Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

Four Typically English Savoury Dishes

The savoury dishes normally associated with traditional English cooking are characterized by a total lack of pretension and infantile simplicity of preparation and, as the Englishman in me would admit, distinguish themselves more by their strangely esoteric names than any claim to subtlety of taste. The limited space available to us here does not allow mention to extend beyond the following, generally considered to be the most common:

Bubble and Squeak: In the past this typically English savoury dish was a standard Monday lunchtime fry-up of vegetable and meat left-overs from the Sunday roast. Preparation and cooking present no great challenge, being well within the reach of a moderately-sharp five-year-old. Instead of being tipped into the wheelie bin, ingredients are chopped up and dumped into a frying pan. Mashed potato is then added as a binder, and the resulting agglomeration fried and turned until golden brown. The name itself, apparently, is an onomatopoeic echo of the sounds emitted during the frying process.

Yorkshire Pudding: Contrary to what most French people think, a pudding is not necessarily a hot dessert. Traditionally, Yorkshire Pudding is eaten either with the main Sunday lunch of roast beef and vegetables, or on its own as a starter. Made simply from a mixture of plain flour, milk and eggs, preparation is well within the competence of anyone capable of producing a tolerable cup of instant coffee, though it is vital to use lard as a cooking medium, and the oven must be really hot before baking. The dish can include onions, and is served with plain gravy or onion gravy sauce.

Bangers and Mash: This quintessentially English savoury dish consists of sausages served with mashed potatoes. Preparation is elementary enough to be well within the capabilities of anybody able to crack an egg five times out of ten without breaking the yolk. My French readers will be interested to note that ‘banger’ is a familiar word for a sausage, and constitutes an onomatopoeic reference to the fact that, unless thoroughly pricked before frying, their high water content makes them liable to explode with a deafening bang.

Toad-in-the-Hole: A sausage covered in a thick, Yorkshire Pudding-type batter, and then baked in the oven. Given that the sausage is usually bought ready-made, this is yet another English savoury dish which would not tax the culinary skills of anyone capable of making a decent cup of tea (though, apparently, the next-in-line to the British throne can’t). And what about the strange-sounding name?’ One explanation has it that the end of the sausage emerging from its batter coating is not without resembling a toad sticking its head out of a hole. Well…err with a bit of imagination, why not?



Baguette Versus Loaf?

The deep Anglo-French discord as to the propriety of using bread to clean dinner plate in much the same way as a mop is applied to kitchen floor may also be explained by the contrasting nature of, and the differing roles assigned to this mutually staple food. For the baguette is totally fatless with a light, crispy crust surrounding a soft, airy crumb, and just a soupçon of floury taste, while the presence of milk and eggs in the traditional tin-baked English loaf produces a thicker, more flaccid crust, a heavier, more densely-structured crumb; and the use of stronger Canadian flour imparts a more pronounced flavour. But, above all, depending on which side of the Channel you’re on, bread has a totally different part to play. In England, eating it with a meal is – like inviting a plain-looking girl to dance – considered to be more of a filler-in when nothing more tempting is at hand. Admittedly, its relative absence at English mealtimes can also be explained by the fact that, traditionally, the main dish is copiously provided with vegetables (usually three or even more); and it is perhaps significant that the only occasions when bread is called upon to play a more than minor mealtime role is when served pre-buttered (in England bread and butter are as inseparable as tea and milk), in compensatory accompaniment to a meal of reduced vegetable content such as the national dish of fish and chips. In France, on the other hand, so essential a part of eating is ordinary, unbuttered bread that the lack of anything less than a full basket of sliced baguette on the restaurant table (as well as its systematic replenishment during the meal) would be as shamefully incomplete as going on a tour of Paris and being deprived of the Tour Eiffel.

What’s more, French and English attitudes towards the crust could not be more diametrically opposed. While the former are convinced that both crumb and crust play an inseparable part in producing a deliciously complementary soft and crunchy whole, the wilting, unappetizing crust of tin-baked English bread makes it not much more tempting to eat than bacon rind. I still remember the dubious incitements (‘It’ll make your hair curl!’ was her favourite) resorted to by my Grandma to persuade the young English boy I then was to eat the ‘heel’ of her otherwise delicious home-baked bread. And the cucumber and potted-meat sandwiches traditionally served with four o’clock tea in English cafés and restaurants are only considered refined enough for human consumption when the bread has been relieved of its vulgar crust.

