Scenario – You have managed to find the name and address of a good plumber; you have phoned him and arranged a time and a date for him to come. He does not show up. A) You wait until he calls you. B) You phone him and keep phoning him until he comes. Response ‘A’ is what a British person would do. We expect that if someone says he will do your work, he will keep his appointment and you are in his diary. Response B is the French way. Anyone who has read typical stories of people buying old houses in the south of France and the tales of builders who never turn up, has been amused by this. Making a fuss seems to be the only way to get your artisan to put you at the top of his list of priorities. Imagine his position. He has twenty clients. Nineteen, phone and email him continually with their ‘urgent’ work. Client number 20 slips from his mind. One of my students has her own way of getting things done. She will go to the doctor’s or dentist’s at the very end of the day, having made no appointment. The receptionist will say that it is impossible for her to see the professional. My lady says, ‘There is no problem, I can wait, I have my flask of coffee, a sandwich and a book.’ The professional wants to go home at the end of the day, so reluctantly agrees to see her!
Peas are always ‘des petits pois’ even though they are bigger, harder, and less sweet than the frozen peas we are used to in the U.K. Peas, that are eaten while still in their pods, are called ‘Mange Tout’ (French for ‘eat all’) in English. It would seem reasonable that the name originated from the French language, but they are called ‘Pois Gourmand’ in French. French people are amazed that the peas we eat in the UK are bright green and they think this must be unnatural. Having been a Food Taster for Unilever, part of our work was to quality control Bird’s Eye peas. They are selected to be sweet, tender and green. By contrast, French peas that are sold in jars are grey-green. To find a sweet, tender frozen pea you have to seek out ‘Garden peas’. Derrière leur nom anglo-saxon, les Garden Peas sont des gros pois cultivés en Bretagne. Ils développent un goût sucré et une texture fondante auxquels on est peu habitué. = ‘Behind their English name, the Garden Peas are big peas, grown in Brittany. They develop a sweet taste and a melting texture which we are not accustomed to.’ Another proof, that tender peas are not the norm, is the recommended cooking times on packets of frozen peas. I thought there had been a printing mistake when I read that I must cook frozen peas for 8-14 minutes or 5-9 minutes in a pressure cooker! One brand promises, ‘Une garantie de délai entre la récolte et la surgélation de moins de 150 minutes’ = ‘A delay between harvesting and freezing of less than 150 minutes.’ A promise that has always been the case with Bird’s Eye peas! A mother’s comment on a French frozen foods firm’s website said, Très bons petits pois, pas farineux et très doux. Même mes enfants en mangent avec plaisir. – ‘Very good peas,very tender, not floury, and even my children eat them with pleasure!’ It sounds as if her previous experience of peas was very different! If you don’t believe me, then perhaps you will believe a French Chef, namely Raymond Blanc, who recommends Bird’s Eye peas in his book ‘Simple French Cookery’ for the recipe ‘Petits pois à la française’. “I must say that Bird’s Eye were the best we used for this recipe because they are harvested very young and frozen within 24 hours, so retain optimum flavour and freshness”!
French pavements do not seem to be made for pedestrians. Cars are encouraged to park on them. A tiny little sign at the town limit, of a red circle with a blue interior divided by a red diagonal line, that you need to have pointed out to you, will usually indicate which side of the road you can park on. It may say, ‘Stationnement alterné semi-mensuel dans toute l’agglomération’. The numbers in the circle divide the month in half e.g. 1-15 and 16-31. From the first to the fifteenth of the month you must park on the side of the road which has even house numbers. From the sixteenth onwards you must park on the odd numbered side of the street. Cars should be parked half on and half off the pavements to leave plenty of room for emergency vehicles. In practice, cars park very badly and leave no room for pedestrians. Mothers with pushchairs are forced to walk in the road, and pushing a wheelchair is a gruelling exercise of going up and down kerbs and trying to find possible routes. There are often concrete blocks planted in the middle of a path which seem designed to trip up pedestrians. A brand-new road makeover near where we live, took away all the pavements so walkers share the same tarmac as vehicles and bicycles. Bizarre! By contrast in the UK parking on the pavement is forbidden and could get you a fine of £70.
In the UK we have been subjected to political correctness for so long that we believe that the slightest amount of pride in our country is xenophobic. It is refreshing to be in a country that sees nothing wrong with flying its flag, celebrating its history and culture or being proud to be French and to want to support French industries. It does get a bit tiresome when a French bar of chocolate is considered to be better than a British one – for the sole reason that it was ‘Made in France’!
Pancakes are not eaten on Shrove Tuesday. Pancakes are eaten 40 days after Christmas on Chandeleur which is celebrated on 2 February. The UK church calendar calls this day Candlemas. It remembers the purification of Mary, the mother of Jesus, 40 days after his birth. Jesus was presented in the temple, so the day is called ‘Présentation’ in my French diary. In the temple Mary, Joseph and the baby were prayed for by Simeon who declared prophetically that Jesus would be a ‘light that will reveal salvation’. Candles representing ‘light’ are prayed over on this day, giving it the name Chandeleur – think of ‘chandeliers’ that hold candles. However, that does not explain why pancakes are the traditional food! One site says that in the Vth century Pope Gélase reinstated some pagan ceremonies, such as celebrating the return of longer days, and that pancakes with their yellow colour and their round shape represent the sun!
Many French people go to church especially on this day in order to receive some box wood branches that have been blessed by the priest. These ‘rameaux’ are taken home, pinned to a crucifix in the belief that they bring protection to the house. If someone dies during the next year, the twigs are placed on the coffin. During the funeral at the church everyone is invited to come and sprinkle holy water on the coffin using the ‘rameaux’.
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!