For those of us in the northern hemisphere we’ve got to that time of year when we start thinking about summer holidays, or perhaps a little getaway in the spring; for those in the southern hemisphere I know it’s also a time when quite a few of you come to visit Europe. Not everyone who visits France from either direction is necessarily a seasoned hand so I thought it might be fun to take a light hearted look at some of the day to day things you might come across here. And even if you’re not travelling at all, I hope you will still find this little post enjoyable because I am a firm believer in armchair travel, and the more knowledge we have at our fingertips the more extensive our dreams can become.
Before we go any further though, we have to remember the golden rule – to enjoy the reasons why you wanted to come here in the first place!
This could be why you love reading about France of course, not to hear the complaints about things that don’t work as you would like, but to embrace the things that don’t work like clockwork. This is what turns France into a whole new adventure, so follow the motto – “Vive La Difference!”
France has come a long way in the past two decades. I remember coming here in my 20’s and like most visitors, there is still a lingering memory that the plumbing left a vast amount to be desired; visiting a public loo was to take one’s life in one’s own hands, an occasion of terror where one exposed one’s nether regions to the dark recess between your feet. Known elsewhere as a ‘Turkish toilet” or a “Squat toilet”, these forms of sanitation still exist in France to this day, though thankfully they are few and far between. My second adolescent memory of France is of lumpy mattresses which I swear were filled with horsehair, and pillows that even at the unbreakable age of 18 gave me a crook in the neck. As I said, France has come a long way since then, and we should all be thankful that this is now in the past, a state of affairs that I hasten to add is part and parcel of every country’s history.
Travelling around France is remarkably easy. The country is well served by domestic flights and excellent high speed trains, but I personally prefer to drive. The autoroute is a network of high speed toll roads. Remember to slow down if it is raining as along the 130kph routes the speed limit automatically drops to 110kph when the weather turns sour. Be warned there are plenty of speed cameras! If it’s nearing lunchtime have no fear, France’s delightful motorway stops offer not only somewhere to refuel the car but also a shop and café where there is typically a selection of filled fresh baguettes, salads and other goodies. There are always tables inside and outside. Decent coffee, bottles of wine and, I’m happy to say, clean loos round out the experience and a 5 minute break can easily turn into a lost half hour before one returns to the rarefied and dignified speed of the outside lane.
Once you’re close to your destination or if you have plenty of time on your hands it is far more fun to turn off the autoroute and take the smaller country roads.
No matter where you are the smaller roads are far more scenic with bridges spun like cobwebs across the south’s deep gorges; vistas of green, purple and blue variously unravel before you as you wind between castles, vineyards, slow languorous rivers, and no journey is complete without either the reflective turret of some chateau on the skyline or a quaint village with stone houses and shutters in an array of colours.
Whilst driving through any village keep your eye open for the boulangerie
and I urge you to buy your bread here. There are many reasons for doing this, the flour your baker will use is of a much higher quality than the supermarket will have in their offerings. The baker’s bread will almost certainly be baked on the premises and it will be fresh, three times a day. But far more important is the experience; entering a French bakery is a delicious assault on the senses, the smell, the sights, often there will be patisseries, chocolates, and local delicacies. Above all, a good boulangerie is the heart of a village or town, providing not just something to eat but also a focal point where the locals exchange gossip and even if you don’t speak French it’s fun just to stand and observe!
Supermarkets used to all close religiously for lunch, around 12.30pm, and they didn’t reopen until mid-afternoon, most often at 3.00pm. However more and more now remain open throughout the day, certainly in the larger towns. Some are “non stop” (two English words which have found a home in the French vocabulary) and most are nearly always open on Sunday mornings until midday. Closing times in the evenings vary, often around 7.30pm but in seaside resorts during the height of the summer this can be much later. Inside you’ll find both wine and spirits on sale; you can buy whisky, vodka, brandy and gin but you won’t find something like a simple box of Advil! In fact the first-aid section in supermarkets tends to be very small, and it is just as the name suggests, first-aid only. In our large, modern, open all day supermarket, the Pharmacy section is limited to this size:
For that box of headache tablets you need to go to the pharmacy.