Is it the same coarse, flabbily-uninviting nature of the crust, along with the intrusive floury taste of the crumb, which causes bread to be conspicuous by its absence at the cheese course in England? For the only real occasion when the two come anywhere near to harmonious union is when brought together in a Ploughman’s Lunch. As a substitute for bread, the English systematically resort to a wide variety of crisp, lightly-flavoured (frequently with cheese itself) cracker-type biscuits to bring out the taste of their after-meal cheese. And what is more normal in a country where plain, unadorned bread is only deemed fit to be thrown out for the sparrows that these receive a liberal coating of butter? In France, on the contrary, the only possible accompaniment to cheese is plain, unbuttered bread. How could it be otherwise when marriage between the two provides such an ideally complementary match? For the delicately–flavoured, crispy charm of the baguette remains discreet enough to bring out all that is best in the cheese, while retaining enough of its own character as never to be submerged by even the most commanding cheesy presence. Hélas, the subtle delights of French bread are of an all too fleeting nature, and freeze into ice-like hardness in half the time it takes for mortar to set.

To Bise or Not to Bise?

An article in my local newspaper informs us that the mayoress of a village in the Isère département recently sent an email to all her staff informing them that she wished to put a stop to that traditional French practice of greeting one another with a cheek-kiss (‘la bise’) each morning on arriving at work. The reasons given?  Firstly the obvious one that it exposes you to the risk of receiving a good dose of somebody else’s germs; but more surprisingly because it reflects male-female inequality. It’s certainly true that ‘faire la bise’ is more a female thing as a man is more likely to shake another male’s hand when he arrives at work – even though things do tend to be changing. For while in the past cheek-kissing between males was confined to close members of the same family (i.e. father and son or brothers) it is now being more and more resorted to by men who are simply colleagues or friends. Though many people found our lady mayor’s decision trifling, even stupid, it does have the merit of opening a discussion on a practice which in France is systematically used as a greeting both outside and inside the place of work.

One reason our mayoress doesn’t seem to have mentioned is the fact that, depending on the number of employees and the number of kisses (usually limited to one on each chop but for cultural, regional or social reasons this can range from one to five) cheek-kissing your work colleagues can take up a significant amount of working time. On arriving at work each morning one of my copains has confessed to spending the first ten minutes going round office and workshop cheek-kissing all the women. But though important to many it can be a tiresome, even unpleasant obligation for some. Is this all that surprising with an act which forces you into such close proximity with others that you can smell their make-up, after-shave and sometimes even their breath? What’s more, wearers of spectacles or sunglasses should be especially careful as their frames have been known to inflict a nasty poke in the eye. And isn’t it a show of familiarity which in many cases doesn’t really exist ? After all a wave of the hand, a smile or a warm handshake could be nearer the mark.

Mind you, the word ‘kiss’ is often a misnomer: for rather than planting your lips on the cheek of the other, the technique usually consists in briefly rubbing your chops together, and at the same time making a kissing movement with your lips. The result is that most of the lip contact is with the surrounding air. However, I do have another copain who believes in firmly planting his lips on the cheeks of women he feels real affection for. The problem is that in France cheek-kissing is such a longstanding tradition that it’s almost become a ritual.  And in the more trendy circles it’s even strongly advised not only to cheek-kiss colleagues but to systematically use the familiar ‘tu’ as well as the first name of the person you greet. And this includes the boss. Mind you, it hasn’t always been so. In the past the upper crust considered it to be not at all chic, very provincial, and only for the plebs.  Nowadays, however, psychologists will tell you that faire la bise is a way of informing others that you recognize him or her both as an individual and a member of your same group.  So, on the whole, refusing to cheek-kiss your workmates would stand a very good chance of being seen as an act of unfriendliness and/or a wish to set yourself apart.

As to the question of male-female inequality it’s true that cheek-kissing tends to belong more to the female domain; and we can always argue that what is female has more negative connotations than what is male. But can we really say that the act in itself is a reflection of inequality? When men don’t cheek-kiss other men or are reluctant to cheek-kiss a woman doesn’t this rather echo a need to delimit what is male from the female ? Isn’t this a distinction which in the non-Muslim world at least is becoming more and more blurred ?


