The doctrine that ‘French is best’ often overrides confidence in organic products. As the products often come from Spain, Italy and other countries, many French people do not think that these items have the same checks and controls as home grown products, even though the farmers, producers and distributers have yearly check-ups. One of our local ‘bio’ shops brought out a booklet answering the 10 frequently used objections against buying organic. ‘French jobs will be lost’ is an often used argument, but the booklet points out that organic production is more labour intensive. Arguments about increased air miles are countered by the fact that more organic farms sell locally than non-organic ones. When pesticides have been detected in 91% of tests on streams and rivers (2007), organic is for me, the way forward.
Be careful about ‘les heures ouvrables’ – opening hours, because many shops close for lunch. Even big stores, like garden centres, often close their shutters at mid-day. We have been caught out many times! Shops will often be closed on Mondays as a result of the strict employment laws that limit how many hours can be worked in a week; shops, that stay open late at the weekend will not open again until Tuesday. One morning, I found myself in town having finished with one student and not having another lesson to go to until after lunch. I thought I would go and have a coffee at my favourite coffee shop –CLOSED. Oh well, I thought, I will go to the bookshop – CLOSED. When a large department store was also closed in the morning, the only place to go was McDonald’s!
In the UK doctors will start to treat you if you get to a Body Mass Index of 28 and have another medical condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, otherwise they wait until the BMI reaches 30 when the classification is ‘obese’. In France, if you have a BMI of 25 you will be classed as overweight and will be ‘prise en charge’ – monitored and helped, to try to stop you getting to an obese state.
The expression ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ is truer of a Frenchman than it is of an English person. In the UK, I had good neighbours. If I started cooking and realised that I had no eggs, I could ask a neighbour. It was reciprocal. To call on a neighbour or friend without an invitation, is just not done in France. I used to have a Dutch friend in Reims and when I worked near her apartment, I would call in for a coffee. Her house was not always in a pristine state as she had 3 young children. She was, however, always very happy to see me and begged me to continue ‘dropping in’ as no one else ever called unexpectedly. Because in general, neighbours do not know each other and because there were some terrible cases of people dying and lying undetected for months, a national ‘Fête des Voisins’ has been put in place. The idea is that everyone in a block of flats is invited to a barbeque, so that they can get to know each other. All the people in a cul-de-sac might organise a mini street party for instance. We have organised one on several occasions. One year, we had only one or two guests because neighbours, who were thinking of coming, looked out onto the street and, seeing no tables or activity, went inside again. They had not expected that we would invite people into our house!
‘Slit throats’, ‘blood-soaked flags’ and ‘ploughed fields running red with enemy blood’. No this is not a terrorist video but some of the words from the French national anthem. Some French friends were really surprised when they watched an international rugby match and saw the words of our National Anthem translated. ‘God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen’ etc. They were astonished that it was a prayer of blessing and that it contained nothing about fighting off our enemies or calls for the men of Britain to take up their arms. They were impressed by the fact that our national song is so peaceful and positive.
Doctors expect to see a lot more of you in France than in the UK. Being modest and protecting your dignity is difficult. Just to take off everything and to lie on the consulting room table without a hospital gown or shred of covering is embarrassing. Also, there are no nursing assistants to chaperone you.
Where does Dijon mustard come from? If you go to Dijon, there are picturesque villages and lots of vines producing plenty of Burgundy wines. The region is also famous for crème de cassis, which comes from blackcurrant bushes. Where are the tell-tale yellow fields of mustard? You will have to have good eyesight because 90% of the mustard seeds come from Canada! So why is Dijon famous for mustard? In 1856 someone from Dijon substituted the vinegar in a mustard recipe for grape juice from not-quite ripe grapes, so really it should be called ‘mustard made to the Dijon recipe’. As a native of East Anglia, I recommend Coleman’s mustard, which is grown by farmers in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Coleman’s English mustard is what it says on the jar! At least the countryside around Reims is an agricultural region and there are efforts being made to grow local mustard to ensure that Reims Mustard is not also a misnomer.
Il faut. This phrase is often used in France. It means ‘you must’. I think that in the UK we are less legalistic and give advice with ‘you should’, ‘you can’, ‘you could’. Even when we want to state something quite strongly, we still use ‘you ought to’ which gives people a choice as to whether to follow the wise council. I think I could write another book on the bizarre occasions that the phrase ‘Il faut’ has been used. For example, our toilet flush button was sticking. We called in a plumber to fix it. He said that the cable was sticking and needed oiling. ‘Il faut huiler le cable chaque année’ – ‘You must oil the cable each year.’ As we had never oiled a toilet flush cable in our entire lives, this heaped a lot of negligence onto our shoulders! Another example; we decided to have a ‘free’ heat exchanger fitted after receiving many phone calls about how efficient they were. After its installation, we found we were using more electricity than before and that it turned out to be far more expensive than we could afford. It fact we had been conned. I told people about our experience, but the reaction was, ‘You must never agree to anything via telephone sales’. There was no sympathy for our situation. The fault was entirely ours!
When in 1914 Britain’s Lloyd George asked France’s famous General Castelnau if France could expel the German forces his reply was, ‘Il le faut’ – we must do it! Churchill used, ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ in 1940. It would be interesting to do a compare and contrast essay on the nuances of the respective expressions.
Most British Museums are free. Payment is required in French ones except on the last Sunday of the month. On Tuesdays they are often closed. Museums generally feel the need to educate the visitor without entertaining them. Almost every exhibit has a page of information to read. Skipping the texts brings forth feelings of guilt, but if you read every word, you will have read the equivalent of War and Peace by the time your visit ends.
Foraging in the woods for mushrooms could be a pleasant weekend outing. Many French people like to do so. However, how do you know if the ones you have picked are bona fide and not a poisonous lookalike? Easy, take your basket to the local chemist. Pharmacists have all been trained to recognise edible mushrooms from toxic ones. You don’t get service like that in Boots the Chemist. Interestingly the variety ‘trompette de la mort’ is edible. My friend Juliette tells this joke. ‘All mushrooms are edible, but some, only once.’