Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Month: October 2015 (page 2 of 2)

More about French Eating and Drinking Places

The newly-landed Anglophone expat might also find the following tips of help when it comes to understanding the differences between the various French eating and drinking places:

1. Unlike an English pub, you don’t even need to ask yourself whether that most common of French eating and drinking places will be open. French cafés stay open all day long. Opening hours can, however, vary according to the region in which they’re located and can also depend on the time of year. In Paris and large towns it can be as early as six o’clock in the morning to the early hours of the next (and sometimes all night). In smaller provincial towns they tend to open a bit later and close a little earlier (say 11 o’clock), and are sometimes closed one day a week.

2. In France you don’t go up to the bar, order your drink, pay for it and then take it with you and sit down. There’s always someone to serve you. So you’re not required to do anything more complicated than choose a table, either inside or out, and sit yourself down. Normally someone will quickly come and take your order – though in a busy café you might have to wait. If you choose a table on an empty terrace you might have to pop inside and let them know you’re there – even though they usually check from time to time.

3. If you’re alone and want to see the barman in action (French barmen often have a certain je ne sais quoi) or even have a chat, you can, of course, sit yourself down on a stool at the bar. And sometimes there’s an added bonus – it’s a bit cheaper!

4. All French eating and drinking places are legally obliged to display their official price-list where it can easily be seen. So if you think they’re trying to fleece you, you can always check.

5. If you order a beer it can be either a 25cl or 33cl bottle, or ‘une demi-pression’, or simply ‘un demi’ (literally a half of draught). Strangely, ‘un demi’ doesn’t really mean a half, but a quarter of a litre (25cl). In addition, there’s a line on the glass it’s served in to guide you. So don’t go away with the impression you’ve been under-measured.

6. The French have only the vaguest of notions on how to make a nice ‘cuppa’ so, if you’re British, you’ll probably be sorely disappointed if you order one in a café. Be prepared for just a tea bag dangled in a cup of tepid water.

7. If you order your tea à l’anglaise (i.e. in a teapot with milk) your milk could come pre-heated in a small jug. So if you want something a little nearer the real McCoy you’ll have to specify ‘avec du lait froid, s’il vous plaît!’ when you order. If you want my advice I wouldn’t bother. It’s much simpler to order a beer if you’re a man.  And the wife can always have a ‘une tisane’ (a herb tea) if she wants something warm.

8. If the service is included you’ll find the words ‘service compris’ indicated on your receipt. If it’s ‘service non compris’, or there’s no receipt forthcoming, and you found the service pleasant and efficient, you might consider leaving a tip. Don’t give more than 10% of the total amount.

9. In French eating and drinking places you’re not usually required to pay immediately after being served. In the larger type especially, a receipt may be placed on your table when your drinks are served. You can pay just before leaving. However, it might be more practical and less confusing to pay when he serves you – especially if two or three of you each buy a round. If not you’ll have to catch his eye and call him over. He’ll make a tear in the receipt to show you’ve paid.

10. Though you may come across examples proving the opposite, as a general rule the French tend to value person to person politeness (though this can go by the (dash)board when they get a steering wheel in their hands). So give a cheery ‘bonjour’ when he or she comes to serve you. And don’t be afraid of saying ‘au revoir’ when you leave.

11. Some waiters (especially the Parisian version) can be extremely touchy, even ill-mannered.  So you won’t get off to a good start if you shout ‘garçon’ when you want to attract his attention. It could be considered demeaning and cause him to go into a huff. It’s better to use ‘monsieur’ or ‘madame’, or simply ‘s’il vous plaît’.

12. You must order something when you sit at a table. When you’ve drunk up (even if it’s just a cup of coffee) you’re under no obligation to re-order. And nobody minds (within reason) how long you stay.

13. If it’s around midday and they’re putting table clothes on some of the tables, don’t plonk yourself down there if all you want is a drink. They’re getting ready for lunch. So try to find another.

14. In most cafés you can order a croissant or pain au chocolat to munch with your breakfast café au lait. In the very rare cases they don’t have any (it could happen in a small village café) you could nip off and buy some at the nearest baker’s shop (or they might even offer to do so). Usually, they won”t mind if you consume them with your coffee – though it’s probably better to ask if it’ll be all right.

15. Be aware that under normal circumstances the toilets in French eating and drinking places are not intended for public use – so you’ll be pushing your luck if you treat them in this way. If you want to use them you’ll be expected to buy something to drink. If you’re really bursting you could go to the bar, order something and then inform them you’ll be back, but right now you’re off to’ les toilettes’.