The French Tourist Abroad

When the annual summer holidays cause France to close down for a month, the holiday reservation site Travelzoo carried out a survey on how their European subscribers viewed French tourists. The 2,398 people who took part were almost unanimous in their condemnation of the behaviour of French tourists who seem well on their way to being considered the worst in Europe. Criticisms only go to endorse the clichés we frequently hear applied to the French.

So, what exactly is it they find so hard to stomach? For one thing all seemed to agree that French tourists are extremely hard to please, and never stop belly-aching. The French have a high expectation level with regard to their holidays, so everything must be just right – to the most minute detail. Apparently, one of the favourite occupations of French tourists who’ve just taken possession of their hotel room is to go round looking for the slightest speck of dust. They’ll even look behind that picture frame above the bed!  And if their room doesn’t have a magnificent sea view they won’t hesitate to bounce down to reception and demand that it be changed immediately. What’s more, the present economic crisis has made things even worse. The British tourist, on the other hand, will only complain in the most extreme cases, and as long as there’s plenty of sun and cheap booze available, is perfectly happy.

The French are also considered to be an arrogant lot – mainly because they make absolutely no effort to speak a foreign language when abroad. The Gallics are proud of their country, its culture and language, and are inclined to consider themselves slightly superior to others. Not only do they act as if they were still in France, but they expect to be able to find what they’re in the habit of eating at home. Mind you, to be perfectly fair, we don’t think this is a particularly French trait. At the age of 14 the English boy I then was went on a school trip to the South of France. For him it was a paradise on earth, and the food, though certainly different, was an absolute delight. But many of his fellow pupils didn’t seem to agree: their main gripes were that it didn’t measure up to Scarborough and that there were no fish and chip shops around!

And  French tourists expect to have both quality food and cooking at the lowest possible price together with the high level of service that goes with it. The British tourist on the other hand, as long as he gets a cooked breakfast, is quite happy with a ham sandwich or a mediocre buffet-type meal. But though the French consider holidays to be extremely important, and will only deprive themselves when they have no other choice, they don’t want their holidays to cost them the earth. This explains the growing popularity in France of the all-inclusive type of vacation where you know down to the last euro exactly how much it’s all going to set you back and where you’re certain that, if you don’t want to, you needn’t fork out a cent more.

But what contributes most to this ‘stingy’ image is when it comes to leaving a tip. French tourists will only tip when they’re fully satisfied with the service (which is extremely rare), and even then (as, to be quite honest, I’ve personally often been in a position to note), this is far from being a general rule. One of the main justifications for this is that they’ve never received a tip during their working life, so why give one to others ? On the contrary, Anglo-Saxons are culturally more inclined to leave a tip – even when the quality of the service leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s also understandable that in this country of haute couture and designer fashion clothes the holidaying French tend to pay more attention to what they wear.  And even though they tend to dress more casually than before, there are still certain standards which they rarely abandon. The British and Germans, on the other hand, will stroll nonchalantly round holiday resort shops clad in nothing more elaborate than flip-flops and shorts.

Not only do French tourists want their holidays to bring relaxation and enjoyment, but they also like to come away with the impression that they’ve added something to their personal culture and knowledge. The guided-tour type of holiday, where you visit different places of cultural or historical interest each day is, therefore, far more popular than with holidaymakers from other countries. So frequently can this be observed that in Seville it’s a  standing joke that at four o’clock on a sweltering summer afternoon only dogs and French tourists are to be seen in the streets. The English and Germans on the other hand are more inclined to spend their days soaking up the sun on a lounger round the swimming pool, or just lazing on the beach with the occasional dip in the sea.



French Male Sexism

International Women’s Day (8th March) not only commemorates the historical struggle of women throughout the world to obtain the same rights and opportunities as men but, by providing an opportunity to reflect on the present state of female equality, to identity the more important areas of discrimination still remaining to be combated in the years to come. Though in France the day was made official in 1982, it is perhaps a measure of the strong sexist attitudes still firmly anchored in the French male mentality that some public figures (especially in the masculine-dominated world of politics) still feel free enough to make pronouncements guaranteed to turn all self-respecting feminists purple in the face. Here are some real examples of French male sexism. The comments that follow are from my Englishman:


‘But who’ll look after the children?’

