even say the important ‘hello’ before launching into their enquiry. Even if you say, “Excuse me, please could you be so kind as to give me some information?” and you smile brightly, you will still be classed as impolite because you did not start with, ‘bonjour’.
We have decided that the French must have a strong desire to ‘master’ nature. Otherwise, why do naturally round bushes have to be cut into square shapes? Look at pictures of the Champs Elysees – the tree lined avenue has straight-sided trees. Even in the middle of the countryside we have noted road-side bushes carefully manicured into cubes. We visited a museum which boasted a splendid ‘jardin à la française’, which consisted of lawns containing lines of bushes trimmed into pyramids and cubes beside gravel paths – not a single flower to be seen! Also there is a lack of hedges in the French countryside. At first I thought that it was just in our region that fields have no bushy field boundaries. However, when I was reading a book about the Battle of the Somme (1916), new arrivals in the region commented that it was just like the English countryside but with no hedges.