Many French people like Benny Hill and I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t like Mr. Bean. Slapstick, Mr Pastry and clowns are forms of humour Brits associate with our childhood. I like to start an English lesson with a joke. It gives a good indication of people’s level of understanding. The person who laughs first obviously understands the narrative and the punch line. Then, I ask that person to explain to the others why it was funny. During one lesson with a group of mature adult business men, there were 10 minutes left. I told a few of my best jokes and then asked if they had any. I will never repeat the exercise! Their jokes were not the sort that I could or would ever want to repeat! One comic film we love is ‘Bienvenue chez les ch’tis’. It tells the story of a post office manager from the south who dearly wants a transfer to the coast to please his wife. His efforts to secure it result in him getting a transfer to the north of France. The film highlights the stereotypical ideas the southerners have about northerners. It is hilarious. We make all of our guests watch it. However, in the follow-up film ‘Rien À Dèclarer’, the fine line between patriotism and racism is crossed far too many times for us, well indoctrinated, ‘politically correct’ Brits to feel totally comfortable when watching it. British people tell Irish jokes; French people tell the same jokes against the Belgians.
Our town possesses a hippodrome where ‘sulky’ races take place. The jockey sits on a very flimsy two wheeled cart which is harnessed to a trotting horse. The bar in our village is called ‘Le Sulky’. The British Harness Racing Club organises events in the UK, but I had never heard of this type of racing before.
French people take holidays all the time! Usually they stay in France and go south. I joke with my students that it is surprising that the country does not tip up with the weight of the many people on the Mediterranean and southern coasts during the month of August. France has 3 more national holidays than England. The UK is almost unique in the world in not having a day on which to celebrate our Queen or our nation. My students can hardly believe that we don’t have an equivalent to July 14, Bastille Day. Furthermore, mean spirited British politicians moved several of our holidays from their proper date to the closest Monday. British people could no longer ‘faire le pont’ as French people do. In France, if a holiday falls on a Thursday, they take the Friday off and get a long weekend. The practice could cost the UK £3 billion in lost productivity! France has 11 national holidays whereas England has 8, but the French can often get an extra 4 days when the May and November holidays fall on Tuesdays or Thursdays. As the Brits were major players in the first and second world wars it seems odd that VE (Victory in Europe) Day in May and Armistice Day in November are holidays in France but not in the UK. It is also odd that a country that is ‘laïc’, meaning ‘secular’, should have the major Christian festivals as holidays, for example Christmas and Easter, but also Ascension Day, Pentecost and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in August. The tradition that Mary rose bodily to heaven and did not die is no longer a catholic doctrine, but who is going to argue about it, when to do so might risk the loss of a day’s holiday?
Then there is RTT ‘réduction du temps de travail’. Because the law says that people can only work 35 hours a week, any extra hours are put aside as holidays. One of my business students worked so many extra hours when he was on an important project that he was due months of RTT that he was never able to take, but the maximum that can be accrued is 22 days. All these factors mean that French people take on average 37 days (depending on the type of job that could go up to 59 with RTT) a year of holidays compared to England’s 28. (The Scots and people in N. Ireland get more national holidays than the English and the Welsh.)
Not having a holiday is seen as a deprivation. I read in a magazine that, ‘Si la France était un village de 100 personnes, 29 ne partent pas en vacannes l’été.’ If France was a village of 100 people, 29 never go on a summer holiday. To enable children to have a summer holiday, local councils subsidise summer camps for not so well off school children. Big businesses send out brochures to their employees with lists of summer holidays available for their children at very low prices.
The French may have chopped off the heads of the aristocrats, but class structure still remains in their psyche. Bosses have become the new dictators who are unapproachable. Many workers dare not speak to their boss. He or she has taken the place of the old absolute monarch and his entourage. My husband, not being used to this, has always spoken to his head mistress and if he has a question, he goes straight to her. His colleagues would never dream of doing so. The boss must always be addressed with the ‘vous’ form of the verb, never as ‘tu’.
Not saying ‘bonjour’ is a cardinal sin in France. Before we moved to France, we were on holiday in Brittany and needed to see a doctor. I went into the waiting room while my husband went to do a bit of shopping and find a parking place. There were about 8 other people already there, so I took a magazine off the table. The next person to enter said ‘hello’ to the assembly. The following person went round and shook everyone’s hand including mine, as did everyone else that entered. I had never felt so impolite in all my life. When my husband arrived, I whispered, “Say ‘hello’ to everyone”. He turned to the crowd and did a nod and a general, ‘hello’, but to no one in particular. I knew that this was not enough. I had learned my lesson and made sure I said ‘goodbye’ politely to everyone as I left.
I once had a student who worked in the Tourist Office. She thinks that everyone who is not French is impolite because they don’t even say the important ‘hello’ before launching into their enquiry. Even if you say, “Excuse me, please could you be so kind as to give me some information?” and you smile brightly, you will still be classed as impolite because you did not start with, ‘bonjour’.
