Some French men think that it is perfectly all right to relieve themselves in public. A roundabout into town seems to be a popular place to stop a car and just do it in full view of everyone. Some toilets in restaurants seem designed so that women entering have to avert their eyes from the men’s urinal that is plainly in view.
In France it is traditionally a ‘pièce montée’, a tall conical tower of choux buns stuck together with spun caramel. In the UK, we like a three-tiered cake to the recipe of the newly-wed’s choice. I tell my students that a typical British wedding cake is a rich fruit cake and that it was the custom to keep the top tier to eat when the first baby was born. They cannot believe that a cake can be kept without going mouldy. Because of the high butter content, it can be stored for 6-9 months and actually improves in flavour.
Although French tap water is purified to European standards, many people drink bottled water. I was surprised to see lead piping being replaced in the city centre. If your house is old you might find that you still have ‘plomb’ – lead, in your plumbing. That is the origin of our word.
A great many French villages still have ‘lavoirs’ or outdoor communal washing places preserved as sightseeing attractions. In the 19th century steams were diverted into the centre of the community and a small, stone-lined pool was created and covered with a roof where the village women could do their washing. The one in our village was built in 1892. In the small area between a town called Fismes and Reims there are 56 lavoirs that still exist. The pattern is repeated all over France. Some have been turned into focal points by filling them with flowers, but some are so utilitarian, they could never be made beautiful. You have to feel sorry for the ladies of the village of Écueil whose facility was little more than an enlarged horse trough situated right in the middle of the village square, completely open to the elements. By contrast we visited Birmingham Museum and saw that by 1914 the city council were concerned that over 40,000 houses were still without an indoor water supply, implying that everyone else in the city had already got an indoor tap from which to get water for drinking and for doing the washing. I am not aware of any public washing places that still exist in the UK.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.