16. If you’re suddenly hit by a bout of acute homesickness you might be tempted to have a drink in one of the many English (or Irish) pubs scattered throughout regions of high-tourist frequentation. Personally I’ve found that, though great pains may have been take to reproduce the real thing (even down to the landlord and bar staff), by some strange phenomenon (it’s the same with tea) I’ve never really been able to fathom, it’s just not quite that. As one Irishman once pointed out to me, ‘Guinness never tastes like Guinness outside Dublin!’

17. Even though a woman could venture alone into a Parisian or large town-centre café (especially if she sits on the terrace), without anybody batting an eyelid, I wouldn’t advise her to do so in a small town or village establishment. These tend to be male oriented and her lone presence might give rise to misinterpretation, if you see what I mean. Mind you, it’s pretty much the same with an English pub. Even though this may have my feminist readers up in arms, I’m afraid it’s harsh reality.

18. Please note that a ‘salon de thé’ (sometimes the English term ‘Tea Room’ is used) is a small café (similar to the English unlicensed one), specializing in cakes, pastries, ice-cream, and serving only hot and cold non-alcoholic drinks to a mainly feminine clientèle. You’ll often find a salon de thé in some of the larger cake shops whose opening hours they more or less follow. So if you want to rest those aching feet and enjoy a refreshment during that Saturday shopping spree they’re really just the thing.

About French Eating and Drinking Places

The newly-landed Anglophone expat might be interested to learn that the distinction between  French eating and drinking places (cafés, bistrots, bars, brasseries and  restaurants) is becoming increasingly blurred and in many cases these words can be used to mean more or less the same thing.

The Café

Terrasse de caféThe most common of French eating and drinking places is, of course, the  café. Its size is extremely variable and can range from the large Parisian café-restaurant, employing several kitchen, service and bar staff, to the small village one, usually owned and run by a local (unlike the frequently brewery-owned British ‘tied’ pub run by a manager having no previous connections with the village) who is head cook, bottle-washer and waiter (or waitress) all rolled into one. And in many cases – especially in the provinces – cafés are frequently the headquarters for a local association or sporting club. One thing all French cafés have without exception, however, is some kind of terrace – the larger ones being capable of accommodating scores, while in small villages they are often limited to just a couple of tables with chairs on the pavement outside. Most French cafés are licensed to open without interruption from early morning until late at night, and serve a wide range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, both hot and cold. And you can always get something to eat. They will serve you with at least a café au lait and croissants for breakfast, and at any other time of day you can get a snack (at minimum a choice of sandwiches). And even in small towns this can be a more elaborate hot or cold dish and, when there’s a demand, some serve a full plat du jour (usually at lunchtime), eaten inside the café, on the terrace in summer, or in the small restaurant which is sometimes attached. They all provide a place where shoppers, strollers or tourists can have a bite to eat, slake their thirst or relax on the terrace and simply watch the world go by, and where regulars can meet to share gossip and a joke over an apéro or two. A small-town or village café is, therefore, an ideal place for the expat to meet and make friends with the locals. There may be a certain amount of suspicion at first, but they’ll gradually acknowledge your presence and begin to warm to you. You’ll have to be patient, however, as this can take time.

Bar tabacSometimes a café is a bar-tabac: the premises include a small tobacconist’s and newsagents shop which, like the café, is open all day long, and where you can buy sweets, chocolate, postcards, stamps and nick-nacks of all kinds. Some are even licensed to sell scratch cards and National Lottery tickets. And the larger ones are sometimes PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) licensed. The PMU is a sort of State-controlled betting organization, mainly centred on horse-racing.

The Bistrot

BistrotThough the word is more or less interchangeable with café (especially when it’s not very big), a bistrot is a small, informal type of restaurant (originating in Paris but now common in  the provinces) serving drinks but, above all, moderately-priced home cooking in a relatively modest setting, and available at most times of the day.

The Bar

BarIn the past the bar was a place (often located in a railway station, hôtel, airport or even on a train) where you could have a quick drink, either standing up or seated on a stool at the counter from where it was possible to observe the barman at work, or even engage him in conversation. Nowadays a bar usually has a terrace of some description – even when it’s located inside.  And you can usually get some kind of snack there, too.

The Brasserie

BrasserieLarger than a bistrot and mostly located in large towns, a brasserie was originally a place where beer was brewed and consumed (the word also means ‘brewery’). An increasing number are now owned by chain companies. Though you can get all types of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages, many brasseries still pride themselves on offering a good selection of draught and bottled beers. Their main speciality, however, is food. At one extreme some just serve basic, single dishes (onion soup, cooked meat assortments, seafood, Sauerkraut, etc.) at any time of the day, while the more upmarket brasseries – especially in Paris – can provide quite elaborate, extensive, full-course (and relatively expensive) meals. And in certain cases they can serve both. Advance booking, however, is not normally required.