The typical French pharmacie is a real treasure trove and will dispense not only pills but also some fabulous skincare brands. Those in the know stock up when they visit France, La Roche-Posay, Avène and Filorga are my absolute favourites.
You will also find homeopathic remedies, aromatherapy essential oils and some dietary supplements – what you won’t find are row after row of multi vitamins (you won’t find these in the supermarket either, I don’t actually know where you will find them as I have never seen them en masse here). But you will find endless tonics, teas and tablets for aiding digestion, for keeping you slim, for losing weight and for tackling cellulite! You will also find all the usual things one would expect in a pharmacy plus a veterinarian section, mostly for the health of cats and dogs.
Once you have stocked up with everything you need at the supermarket, and you have skincare products and sun cream from the pharmacy, you’re good to head to the beach. Here you’re free to sunbathe topless if you wish, and no one will bat an eyelid, but it is definitely way less fashionable than it used to be in the heyday of Saint Tropez. Indeed, the only ladies I ever see topless these days tend to be much older, the young cover up, probably better aware of the dangers of over-exposure than the older generations! But you’ll see plenty of ‘speedos’ on the men, tiny teeny weeny little bottoms that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination, I am not sure quite which was the biggest eye-opener to our children when we first came here – the topless women or the male form squashed into a minuscule triangle of fabric, with both their eyes were out on stalks! There are also plenty of nudist beaches, clearly marked, should you so desire. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly I have no photos to illustrate anything here, it would be rude to stare after all!! But rest assured, seek and you will find; hidden coves and secluded beaches away from the madding crowd.
It would be remiss of me not to mention one of France’s greatest treasures, which is the weekly market in practically every town and village. There is absolutely nothing to compare with the experience of walking a street laden with colourful stalls, surrounded by the chatter of shoppers and stall-holders. Meat, fish, vegetables, pastries, charcuterie, fruits, bread, pickles, flowers and preserves, everything you need for the kitchen and larder can be bought from here. You can also get fantastic advice and recipes from many of the sellers, who are keen for you to get the best out of their produce. But remember, you will only find what is in season, you won’t find melons in November or Asparagus in August!
Take-away food is not so common, there is of course McDonalds and in the larger towns other food chains but that’s not what you want to come to France for. The take-away you really do want to experience are the pizzas bought from small vans with real wood fired ovens inside. They are a popular sight now in provincial towns and villages, appearing on certain days each week and feeding a loyal clientele that appear like seagulls at the appropriate hour. Their tall chimneys belching smoke provide a welcome respite from the kitchen. The best pizza we have ever eaten in France came from a wood oven in a van in Provence, where a large lay-by filled up four nights a week with customers who would drive from far and wide. It took us sometime to cotton on to what was going on but we soon became regular customers too!
I could go on for hours and hours, it’s a huge topic and I know I have only just scratched at the surface. From time to time over the summer I shall add some further stories on the subject but I’ll finish with a few amusing reminders, and as we’re in France, quite naturally these are related to food!
Remember Lunch is at lunch-time; 12 until 2 are the regular hours. If you turn up at a restaurant at 1.50pm, no matter how hungry you might look, it is highly unlikely that you will be served! Aperitifs are the done thing in the evening and always remember not to drink until everyone has a full glass. Dinner is often a long slow affair and rarely eaten before 8pm. And here’s the funny part, I have to turn a blind eye to everything that was drummed into me about table manners whilst growing up… in homes and smaller restaurants you will often keep the same cutlery for both the appetiser and main course and don’t look startled if French friends leave their knives and forks where they put them down, half scattered across the plate when they have finished. It’s an English tradition to put them in a pair neatly. Rarely will you get a side plate for bread and mopping up juices with a piece of baguette is totally acceptable. None of this is a lack of manners, it’s just the way it’s done here; although I still make our children put their knife and fork correctly when they have finished, some habits are just too hard to break!!