A political commentator (Sirot) has observed that in other Northern European countries, strikes tend to follow failed negotiations. In France, strike action precedes negotiations and continues while they are taking place. (see UNIONS).
When we first arrived in France, we were constantly followed around shops by strange men. These solitary men in suits were suspicious. They did not carry shopping baskets like normal shoppers but lurked in the shadows sometimes fingering goods and pretending they were considering whether to buy something. I used to keep my watchful eye on them, ready to alert the store if I saw something suspect. Then the penny dropped that they were store detectives keeping an eye on us strangers speaking in unknown tongues. Even small businesses employ them. If you take a bag of shopping into a store you are expected to leave it by the till so you cannot slip something else inside your bag. I rebel against this especially when I have my work briefcase with me. If anyone stole it from an unwatched till, I would lose lots of things that cannot be replaced. Often in the smaller supermarkets there is no one at the till until you come to pay. I wonder what would happen if my goods were stolen, would I be reimbursed? In a small supermarket a store detective waited for me outside and wanted to see what was in my shopping bag, but I had the receipt from the previous shop, so I was OK. Once an English boy on a school exchange decided to be clever and to shoplift something to impress his mates. He was seen and prevented from leaving the store. The head teacher of the exchange school was not happy to be telephoned and to have to come and fetch him in ‘loco parentis’. The reputation of the English school was sullied. The boy narrowly escaped a night in the cells.
Everyone, young and old seems to have a sport that they practise. When I had to have a medical for a job, I was asked if I practised any sport. I said that I rode my bike! When I repeated the conversation at home it received an, ‘Oh, mother!’ from our then, teenage daughter. Sports are taken very seriously. You must wear the right gear and try to be the best at it. Playing sport for the fun of it doesn’t seem to be in the French psyche.
In the UK being a vegetarian, vegan or wanting gluten free foods is now catered for in most restaurants. France has passed a law that says that restaurants must provide a list of allergens. We were encouraged to see that Dominos Pizzas now offer a gluten free option in the UK, nevertheless their French branches do not do so at the time of writing. It is very difficult to find information on restaurant websites too. I once went to eat in an up-market restaurant and asked if they had any ‘plats sans gluten’. The waiter was nonplussed and blurted out, ‘the mashed potato has no gluten’ and left! Was I supposed to order mashed potato for starter, mashed potato for the main course and mashed potato for dessert? At one of my classes, students wanted to look at the language of recipes and cooking. I took along a recipe for Carrot, Leek and Potato Pie, which is one of my husband’s favourites. One lady read it and asked, “Where is the meat?” I said that it was vegetarian and delicious. She told us that her husband would have asked the same question if she served something like that at home. A meal is not a meal without meat in France!
Britain was blessed with many natural spas. Epsom, Buxton, Bath, Leamington Spa, almost an A to Z from Ashbourne to Woodhall Spa, twenty-two in all. People flocked to them from all over the world to ‘take a cure’. When sea-bathing gained in popularity, spas declined and faded away. In France ‘taking the waters’ has continued to be part of the culture. The different mineral waters were studied and seen to aid many complaints. A 2001 study by Dutch doctors showed that the effects of a three-week cure lasted for 9 months. A ‘cure’ can be had on prescription for anything from high cholesterol levels and heavy legs to ear, nose and throat problems. The mineral water at Vichy is even made into mint sweets that are ‘good for the digestion’. When I see things like that, I just wish the UK had more entrepreneurial spirit and made Buxton Spring Mints or Bath Mineral Pastilles. Oh, and another brilliant idea is that at Vichy they evaporate the spring water to leave just a tiny amount of the dry mineral salts, then it is sent to health spas round the world where it is rehydrated with local water and sold as ‘the genuine Vichy Spa experience’! In the UK, there is unfortunately, no shop in Epsom dedicated to sell Epsom Spa products such as the famous Epsom salts. (See SOAP). Whereas, a French spa at Castéra-Verduzan in the Gers has a range of tooth gels and mouth sprays because the water is reputed to be good for mouth and tooth problems. There must be hundreds of ways in which the UK could also exploit its spas and their products once again. For example, acid rain used to deposit sulphur on British gardens, but clearer atmosphere’s have left soils deficient in sulphur. In Epsom salts there is both sulphur, and another essential plant nutrient, magnesium. Sprinkled over the ground following the directions on the packet, it will give higher yields of tastier, more nutritious crops. Hurrah for Epsom salts!
The French word for soup gave us the root of the word ‘supper’ – ‘souper’. French people often have soup as the last meal of the day, as they have generally dined well at dinner time. When I told someone that we often ate soup for lunch, they were visibly shocked. In our local frozen food shop, I can buy Brighton Soup. I wonder if the people of Brighton know that they are famous for their carrot potage in France.
British people have a tendency to apologise for everything they do. If we bump into someone we say, ‘sorry’ even if it is not our fault. We say ‘sorry’ when we sneeze and ‘sorry’ when we are late and start conversations with, ‘sorry to bother you!’ We can even be heard to say, ‘sorry for the rain’! One English friend noted that French people are less likely to take responsibility when things go wrong or to accept that people fail sometimes – so are far less likely to say, ‘sorry’.
Has the UK got a national type of soap? In France ‘Savon de Marseille’ is everywhere. It comes in shampoos, washing powders and cosmetics. First made 600 years ago, it should be made with olive oil. I watched a TV programme about it that went to one of the few remaining soap factories in Marseilles. The owner of the company said he used nothing else on his body as it was good for washing hair as well. He said his skin was as smooth as a baby’s and he hadn’t got a grey hair. The presenter stroked his outstretched arm and agreed that his skin was beautifully soft and free from wrinkles. I was convinced. But, the programme warned, there were plenty of imitations and only 5% of products labelled as ‘Savon de Marseille’ are the genuine article. I shopped carefully in my local organic shop and chose a 500g cube as it might take some time to return my skin to the softness that I was born with. As it was so big, I needed to cut it into pieces. Unfortunately, it had a texture like shale and each slice fell into small shards. Bathing with it was therefore problematic and also the smell was not at all pleasant. As for using it on my hair, the feel and smell was more industrial and coarser than I had been led to believe. Sorry, ‘Savon de Marseille’, I was a convert, but I would rather use the national soap of England – when someone has produced and marketed it! (While researching SPAS I found that Epsom Salt soap and Epsom Salt shampoo can be bought from Epsom Salts.co.uk!)
The first snowfall of winter is always exciting. I love walking in newly fallen snow that crackles and glistens. In France it brings with it responsibilities. Each householder must clear the path in front of their house and salt it. My neighbour, even though he was in his 90’s, was always out with his snow shovel early in the morning. It was a race to complete the job, because if I did not get out there early enough, he would do, not only his part of the path, but mine and the next neighbour’s as well. In the UK we have been foolishly prevented from doing what is normal and natural by the threat of litigation. In our French town magazine, it states clearly that ‘en cas d’accident, votre responsabilité sera engagée’ = ‘you will be responsible if there is an accident’. In other words, you will be responsible if someone slips on the un-cleared pavement. Not only that, it is also your responsibility to sweep up fallen leaves on the path if they come from your trees and to pull out weeds that pop up on the path or in the gutter!
French people expect to take off their shoes when they come into your house. Given the state of the pavements and the amount of dog poo, it is probably wise to let them.