Eating out in France

Gastronomic restaurantHere are 20 tips the newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat might find useful when eating out in France. Some of them will also applywhen eating out at the home of those French friends of yours.

1.  For many Anglos (and Americanos) eating out in a restaurant is like running a four minute mile. Perhaps it’s the fast-food syndrome. Just remember that eating out in France means there’s no hurry – so relax and enjoy it. And even if you do sometimes have to wait a bit between courses (there are, of course, limits), don’t cast incriminating looks at your watch. And for Heaven’s sake don’t, I repeat don’t threaten to walk out!

2. Even though you did mistake the main course for a second starter in that three Michelin star restaurant, don’t ask the waiter for more. It’s not the done thing. Remember, French gastronomical cooking favours quality, freshness and refined presentation rather than quantity. I mean, you can always fill up with bread (it should come in limitless supplies). And you can also draw consolation from the fact that the cheese and dessert courses are to come.

3. If you decide to go for the steak you’ll be asked, of course, how you’d like it. There are four degrees of cooking: bleu (extra rare, i.e. cooked on a candle); saignant (rare); à point (medium), and bien cuit (well done). Be aware that very few French people ask for their steak well done. It could come with a consistency very similar to shoe leather. Even though many Anglos tend to feel faint at the slightest trace of blood, my advice would be to steer a middle course, so ask for it ‘à point.’ Or you could choose the fish.

4. If you order lamb chops in an English restaurant these would normally be cooked right through (and served with the ubiquitous mint sauce). Be aware that in some French restaurants they’re automatically served rare. In others you have the same options as with steak, but the word saignant is often replaced by rose (pink). With roast beef you’ve got no choice. It automatically comes red in the middle.

5. Even though in Anglo-Saxon land bread without butter is only deemed fit to be thrown out for the sparrows, this is not the case in France where unbuttered bread is the rule. The only exception is at breakfast time when it can be liberally buttered and jammed.

6. The above applies especially to cheese. When you’re eating out in France the only possible accompaniment to cheese is plain bread. And don’t ask for cream crackers or cheese biscuits. They won’t know what you mean.

7. Be warned that le French Dunk (the common French habit of using a piece of bread to soak up that delicious marchand de vin sauce in much the same way as a mop is employed to clean the kitchen floor) is frowned upon in the best of circles – though apparently French eating etiquette allows it when bread is impaled on fork. Personally, I find the French have a more liberal interpretation of what constitutes good table manners – especially when it comes to normally accepted rules on how you should use your knife and fork. But there again my mum was a stickler for that sort of thing, and most of it  remains. Remember, it was the French who invented the pleasures of eating and the English who decided the rules.

8. Don’t order a large cup of coffee (as some Americans do) to drink with your meal. The same goes for Coca Cola (Americans again).  Beer also tends to be not quite right. Go either for mineral water which can be plate (still) or pétillante (sparkling). Or, far better, order some wine. In many cases you can order an inexpensive pichet (jug) of their house wine.

9. Don’t think you can have cheese at any time during a meal (Americans again). And if you can help yourself to the cheese board (in many restaurants the waiter will serve you), don’t leave it looking as if it’s been hit by an Exocet missile. So don’t hack your portion. And don’t cut the best piece for yourself.

10. In France it’s considered the height of bad manners to cut the lettuce in your salad using your knife and fork. If the leaf’s too big use them to fold it up into a mouth-friendly parcel.

11. Even though you’re absolutely ravenous and would like to pick the bone clean, resist the temptation to pick that chicken leg up. It could be a messy business. It’s certainly less practical but it’s considered better manners to dismember it using your knife and fork. If you’re meant to use your fingers a special finger bowl will be provided.

12. Don’t ask for ketchup to put on your French fries. Even though things are changing in restaurants of any pretension the waiter might not be able to conceal his horror. The same goes for brown and other bottled sauces and condiments.

13. The French are rightly proud of their cuisine, so treat it with the respect they’re convinced it deserves. When you’re served that foie gras keep well off the subject of force feeding (or animal cruelty in general). Oh yes, and don’t spread it on your toast. It’s not Marmite.

14. It’s the custom in France to let women order first in a restaurant.

15. If you can’t quite finish off that tender entrecôte steak, it might be a good idea to think twice before asking for a doggie bag so that Rover (or his owner) can partake of (or continue) the feast at home. Even though things are now changing, it’s still not really the done thing in many French restaurants, so you might get strange looks.

