People who have never lived abroad are often curious as to why others do. And until one actually has done so oneself, it is hard to understand the subtle nuances that can make life in a foreign country so great. The obvious differences such as language, location, and weather, are easy to understand; but often is it the minutiae of everyday life that draws people back to a place they may have only visited once on holiday, or seen film of, or read an article about. Sometimes it is not just a case of having wanderlust or a querying mind, but also a case of loving the quirkiness and embracing the challenge of living somewhere different and out of your comfort zone.
France is a great country – it has so much to offer and so much in its character that to a person living in the modern era its history and culture have much more right to importance than many may think. Whether it’s scenery, art, architecture, weather, cuisine, history or sheer grandeur, there is something for everyone in France, and that is what makes it such a great place to live, whether you’re soaking in the sleek atmosphere of a Parisian quartier, or sipping pastis next to a field of provencal lavender under an azure blue sky.
For us, here in the Charente Maritime, we revel in a pastoral countryside of rolling hills, salt marshes and some truly fascinating architecture, built when France was at the height of its maritime power. In summer, the lie of the land is yellow and green, sunflowers and grapevines, studded with forests of rich oak and chestnut. Rochefort, Royan and La Rochelle guard the coast, and Saintes crowns the inland countryside. In between are the working towns and villages, where French life continues, much as it has done for centuries, with its idiosyncrasies and small rituals of heritage.
Old-style France, the haven where most people who come to live here want to enjoy at its best, is full of matters and ideas you have to get used to. The French like to communicate, sometimes with verbosity and volume. So to start with the greeting game is something you have to learn to play quickly, and well. A “bonjour” in any situation, whether entering a shop or a household, a school crowd or the queue in the post office, is an expected passage of rite. Most French people will also say goodbye to all and sundry when leaving a situation too. Children you know will do the same, instantly breaking off what they are doing to come and dutifully greet you. Manners are important to the French, drilled into them at an early age, and they are amused at the casual tourist who does not play the game. This also extends to the ‘bisou’, the traditional peck (whether one, two, three or even four) on the cheek which is actually a very simple gesture of both affection and civility. We currently live by the ‘two bisous’ rule, one on each cheek, delivered only once a day to someone when you first see them, and with an obligation to those you know perfunctorily. Strangers get a handshake first time round – it is best for them to offer you a cheek the next time before disgracing yourself with eagerness because he is so good looking!
Part of France’s heritage are its markets, whether it’s a weekly produce affair in the village square, or a daily one in a larger town or city. French people live in rhythm with the seasons, and this is especially important when it comes to food. Vegetables and fruits are eaten at the appropriate time of year, and you should know your varieties of strawberries and make note of your beans. It is easy to step back 30 years in time at a market-stall and talk serious recipes with your fellow shoppers. Yes, there are huge super-markets in France, but the traditional way to buy food is not losing pace at all. Seafood, meat, plants and fruits, charcuterie and cheese – all can be bought at the street-market at the best possible prices. Last week I counted the cheeses on my fromagier’s stall; there were nearly a 100 of them – in a small village. Neither WholeFoods nor Harrods would come close to the selection or the knowledge of my ‘cheeseman’.
Another big difference one finds strange in France is the pharmacy – whereas in many countries it is usual to be able to stock a first aid kit at the modern supermarket, in France band-aids and antiseptic sprays are about the limit of the items available. Pain relief, cough medicine, cold remedies – they must all be bought at a pharmacy, and what’s more they are behind the counter and only available on request! However, they always carry a fabulous range of beauty products, slimming products, anti-cellulite creams and much sort after face creams – it is almost certain that the pharmacy will be able to make you presentable enough for the catwalk! (Personally I think this is why husband’s on holiday are happy to wait while their wives spend ages in the pharmacy, they love ogling the huge adverts of girls massaging their slim brown thighs with creams that promise miracles, but that’s another story and I am getting side-tracked!). In the autumn during mushroom season there is nearly always a board showing which mushroom is safe to eat and which is poisonous and if you are unsure you simply take the fungi of concern into the pharmacist who will confirm if indeed it is safe to eat. So many of life’s problems can be solved in a small French Pharmacy!
Other foibles one must get used to is the fact that at 12.00 midday, or perhaps 12.30pm, everything closes. The French do lunch. Whether you’re a factory worker, a gardener, a board director or the school mistress, everything stops for lunch. And while there are indeed MacDonalds and filled baguettes to be found, probably 80% of France sits down to a proper lunch, complete with dessert and cheese. The traditional menu de jour typically has three courses. Even children at school get indoctrinated into this, and as I write this blog a small note beside my elbow informs me that today at our small village school of just 67 children, our two youngest will be eating cucumber salad, followed by fresh grilled fish from the Charente Maritime with organic rice and tomatoes, and then end their meal with a chocolate pannacotta, all served à la table and always with French bread. The menu for the month is sent home with each child and local produce is always listed as well as what is organic. The French lifestyle of foodiness also crops up again at some stage in the afternoon, typically when the children get home from school, when goûter is served – cakes, biscuits, sandwiches or fruit – something is always put in front of children at this time. It has got to the stage where our children’s friends even congregate in the kitchen like a flock of homing pigeons at the vague time when they know something is going to be dished up, and mutterings of “goûter ?” become very audible. It is expected, even if we are the ‘foreigners’.
Coming home with the shopping raises another foible that some people find difficult to get used to – carrier bags. The French do not offer free carrier bags for the shopping – if you forget to take in your own bags or are on vacation you can buy a very sturdy large bag for 2 euros, they last for ever and are quite capable of swallowing half a cart load of goodies. Many a time I have tried to walk in a dignified fashion out of a shop, clutching pens, notebooks, magazines; or the bakery carrying baguettes and croissants trying hard not to drop anything, all because I forgot to take a bag with me.
There are many other areas of difference between France and the rest of the world, but it would take a whole book to go through them all, so I hope you’re happy with a brief taste of some of the things we enjoy most, and find so refreshing, between our native country and the one we now call home. I think the reason you are reading this is because you know this anyway, and love France almost as much as we do. Have a great week x