We have decided that the French must have a strong desire to ‘master’ nature. Otherwise, why do naturally round bushes have to be cut into square shapes? Look at pictures of the Champs Elysees – the tree lined avenue has straight-sided trees. Even in the middle of the countryside we have noted road-side bushes carefully manicured into cubes. We visited a museum which boasted a splendid ‘jardin à la française’, which consisted of lawns containing lines of bushes trimmed into pyramids and cubes beside gravel paths – not a single flower to be seen! Also there is a lack of hedges in the French countryside. At first I thought that it was just in our region that fields have no bushy field boundaries. However, when I was reading a book about the Battle of the Somme (1916), new arrivals in the region commented that it was just like the English countryside but with no hedges.
France has the best health service in the world according to the World Health Organisation. It certainly saved the life of my husband when he had chest pains one June day. A few days later he visited the doctor and was told to go for a blood test. The next day he had the test and went off to work. At midday the doctor got the results and phoned me at home to say that I must contact my husband and we must go to Accident and Emergency right away. It took me a long 30 minutes to track him down, but by then the doctor had called at the house to see us! My husband was admitted on that Friday. Later, he had one stent fitted but the damage was too severe to fit 3 more. He went back in August and had a triple bypass, was in intensive care for 2 weeks, very seriously ill. A hole had developed in his heart and his blood was not being oxygenated. Eventually a patch was fitted, the biggest that was manufactured, and he left hospital in the last week of November. Then, he had 10 sessions of exercises with a physio to get his heart muscles up to strength. All his medicines are paid for, he has regular six monthly blood tests and yearly check-ups. His medical folder weighs 1.3 kilos! The down side is that doctors are considered as gods who can’t be challenged. My husband was losing weight (12 kilos in the end) because he hadn’t enough strength to eat. One of his medicines was a huge potassium pill that, as soon as he swallowed it, made him sick. I asked English friends if there were any alternatives to this and they said it could be injected. I asked the nurses if his treatment could be changed. My neighbours were horrified. ‘What do you know about medicine?’ they asked me. ‘Who are you to question a doctor?’
Two professors from the prestigious Necker Institute, wrote a study saying that if superfluous drugs were not prescribed, the French health service would save up to €10bn (£8bn) a year. It would also prevent up to 20,000 deaths linked to over medication and would reduce hospital admissions by up to 100,000, they claimed. Annually, the French consume medication worth about £430 for each citizen. In Britain spending on medicines is around £271 per person. Our daughter’s stye in the eye resulted in a 3 item prescription, whereas our doctor in the UK told me how to boil salt water, and wipe the inflammation with a clean cotton wool ball. You only have to spend a few minutes in a French pharmacy to see the carrier bags of medications being given out to patients, to know that the two doctors, who wrote the book about over prescription, are right. However, hearing aids are not free in France. They cost 1,000€ a piece and it has been estimated that 6,000,000 people cannot hear well and need ‘un appareil auditif’.
We can all cite numerous examples of ‘Health and Safety’ regulations being used to excess in the UK. On the other hand, one wonders sometimes whether EU law has ever been heard of in France. When visiting Dijon, we were a bit perturbed to find that our young children could fall into a small river because the little bridge consisted of nothing more than a flat slab of concrete. Bollards and concrete blocks on the pavements seem designed to trip up unsuspecting pedestrians. Knives are openly on sale at the Christmas markets. Airguns are sold at local village fairs and that weekend we hear youngsters practising with them in our local park. Cheese makers seem unable to do the job without putting their naked arms and hands into the vats full of curds and whey. However, our daughter’s school managed to organise an excursion with one day’s notice, something that would be an impossible feat in the UK. One day my husband was sitting in a supermarket car park watching a big marquee being erected. The workmen needed to fix the topmost piece, so one stood on a fork of a forklift while his colleague raised it up to about 3 metres from the ground – no safety harness or hard hats, yet the job was done in a couple of minutes. Our neighbour opposite us had his roof cleaned. I watched the workman go about the task without any safety harness. Our houses are 3 storey town houses. I kept glancing anxiously out of the window to see if he was still OK and prepared myself to call an ambulance should the need arise.
Imagine the last item on the evening news in the UK. ‘‘Today marks the start of the English cherry harvest. Let’s go to Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire to the English Cherry Company to see how it’s going.” Then follows a report on the expected tonnage this year, an interview with a grower, pictures of the fruit in boxes and it finishes with, “and the fruit will be available in your local shops as from tomorrow!” I don’t think that would be allowed under the BBC’s policy of no advertising, but French people are kept informed, on the evening news, of which French fruits and vegetables have been freshly harvested and are ready for eating.
When you go to the hairdresser’s in France, they always give your head a slow massage during the shampooing. It is incredibly relaxing, but why they do it, I don’t know. It is also difficult to keep your hair on your head. I used to hold up my fingers to indicate the amount that I wanted to have cut off – usually 2 centimetres. After cutting with scissors, then the thinning shears, and then a further trim with a razor, I was usually left with very short hair! I expressed my frustration to a friend who explained that the hairdresser presumed that my 2 centimetres was all I wanted left! According to Elle magazine it’s something that frequently happens. “Vous aviez bien dit « juste les pointes » à votre coiffeur, mais il y a eu un regrettable souci de compréhension entre vous. – “You certainly asked for, ‘just the ends’ but sadly there was a lack of understanding between you”. The article went on to recommend using ginger juice on the scalp to encourage quicker hair growth!