16. When the waiter pours some wine for you to taste it’s not really to see if you like it. It’s to make sure it’s not corked. This gives it a distinct, wet cardboard smell. So instead of actually tasting it you can just swirl it around in your glass, get your nose in there and give it a sniff. The same test can be made to make sure it hasn’t turned into vinegar.  Cheaper wine comes more and more with a screw top – so it’s a bit pointless nosing it as it just can’t be corked.

17. Be suspicious if that pichet of red wine you ordered is served chilled. This is the usual way to hide the harsh taste of low quality wine.

18. Often in cheaper restaurants knives and fork are not replaced. So when you’ve finished eating your entrée leave them by the side of your empty plate. If you don’t the waiter will do it for you. You can wipe your knife on a piece of bread.

19. As a child, when I’d finished eating my Mum always insisted on me putting knife and fork together on my plate in a half past six configuration. In a restaurant, she said, this acts as a sign to the waiter that he can take your plate away.  In France the position tends to be twenty past four (though it’s not often observed).

20. Oh yes. I almost forgot. Don’t put your hands on your knees under the table when you’re not eating. For some inexplicable reason (perhaps some Frenchmen have wandering palms), it’s considered not the done thing. Rest both forearms gently on the table so that they’re clearly visible to all.

Even More Tips for Driving in France

Flèche droite1. When driving in France it’s important to know that the French frequently don’t use an upward-pointing arrow to mean straight on. Instead they use a right-pointing arrow on the left side of the road and a left-pointing arrow on the right side. This can be confusing. Even after 42 years of survival on French roads I can still be led astray.

2. If a French driver comes racing up behind you flashing his lights, this usually means he wants you to get out of his way – even if you’re driving at the limit. If the approach from behind is at a lower speed, however, it could be that he’s warning oncoming traffic there’s a police speed trap ahead. When oncoming drivers flash their lights it’s a sure sign les flics are lying in ambush somewhere ahead.

Keep left3. When they ask you why the British don’t drive on the right like everyone else you could try explaining that more than 70 other countries are on the British side, too.

4.  Driving in France means that you won’t get the same levels of courtesy as you do on British roads. Even though over the years I’ve noted tremendous progress in this respect, it can still be one more contradiction that a people who have strict codes of politeness in their direct contacts with others in the daily course of life can be extremely rude when they get behind the wheel. So don’t be offended if that French driver doesn’t acknowledge your courtesy with a friendly wave of the hand when you let him into your stream of traffic. He was probably too surprised.

Gilet sauvetage5. French law obliges you to carry a high visibility fluorescent vest (one per passenger) and a warning triangle. They must be kept inside the car and not in the boot. If you don’t, the more zealous policeman could fine you 90 euros. The thinking behind this is that if you break down or have an accident in a dangerous spot (i.e. on a motorway) you can put your jacket on without having to get out of the car. Some government bright spark planned to make it compulsory for each car to carry a breathalyzer, too, but in face of public protest it was decided to let this one drop.

Alcotest6. Even though you’re in a wine-drinker’s paradise wait until journey’s end before sampling the local tipple.  Be aware that the drink/drive limit is lower than in the U.K. and a driver is considered to be under the influence if his blood/alcohol level is equal to or exceeds 0.5 grams per litre (g/l). Be prepared for police roadside controls where everybody is systematically breathalyzed.


Controle police7. A French policeman doesn’t need a reason to stop your car. Usually there are two or three of them waiting at the side of the road at a convenient lay-by. If they’ve got you in their sights one of them will stride out into the road, hold up one hand and beckon you to pull in with the other. When you do this don’t forget to activate your indicator.  It just might give a favourable impression and get you off to a good start. You’ll be expected to produce all documents relating to the vehicle (driving licence, insurance certificate, car registration document). If you don’t you could be given a fine. But remember: it’s not because he’s wearing a blue uniform that he doesn’t have a heart. So be pleasant and co-operative. Otherwise it could be at your expense. I remember once being stopped, to my great annoyance, as I was in a hurry at the time. After greeting me with a salute and a polite ‘Bonjour, monsieur,’ the gendarme proceeded to ask me if this was my car. I couldn’t resist the temptation to reply ‘Bien sûr, je ne l’ai pas volée!’ (Of course, I didn’t steal it). He then took about 10 minutes slowly and deliberately examining all the car documents, tyre wear, etc. (he even asked me to get out and open the boot) before finally (and rather reluctantly) allowing me to proceed along my way.

