A FOREIGNER IN FRANCE

 

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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!

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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’.

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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.

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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

22 thoughts on “A FOREIGNER IN FRANCE

    • Wow…. I truly enjoy each week reading your articles, you bring me to France one of my most loved countries, and your personal adventures with the family, garden, antique finds, the girls getting fresh baguette out of a machine (go figure modernization) almost like a drive through for a baguette. I love your article of the trip to the wine country and touring Freely winery. I may still buy a row of the vineyard with my name on it, to say I have a vineyard in France. Happy Bastille Day Enjoy The Celebration.

      • Thanks Carolyn I am so happy you are enjoying all the posts and thanks so much for commenting, it makes it all worthwhile. Do contact Caro Feely if you want to enquire further about her vine shares, it is such an excellent idea. Enjoy your summer 🙂

    • Hi Heather, the market prices are usually. Below the supermarket prices and the quality is nearly always much better, plus the people are so friendly, It really is such a pleasure to buy fresh produce this way.

  • I nod my head in agreement as I read your Post today!I have NEVER lived in FRANCE but was lucky enough to live in ITALY for three years and I have to say these countries are very similar when it comes to people, food and beauty!My son was in the first grade in Italy and they had two full time teachers in the class and two assistants, This was a village school.They had to set the table each day and clear the dishes……..table manners were TAUGHT!They started with an antipasto then the pasta then the meal…………
    There is nothing more beautiful then the old buildings and fields of flowers and olive trees.
    YOU are very lucky to live where you do and experience the culture,but I think you already know this!WONDERFUL POST!

    • Thanks, ours don’t have to lay the table,but they do have proper china and cutlery and napkins and they sit 8 to a table and are served once everyone is seated. It is all part of their education and a very important part:)

  • Hello! I just discovered your blog and really enjoyed reading this post. I spent 11 years living in a village just outside Bordeaux, growing fruit and vegetables and enjoying our chickens as you do! We spent many happy weekends camping on the Ile de Ré. Now living in Paris, your blog reminds me so much of our life in South West France. I’ll be coming back regularly! Siobhan

    • I am so glad to have you following and thanks so much for commenting. I can imagine you miss your chickens and fruit and veg even though I am sure Paris is fantastic. I adore the Ile de Re, it is my favourite day out as it is only just over half an hour away we love to go up there and hire bikes for the day – have a great week – I am off to read your blog 🙂

  • Wow, you do have some great architecture, how lovely. I couldn’t have said all this better myself. here one of the traditional snacks after school is a length of baguette stuffed with a whole Milka bar. Is that nationwide I wonder? How is your climate. We get a lot of rain in Rouen and a lot of overcast grey skies. It is probably the only negative point about our corner of France. I concurr absolutely about manners, it is the first thing I noticed here when I got sttled into our life here. When I comment upon it the french seem to think that todays manners are terrible, but I am always pleasantly suprised by this.

    • A baguette with a milky bar, no this is not something I have come across thankfully! I shall not be telling the children!!! Lots of people have crepes here with Nutella of course! We get rain, but not a huge amount, stats say around 800mm a year which is below the national average, but not so many grey days, meant to be the second sunniest region in France after the Med coast, it was one of the main reasons we chose the area. It is cold at the moment, plenty of blue skies but a chilly northerly wind keeping temps well below average. finally, I love the manners of the children, they are a pleasure to have in the house, for lunch or to play. Have a great week with lots of sun:)

      • Thanks, I’ve just done a tour in the rain with a group of non-responsive teenagers so that was a bit miserable, but I did buy a barbecue the other day so hopefully sunny weather will be on its way….or maybe buying the barbecue was the kiss of death on any thoughts of summer!

      • no it won’t be the kiss of death – positive thinking! One local told me yesterday that this cold May weather means we will have a great summer – hope she is right!!!

    • Hi, I do love Rochefort, it is our local town and the perfect size, not to big so it is easy to get in and out of but big enough to be interesting! Interesting that prices are higher then Quebec, but I suppose we can’t have it all!

  • Bonjour Susan. Thank you for your declaration of love to France, it’s very interesting to have your opinion about our country. You certainly know that French people are always complaining about everything here even if we are very chauvinistic! It’s a good idea to show us videos . Bonne semaine!

    • Bonsoir Caroline, I do love your country and I do feel very privileged to live here, but in live by the motto that we are guests in someone else’s country and if we don’t like it, we can go home! I don’t think the French complain anymore than anyone else really, we British love nothing more than to complain about the weather !!! Have a great week. Although I have to admit it’s a little chilly for May!

  • What beautiful writing of France and the lifestyle of the French.
    After being away for 2 years I am anxious for return visit and eat all the delious food and soak in that beautiful sun. French women never age with the creams, fresh vegetables and fruit drinking lots of liquids (wine with no additives). Right now I am fighting bronchitis and the thought of the warm French sun beating on my body sounds so great. Your writings lift my spirits for France.

    • Thank you Carolyn and I hope you get better very soon. It is beautiful here at the moment, we spent the afternoon picking cherries from our tree in the garden and tonight the children are all camping in tents with friends in the garden – just the childhood I dreamed of for them. France is indeed a very special country. Have a good week and a speedy recovery 🙂

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