Six insufferable French thugs
In this blogposting...
* L a vie en France / Life in France
* AGM XXXI
* The World
LA VIE EN FRANCE / LIFE IN FRANCE
My by-now regular and frequent visits to France are a constant reminder of how lucky I am. I live in an age when travelling is easy, comfortable and comparatively inexpensive (although I appreciate that everything is relative). Being retired means that I also have the time to indulge myself by booking the cheapest flights (or train trips, if I’m lucky), making the journeys and spending virtually as long as I like in Beaujolais.
So things could, as it were, be a lot worse.
Now that I’ve become fairly familiar with the ways of France and her people, I’m often asked about the differences that have unfolded over the last couple of years between life there and life here in England, especially as my contact is with ‘ordinary’ people in the French countryside rather than with snooty Parisians lurking at tourist traps.
And often, these requests are couched in terms of ‘comparisons’. Is French food really better than ours? (No) Are the French as smug as the English think they are? (No) Do the French dislike the English as much as we think they do? (No)
I have said before that making glib comparisons and stereotypes of this kind is both unhealthy and unhelpful - before (often) proceeding to do exactly that myself. But, in all honesty, the best way I can answer questions about life in France compared to life in England is to say that they are simply different, just as you’d expect from two countries with such diverse histories and cultures.
Naturally, after two-years’-worth of regular toing and froing (French readers who use online translators will have a lot of trouble with that last phrase), I’ve come to better understand the more outstanding differences between the way we do things here and the way they do them there.
So, notwithstanding all my previous provisos about classifying and patronising whole groups of people, here are some of the differences that have made the biggest impression.
In France, they know how to drink ‘properly’, as it were. Beaujolais - famed worldwide for its wine - is my second home and I’ve had lots of opportunities to watch local people enjoying a tipple. And ‘enjoying’ seems to be the key word.
In my experience, the French do not, generally speaking, binge-drink. And even when they do, they don’t. I have been to events where everyone has had an awful lot to drink and yet nobody seems ‘blind drunk’; everyone just seems to get happier and happier and then stop. The results of alcohol indulgence seem to be pleasure, laughter and conversation; I have never seen anyone as hopelessly palatick as almost everyone is in Newcastle at weekends.
The French are not, of course, alone in this talent for harmless and joyful intoxication. Being hopelessly and violently rat-arsed seems to be a peculiarly British - even English - phenomenon.
The concept of a ‘police force’ originated in England and has developed in a uniquely English way ever since. As a nation-community, we have collectively consented that there should be a civil power with the authority to arrest us if we break the law. And between us - the police and the population - we have decided that, for the most part, our police ought to be polite, approachable and unarmed.
I am reminded of the uniqueness of these arrangements every time I visit France, where the police are virtually a branch of the armed forces. Rightly or (often) wrongly, their word is unarguable law and is handed down with the po-faced severity you would expect of unaccountable street-gangs.
Two years ago, Serge and I wanted to watch the Bastille Night fireworks in the local town - but the bridge across the river had been closed. The roadway was barred by a police car. Two gendarmes, a man and a woman, were leaning on the bonnet chatting and laughing with each other while over a hundred angry and disappointed people stood helplessly on the wrong side of the river.
The gendarmes spoke only to each other. No-one approached them to ask why the bridge was closed; everyone just stood helplessly around, seething. The gendarmes were, of course, armed to the teeth. And they were smoking. And it was perfectly obvious that to go over and chat to them would have been perceived as high treason.
In France, you do not ask a policeman the time or the way to the station or if he would mind posing for a photo with the kids. If you did, you would never be seen again.
Trains were invented in England, too, although you wouldn’t know it by travelling on them.
(Or perhaps you would - they are so slow and old.)
There are now over 3,500 miles of super-express train lines in Europe, of which precisely 72 are in England. And we only have those because it’s the line that leads to the Channel Tunnel. By 2015, Europe will be criss-crossed by over 5,000 miles of new, fast railway lines. Which is, coincidentally, the year that work will only be starting on our second stretch of line, all 83 miles of it.
It’s almost a cliche to be so critical of Britain’s railways but the fact remains - they are old, outdated (by several decades), slow, crowded, uncomfortable and expensive. I grind my figurative teeth with ill-concealed rage each time I board the TGV in Paris to be whisked south to Mâcon - a distance roughly equivalent to that between Newcastle and London but covered in less than half the time and in far greater comfort and style.
French business opening hours are a law unto themselves, which is to say that, French-style, there appears to be neither rhyme nor reason to them.
To support such an uncompromising assertion, here is an extract from a local Beaujolais guide-book. It’s a list of visitable restaurants, with their opening times….
Les Platanes de Chenas
Jul-Aug: daily. Apr-Jun and May-Sept: closed Tue and Wed. Rest of the year: evenings by reservation only
Closed Dec-Jan and on Mon and Tue at other times.
La Terrasse du Beaujolais
Closed Mon and every evening. Also closed from early Dec and through Jan.
Anne de Beaujeu
Closed Sun afternoons, Mon and Tue lunch and most of Feb.
Open mid-Jun-Aug lunch and dinner, then just weekends and holidays March-mid-Jun and Sept-mid-Dec.
Auberge de Clochemerle
Closed Tue and Wed and most of Aug.
Closed Sat, Sun and Mon
Closed Sun, Mon and Wed evening.
I could go on, but I won’t. I think you’ve probably got the idea.
There are, of course, many other ways in which life in France differs markedly from life in England, and some of them make uncomfortable and even unpalatable reading for the English. And, amongst many other things, it’s those differences to which I look forward every single time I visit.
Which I’ll be doing in a few hours.
Our next AGM will take place at Newcastle Art Centre, which is attached to a shop and gallery of the same name at the bottom of Westgate Road, more or less opposite the Assembly Rooms. There are tables outside as well as in and a surprisingly fine sculpture dominates proceedings.
For the terminally confused, here's a map.
The AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 16 February.
A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
THE WORLD: A TRUCKSHUNTER GEOGRAPHY
It will soon be time to make our next port-of-call. So get your research and thinking caps on and send me any wayward or spooky information you can about Antigua and Barbuda. Do your worst!
And a big Thankyou to everyone who already has!
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