Gilet jaune8. If you break down on a motorway it could literally be more than your life’s worth to linger on the hard shoulder after getting out of your car. Average survival time here is not much more than it was for a Tommy climbing out of his trench on the Somme during World War 1. So don’t forget to don that fluorescent jacket before you get out and, once you have called it, wait for the breakdown truck on the other side of the metal railings.

Police mal garée9. Don’t be surprised if the police car you’re following does all the things you’d get a fine for doing (i.e. not bringing his vehicle to a complete stop at a halt sign, exceeding the speed limit or parking where he shouldn’t, etc.) In France there’s still a strong tendency to use a position of power or authority to grant yourself exception to the rule, and not to set an example. This tends to be especially true with French politicians, even ministers.

10. Driving in France also means learning to control yourself if you’re honked at for not moving off the very instant those traffic lights change to green. Though in the U.K. using your horn when your vehicle’s in a stationary configuration is perceived as a form of aggression, this is not necessarily the case in France. It could be just a reminder that you’re preventing him from improving his ‘moyenne’ – his average journey time.

More Tips for Driving in France

Right-hand drive1. When driving in France  complications can arise if you have a right-hand drive vehicle as it will need to conform to French manufacture and use regulations. If it’s a model or make not on sale in France things could become a real hassle.  If you envisage driving in France  for more than a month you’ll have to change to French registration (in theory at least). So if you envisage long term or permanent expatriation it might be better to make arrangements to sell your right-hand drive vehicle in the UK and buy a left-hand drive one in France.


Centre de controle technique2. If your car’s getting on for four years old you’ll have to think about taking it along for an MOT (le contrôle technique) at an officially-approved centre. After, it’s every two years. Personally I find it’s better to first take it to your local garage where they can do a pré-contrôle. This can be done at the same time as you have it serviced. They know the ropes and will check (and rectify if necessary) all that needs doing. They’ll then take it along to the centre de contrôle for you. I advise this because if you go there directly and it fails, you’ll have to take it to your garage and have all the faults put right before submitting (and paying) again. I could be wrong but I suspect garages and MOT centres (they’re privately owned) are in collusion, and when a garage sends them a customer there’s some sort of understanding between them that if you have this pre-check you won’t be failed.

Peage autoroute3. Most French motorways are toll paying where the entrance is marked ‘Péage.’ They’re designated by an  ‘A’ (Autoroute) followed by the number (e.g. A42) – so don’t confuse this with a UK ‘A’ road. On short stretches the amount can be a flat rate (or even free) but it usually depends on the distance you drive – even though the toll you’re called upon to pay can vary, sometimes considerably, from one motorway to the next. When you enter, rather than being served by a toll booth attendant it’s now more and more common to take a ticket from a machine. It’s located on the left so if you don’t have a front-seat passenger in your right-hand drive car you’ll have to get out. When you leave the motorway you give your ticket to the attendant at the toll booth. However, more and more of these are automatized and payment is by credit card or cash. Oh yes, don’t lose your ticket or you’ll be required to pay the maximum toll.

Autoroute4. French motorway signs are blue and usually indicate the destination more frequently than the motorway number. So if you’re driving from Lyon to Chambéry  you’re likely to see more ‘Chambéry’ signs than ‘A43’.

Deux voies5. Many French motorways are two-lane only, or have log two-way stretches. Be careful as there can be sudden traffic slow-downs due to trucks taking ages to inch past each other.

6. Be careful on French motorways as many drivers lack road discipline. It’s the usual tricks: in spite of the 130 km/h limit apparently 39% of them drive at speeds between 130 and 150 km/h. When there are three lanes, one in three hog the middle one (so if you drive on the inside lane you tend to get boxed in). And there’s always that irresistible tendency (in spite of repeated warnings to the contrary) to stay too close behind the vehicle they’re following  – even when it’s raining and the road surface is slippery.

7. I know it sounds obvious but the French do drive on the right. You’ll soon get used to it but you’ve got to concentrate at the beginning.  A useful aid is to make sure that you as a driver are nearest the side of the road.

8. Electronic speed camera detectors are illegal in France.  Simply having one in your car could render you liable to a fine.

9. Driving in France can be a bit tricky when it comes to overtaking with a right-hand drive car as you’ve got to pull out more to see if there’s any oncoming traffic. If you don’t have a driver as a front-seat passenger to tell you it’s safe to go ahead you can get better visibility if you fall further back.