That was the question a former Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, asked (perhaps he’s changed his tune since) on being informed that Ségolène Royal, the former  socialist President’s ex-live-in partner, (they had four children together) was a candidate in the Presidential Election of 2008. How dare she postulate for the position of Head of State? We all know politics is a man’s world, and that a woman’s real place is at home with the kids. Strangely enough, it was the Socialist party, of which Monsieur Fabius is a prominent member, which over the last decade or two has made great efforts to promote female parityand combat sexism in politics. Or was his question simply motivated by sour grapes at not having himself been chosen as the Socialist presidential candidate?


‘I’ve tried to promote women as much as I can, even though our briefs can be very technical.’

Stéphane Le Foll, Agriculture Minister in the same government repeating the widely-held French male view that anything technical is sure to get a woman’s knickers in a twist. Yes, yes, we’ve heard it all before. Women drivers never know whether the engine’s at the front or back.


‘I’m said to be a misogynist. But aren’t all men? I’m talking about those who aren’t gay.’

David Douillet, former Olympic Heavyweight Judo champion, and former right-wing Minister of Sport saying that real he-men like himself prefer other he-men. And where do women fit into all this? Is he implying that these creatures are just there simply to satisfy men’s physical needs, and it’s only queers who think otherwise?


‘To our women, our horses … and all those who mount them!’

Apparently, this was the favourite toast of Jacques Chirac (former Président de la République and renowned woman-chaser) at, admittedly, non-official dinners. Even though this coupling of horses and women in the same breath could raise a few male guffaws, it does nothing to enhance the image of the gallant French male.


 ‘Perhaps she wore that dress so we wouldn’t listen to what she had to say.’

Patrick Balkany, a right-wing député talking about Cécile Duflot, Socialist Ministre de l’Egalité des Territoires et du Logement in the National Assembly. Monsieur Balkany seems to be expressing the view that a woman’s seductive self-presentation is intentionally aimed at luring male attention away from the vacuity of her brain, and that it’s against the nature of things for seductiveness and intelligence to come wrapped up together in the same feminine package. After all, isn’t a woman’s energy better spent making herself a worthy decorative complement to men?


‘I pay my players more than my mistresses. At least my mistresses give my cock a good time!’

The President of Montpellier football club, Louis Nicollin, informing us in his own inimitable way that his team of lady friends give him far more value for money than his football squad.


She’s become f…able again’.

Yes, he actually said this, believe it or not … and in public at that! Jean-Marie Bigard, a French humorist, actor and film director getting straight to the point about Christine Bravo, writer and T.V. personality, whose physical seductiveness seems to have considerably increased in his eyes as a result of a strict diet. He does, however, have the merit of stating out loud what a lot of French males probably thought, and he did add later that it was just his way of being nice. All right, even if he’s no diplomat, he’s got a good heart. But we can’t help thinking that, once again, this sort of unabashed rawness tarnishes that legendary image of the refined, respectfully attentive French lover.


‘Nobody got killed.’

Jack Lang, former Socialist Minister of Culture, informing us he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about on learning that his Socialist mate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Head of the International Monetary Fund, and probable future presidential candidate had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a New York hotel room. After all, she was only a chambermaid, not even American, and black into the bargain. Who said that the droit de cuissage (the lord’s first night sexual rights) was dead?


‘What colour panties are you wearing this morning?’

The question an elderly French député asked his young lady assistant when she arrived at work. We’re not informed what her reaction was.


‘If I’d been twenty years younger I’d soon have had you pregnant.’

One of the more printable declarations from another (ageing) député. We don’t know whether he got the slap he deserved.






Best Quotes From Jean de la Fontaine

 ‘Je me sers d’animaux pour instruire les hommes’ – ‘I use animals to teach men’, La Fontaine declared when speaking of his Fables. And looking around us we can’t help but see that the proverbs and sayings of La Fontaine are just as relevant to our times as they were more than 300 years ago. The following are just a few of his best-known quotations:


1. Selon que vous serez puissant ou misérable, Les jugements de cour vous rendront blanc ou noir (Les Animaux Malades de la Peste).

‘Depending on whether you are mighty or in lack the court will judge you white or black’.

Justice always favours the rich and powerful, never the poor and defenseless.

2. Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera (le Chartier Embourbé).

‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’.

