If your image of France is one of art, fashion and culture you have to remember that those things were only for the very rich. When I read about the history of France from the point of view of the average citizen it helped to put things in perspective. During the 18th century and the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI French peasants were starving because they had to pay huge taxes. Nobles and the clergy were exempt, meaning that those who had the most wealth paid the least. For instance, there was a salt tax. Peasants had to pay a tax on the salt they used, by law every member of the family had to use 2 ¾ litres of it each year, neither were they allowed to take a bucket of saltwater from the sea. In one year, 5,000 adults and 6,000 children were arrested for contravening this law. Taxes to the king, the church and the local lord accounted for 82% of people’s incomes! If the peasant were a merchant, there were tolls to pay on roads and rivers. The nobles and the clergy had the right to hunt even over the fields of the peasants and their pigeons had the right to eat the poor people’s grain. The peasants had to use the mills, ovens and winepresses of the lords, for which they had to pay. The lords had also the right to demand that the peasants worked for them on certain days. No wonder the poor people ate snails and frog’s legs. In ‘The Story of France’ by Eleanor Doorly, she writes that when Voltaire had to flee for his life to England he wrote ‘Letters from England’ which helped to cause the Revolution. He described in that book ‘how happy England was to have a nobility who had no privileges and honest traders who were respected’.
Potatoes in France come in every variety and for every type of cooking, puréeing, slicing and pan frying, steaming, etc. However, they don’t come in big sizes for baking. If anyone saw me looking longingly at the potato display in Waitrose one day, it was because of the abundance of variations on a ‘bag of baking potatoes’. We have to sift through loose ones to try and find a couple of extra-large ones in France. This is despite having had a restaurant near us that specialised in baked potatoes! The concept is not unknown but never-the-less takes effort to replicate at home ‘chez nous’.
The red flower that sprang up in the disturbed soil after the first World War became the symbol of remembrance for British people. The cornflower is the French symbol, because it reminds people of the blue overcoats that French soldiers wore.
Politeness is important whether you are writing a letter or greeting someone in the street. To just say, ‘Bonjour’ is not enough. One should say, ’Bonjour Monsieur/ Bonjour Madame’. Older people should be addressed as ‘vous’, as should teachers and everyone really until you become good friends with them. One of my students even corrects his children when they use ‘tu’ to speak to him. He replies, ‘Am I one of your friends?’ There are long phrases that ought to be used when writing letters. By contrast, politeness can be used in an ironic way to be impolite. When a young man sitting next to me on the bus requested that I move to let him off with, ‘Excusez-moi, Madame, puis-je vous derange just un petit minute parce-que je veux decendre’,* I thought him an extremely polite young man. When I related this to my daughter her response was that he was probably being rude by his excessively flowery speech! *Excuse me, madam, could I just annoy you for just a second, because I would like to get off.
It must be much easier to be a poet in France than in the UK, when ‘fille’ rhymes with ‘esprit’.
Why can’t French sinks just have a rubber plug on a chain? Who invented the horrible little contraption with a cartwheel on the end that needs pulling out every week in order to brush away all the black algae that it has encouraged to grow? And what happens to all that smelly, slimy stuff? It gets washed down the sink where it would have happily gone if not for the ‘sophisticated’ trapping device!
When we have taken pizza along to a shared meal, we have been surprised to find that it was cut up and served as an ‘aperitif’ to accompany the drinks before the main dishes. Bizarrely, in Reims there is a pizza shop called ‘Pulpy Pizza’! One of my students explained that ‘pulpeux’ can mean, full of texture and that ‘les lèvres pulpeuses’ are full sensual lips. My daughter said that they are very good pizzas in spite of the name.
In all of our travels in France I don’t think we have ever seen an outdoor reared ‘herd’, ‘drove’ or ‘sounder’. We live close to Rethel, famous for its ‘boudin blanc’ (a white sausage made with pork, bread, cream, spices and eggs) and further to the west is the Ardennes region, famous in the UK for its pâté, but a pig in clover is seldom seen. Driving though my native East Anglia, we pass many farms where pigs have a muddy field, sunshine and shelters. The same can be said when travelling though Wiltshire and the West Country. Sad to say 95% of French pigs are intensively reared indoors and because of their close confinement, routinely treated with antibiotics. We were very happy to find ‘sanglier’ on sale in Lidl’s and Aldi and so treat ourselves to wild boar which is amazingly different in taste and colour to pale pink pork slices.
Pillows are almost certain to be rectangular in the UK but are by tradition square in France. Having transported beds, bedlinen and pillows with us to France, this has caused a bit of a problem when needing new pillowcases. Some supermarkets sell a limited range of rectangular ones, but they are not easily available. Buying a matching set of new bed linen is a problem because the pillowcases that match are most likely to be square. “Je cherche une taie d’oreiller rectangulaire”, might be of use to you.
Ever since the start of the Baccalaureate in 1809, French children have learnt Philosophy. They have to be able to discuss a topic such as, ‘Can one ever be certain of being right?’. Every word must be considered, the pro’s and the con’s set forth and famous philosophers must be quoted. This is to teach French children to be able to analyse and to think through issues, so as to come to sensible decisions in a democratic society. A ramification of this means that any meeting can go on for hours as everyone wants to give his/her opinion and to examine all sides of the argument, even if it seems a simple decision needs to be made. French people have been trained to be able to speak 100 words where a British person would use just 10.