Limitations vitesse10. Maximum speed limits are clearly displayed on all roads in France so I’ll  let the diagram on the left do the talking. At present there are rumours about lowering them all by 10 km/h. When it’s raining you’re supposed to reduce all these speeds by 20 km/h on the motorway and 10 km/h on other roads. it will come as no surprise that few French motorists actually do this.

Radar routier11. Be careful of roadside and police in-vehicle speed cameras – especially in villages where the limit is 50 km/h. You can easily get caught out. If you’re really in a hurry you can add 5 km/h to these speeds without running too much risk of getting a fine, but anything beyond and you’re pushing your luck.

Carrefour sans panneau12. When approaching an unmarked road junction (i.e. no Stop or Cédez le passage (Give Way) sign), the rule is to give way to all traffic approaching you from the right – even if the road is minor. This kind of junction is now admittedly rare but still exists, especially in remote country areas. However, when you’re approaching a junction from a minor road it’s better to play safe and assume that drivers approaching from the left on the major road aren’t going to give way.


Tips for Driving in France

French driverHere is the first in a series of tips which I consider it vital the newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat driver (and pedestrian) should know when it comes to driving in France – a country where, for most, getting your hands on a steering wheel means that from now on it’s every man for himself. They’re based on my own experiences during more than 40 years of survival on French roads. Since the subject is practically inexhaustible I’ll be giving two more series.



Passage pieton1. Don’t cross the road on a pedestrian crossing before being absolutely sure that oncoming car is going to stop. Though French drivers have made immense progress over the last decades in matters of road courtesy, there still lurks the odd miscreant who still considers pedestrians to be his worst enemy. Similarly, if you’re in the driving seat think twice before stopping to let a pedestrian cross. The driver behind might not have anticipated you doing such a stupid thing, and … well, I’ll leave you to imagine the rest.

Feux tricolores2. If you’re first in a line of traffic waiting at a red light, be sure to have your handbrake off, first gear engaged and revving up for a Grand Prix start the instant green appears. French traffic lights change directly from red to green (the sequence is green-amber-red-green)! If you don’t, you’ll be mercilessly honked at from the rear. And don’t get all agitated when a French driver does this. Even though in the UK using your horn in stationary configuration is tantamount to a declaration of war, this is not necessarily the case in France where the more absent-minded driver has been seen to thank his honker(s) with a friendly wave of the hand.

3. If you’re waiting at a halt sign and the car approaching from the left has its right indicator on, don’t assume the driver’s going to turn right and pull out in front of him. Do the same as most French drivers: wait until he actually starts turning as he may simply be unaware it hasn’t been cancelled.

4. Don’t be surprised if the driver of the car ahead doesn’t signal his intention to turn, or to change lanes on the motorway. What matters above all is that he knows where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody else’s business but his own.

Tailgating5. Driving in France also involves thinking twice before maintaining too respectful a distance between you and the car in front. In France it’s not the done thing. Since the Frenchman’s love of overtaking is only eclipsed by his hatred of being overtaken, the only way to avoid humiliation is to position and keep his front bumper as close as possible to the rear of the car ahead. Otherwise even clapped-out jalopies will try to get into the space between.

6. Don’t be surprised if you notice at night that lots of vehicles have badly adjusted headlights, or only one working. What matters above all for the French driver is that he can see where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody else’s business but his own.

7. Despite what I’ve indicated above, your right-hand drive car is legally obliged to have its headlight beams adjusted for driving on the right. Stick-on adapters can be used.

8. Driving in France also means not being astonished when the driver of the car in front doesn’t seem to notice he’s driving through a very late amber, or even an early red light. For most French drivers traffic lights are yet one more obstacle (along with roundabouts, stop signs, pedestrian crossings (especially when there’s a pedestrian on them), as well as les flics, maliciously placed in his way to stop them from improving their moyenne – their average journey time.

9. Don’t be surprised if that gentle, well-mannered neighbour of yours turns into a monster at the wheel. Getting a steering wheel in his hands frequently brings out the Mr Hyde in the French driver.

Panneau stop10. It’s important to know that a French Stop sign means exactly what it says. So make sure you bring your vehicle to a complete halt. Reducing your speed to 1/2 km/h is not enough. Sometimes police cars are lying in ambush and you could get a fine for 90 euros with one licence point less.

Box junction11. Even though the box junction exists in France (it’s indicated by chequered white boxes painted on the road) most French drivers haven’t got the faintest idea what it’s all about. So you can drop that silly rule which states that you mustn’t enter if your exit road isn’t clear. If you do try to play it à l’anglaise you’ll be waiting until kingdom come. And you’ll be honked at, too. So don’t be afraid to stop bang in the middle like everybody else. I mean, if you can’t beat ’em you can only join ’em. And remember they’ve got what the Anglo-Saxons haven’t: it’s called le Système D which means being opportunistic, and using a combination of personal resources and what’s readily at hand to get you out of a mess. And believe you me, it works! Usually everything ends up sorting itself out!

EU driving licence12. Your British EU member state driver’s licence is valid for driving in France so you don’t need to exchange it. Committing a driving offence, however, automatically means having to swop it for a French one (so that points can be deducted). When it expires, or if it’s lost or stolen, you must renew or replace it with a French licence. You do this by applying to your local Préfecture. Since most of the French are genetically hostile to foreign languages – especially when it’s English – you’ll probably have to pay for an officially-certified translation of the original. And you’ll also have to provide proof of your address and identity (though you’re not required to produce your grandmother’s birth certificate). And just to make sure you’re sound in body and mind you might even have to take a medical.

Intercultural Relationships

Newly married coupleThe recently-landed Anglo-Saxon expat might find the following tips and observations food for thought when addressing some of those problems which intercultural relationships with the  French can bring. They’re based on my own experiences during more than 40 years of co-habitation with the same French partner.


Newly wed couple1. As far as marriage is concerned the basic principles which govern intercultural relationships are not very different from those which go to make a happy and successful union between a couple of the same nationality living in their home country. It’s just that the sources of possible disputes are greater, can run more deeply and have, therefore, a higher risk of leading to argument, recurrent conflict and, in extreme cases, final separation. Religious, social, political and cultural variations can raise their potentially divisive heads, codes of behaviour can be at variance, language can be a formidable barrier, and even relatively trivial matters like eating habits or food preferences can pose problems. And if you have children, your views could diverge on how to bring them up. All the more reason why a big effort must be made to be open-minded, tolerant, patient, understanding and willing to seek a compromise, while not neglecting those values of mutual respect, honesty and sincerity which are essential to all healthy relationships. It also helps to have a sense of humour.

2. Even though hitching up with one of the natives is not necessarily a bed of roses, it’s the quickest and most effective way of integrating a foreign country as it will give you instant access to your partner’s friends and relations.

3. Though you might be convinced that love conquers all, be aware of the sobering thought that the friends, and especially the relatives of your beloved can make or break an international relationship. For reasons I won’t go into here, your French girl/boy friend’s maman and/or papa might be hostile towards you as a foreigner.  At heart they might prefer their daughter/son to settle down with a native. She/he could be influenced by them.

4. Communication is an essential though difficult aspect of every relationship, whether cross cultural or not. Depending on your level as a non-native speaker, language can be an even greater barrier as it can prevent you from expressing in any great detail or with the required nuances what you really think or feel, or understanding what your partner thinks or feels. My only advice here is patience, patience, patience. Be aware, however, that even though patience is generally considered to be a virtue, it’s one which some French people don’t seem to have.

5. Being obliged to evolve in a foreign language can also be a source of conflict from a social point of view. For even though you can take a leading part in social life back home where you can express yourself in your mother tongue, you might find yourself in the frustrating position of having to play second, or even third fiddle when confronted with the same situations in a foreign language. And even if your French is well up to par the fact that the subject of conversation could be something or someone you yourself have never known could seriously reduce the the extent to which you can participate in it. So when your partner is a native speaker, at some time or other as an expat Anglophone you’re going to have to cope with the disagreeable feeling of being left out, or even ignored in the conversation your beloved is having with friends and relatives. This can be a source of exasperation and could put a strain on relations. It’s something you should talk about together.

6. You’ll also have to decide, of course, which language you’re going to use between you at home. This will depend very much on circumstances, your motivation and degree of fluency. In my own case French was a natural choice since I was a French schoolmaster in England and already spoke the language well on arriving in France. Not only did it correspond to my own desire to embrace the country, its language and culture to the full, but it suited my French partner who had neither the need nor the desire to speak or write English beyond the commercial requirements imposed by her job. If your French partner’s English is better than your French you might be tempted to speak English at home. This is the easy way out. If speaking French all the time would be too wearing for you both, why not schedule regular French-speaking sessions as part of your domestic routine? And if you have children, be aware that bringing them up in a bi-lingual context is an excellent way of giving them a head start in life. Discuss this between you, decide on certain rules, and stick to them.

7. Though it’s not really the subject of this article, when the person you’re sharing your life with is of the same nationality as yourself, living in a foreign culture and maintaining happy relations within a marital or live-in partnership can still be a challenging prospect. After all, it’s not because you’re really enjoying renovating that old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere that she necessarily feels the same. I mean, that cock which insists on crowing at the crack of dawn each day could be getting on her nerves, she could be fed up with not being able to find an interesting job, and missing friends and family back home much more than you think. Make sure your channels of communication are wide open.

8. In France great progress has been made over the last three decades in the name of male and female equality, and now most Frenchmen don’t consider it beneath them to help with the dusting or change baby’s nappy. Remember, however, that you’re living in a culture which only gave women the vote in 1945, and which as late as 1963 didn’t allow a female to open a bank account without her husband’s or father’s permission. Just be aware that the gallant Frenchie you’re so madly in love with may reveal he has a more traditional perception of gender roles once you bed down together.

9. A common Anglo Saxon misconception about the French male is that he’s always on the look-out for extra-marital gratification. While this was a little true in the past, especially among the bourgeoisie, where it was relatively common for the master of the household to seduce their naive, country-raised maid who feared that not letting him have his way would mean her losing her job, this would rarely be tolerated today.

French Neighbourhood Watch

Neighbourhood WatchIt is yet one more measure of the differences (even diametrical opposition) that exist between  French and Anglo-Saxon cultures that a recent proposal to implement in a village near which I live a  French neighbourhood watch scheme whereby the ordinary citoyen, in co-operation with local police, would form a surveillance group designed to combat the increasing number of burglaries and anti-social behaviour around them, has met with considerable reticence, if not hostility. Though some recognized that the police and the citoyen must work together in the fight against crime, considerable concern was expressed that a project of this kind might lead some to indulge their unhealthy curiosity in the private lives of their neighbours while others gave vent to fears that the group could assume some of the characteristics of the notorious wartime Militia.

In Anglo-Saxon cultures the generally-held view that individual well-being and freedom can only be obtained by co-operating with legitimate authority has led to a more developed willingness to work together in reinforcing the observance of rules and laws. In England and American suburbs, for example, it is common to find a  Neighbourhood Watch scheme which involves the ordinary citizen in creating organized, patrolling surveillance groups whose aims, in co-operation with the police and local authorities, are to reduce burglaries, car crimes, vandalism and general anti-social behaviour, as well as increase security (e.g. better street lighting) within a given residential area. Far from being considered as a limitation of personal liberty these initiatives are generally perceived as being in the interests of the common good.

Safe driver signIt is perhaps even more significant that in England (and certainly other Anglo-Saxon countries) enough trust is placed in the ordinary citizen’s sense of civic responsibility to invite him to become actively involved in directly ensuring that others respect what is generally considered to be conducive to the well-being of all. An example of this was provided some time ago when a well-known national haulage firm hit on the idea of appending to the rear of its trucks a conspicuous sign, along with a phone number, inviting public road-users to report those among the company’s drivers they judged to be conducting themselves in a manner dangerous or simply discourteous to others. This initiative was perceived by the public as making a positive contribution towards safety and civility on roads – so much so that it considerably reinforced the public image of the haulage company in question. Moreover, during recent city riots in England, popular newspapers made headline appeals to the general public to ‘shop a moron’ – to denounce to the police those they personally recognized from video surveillance footage as committing acts of violence, theft, arson and looting.

In France not only would solicitations of this kind be considered a Big Brother style encroachment on personal liberty but dangerous in that they provide too great a temptation for individual human perversity to divert them to malicious, selfish ends by encouraging people to inform on others for reasons of personal animosity, jealousy or desire for revenge (perhaps the national memory has not forgotten those somber days of Nazi occupation when denunciation was rife), and accordingly best left to those professionally appointed to carry out the task. For in France it is not impossible that the English haulage company’s publicity campaign could have been exploited for personal financial gain. This, at least, is what the experience of my businessman neighbour, Monsieur Martin, would suggest.

Now Monsieur Martin’s firm has a small fleet of delivery vans on the sides of which the company name, together with email address and telephone number used to be displayed. I say ‘used to’ because Monsieur Martin has now deleted the phone number. Why? you may ask. Simply because he was receiving more and more calls from people claiming that one of his vans had bumped into their car, causing considerable damage, before driving on without stopping. In reality, these allegations were simply fraudulent attempts from members of the general public to save their no-claims bonus by attempting to make Monsieur Martin’s firm liable for damages resulting from an accident which the claimant himself was probably responsible for in totally unconnected circumstances. Seeming proof of this was supplied by the fact that not one single person has yet accepted Monsieur Martin’s systematic invitation to provide him with a written claim containing name and address, along with details of the circumstances in which the ‘accident’ occurred!

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