Being self-reliant is far more desirable and effective than depending on others.

3. Tout flatteur vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute (Le Corbeau et le Renard).

‘A flatterer lives at the expense of he who listens to him’.

Flatterers depend on people being vain enough to believe what they say. If everybody ignored them they’d lose all reason to exist.

4. Il ne faut jamais vendre la peau de l’ours qu’on ne l’ait mis par terre (L’Ours et les deux Compagnons).

‘Never sell the bearskin before you’ve brought the bear down’. The French version of ‘Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.’ In modern French this has been modified to Il ne faut jamais vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué (Never sell the bearskin before you’ve killed the bear).

Don’t anticipate reward or success. Such is the unpredictability of life that things may not turn out as positively as you had hoped.

5. On a souvent besoin d’un plus petit que soi (le Lion et le Rat).

‘We often need someone smaller than ourselves’.

Don’t scorn those who seem to be of no importance. They could be of precious assistance one day.

6. Rien n’est si dangereux qu’un ignorant ami; mieux vaudrait un sage ennemi (l’Ours et l’Amateur des Jardins).

‘Nothing is more dangerous than an ignorant friend; it’s better to have a wise enemy’.

A deviation on the theme ‘to kill by kindness’.

A foolish friend who tries to be too caring or helpful can end up doing more harm than a more sensible enemy could ever do.

7. Rien ne sert de courir; il faut partir à point (le Lièvre et la Tortue).

‘Running serves no purpose, you have to set off at the right moment.’

We must have the wisdom and foresight to choose the most propitious circumstances to do something in. If we rush into things without thinking we could end up the loser – even though the odds appear initially to be in our favour.

8. Toute puissance est faible à moins que d’être unie (Le Vieillard et ses Enfants).

‘All power is weak unless united’.

There’s strength in numbers. As isolated individuals we are vulnerable, but together we are strong.

9. L’avarice perd tout en voulant tout gagner (La Poule aux Oeufs d’Or).

‘By wanting to win all, avarice loses all’.

Be reasonable in all your aspirations. If you’re too greedy you could lose everything.

10. La méfiance est mère de la sûreté (le Chat et un vieux Rat).

‘Wariness is the mother of safety’.

It’s better to be safe than sorry. Before embarking on a new enterprise make sure you weigh up all the risks.



























The Importance of Sign Language in France.

I can’t help thinking that some of those intercultural misunderstandings that exist between the French and English can be caused by those non-verbal elements which have such an important part to play in our relational communications. For in the face-to-face encounters of daily life, body gestures, facial expressions, non-verbal sounds, even silences are frequently used to accompany, reinforce, or even replace the spoken language.  And a pointed finger, a nod of the head, a frown, a pout or a grunt can send out a more powerful message than the spoken word in that these can be a more spontaneous, direct manifestation of the thoughts, emotions, reactions and intentions which words can frequently hide. And you’ve only got to observe two Gallics engaged in conversation to see that the French have a far more developed non-verbal system of communication than their English neighbours.

In addition, these codes can even take the form of a  sign language much of which is totally incomprehensible to those raised in an Anglo-Saxon culture. When I first came to France the Englishman in me was frequently puzzled by a relatively common gesture which consists in using the finger and thumb of one hand to pluck what appears to be an imaginary hair from the open palm of the other. It had to be explained to me that this was a gesticulatory reference to the expression ‘avoir un poil dans la main’, literally ‘to have a hair in your hand’, meaning ‘to be bone idle’: for someone who is work-shy will never use his hands enough to stop hairs from growing in their palms!

Similarly, I’d bet my bottom euro that the newly-arrived Anglo Saxon would have no idea what is meant when a Frenchman rubs his cheek with the back of his fingers as if using a razor to shave.  This particular sign language simply means that he finds something or someone ‘rasoir’, that’s to say, boring. The origins of the word, apparently, can be traced back to the metaphysical reasoning of the 14th century Franciscan philosopher, Guillaume d’Ockham, whose rule of simplicity maintained that ‘multiples must not be used unless necessary’. In other words, new hypotheses mustn’t be employed when those already stated suffice. The only drawback of this principle, called the ‘rasoir d’Ockham’, is that, once a statement has been shaved of all its unnecessary elements, it becomes boringly abstract.

And some of these body gestures, facial expressions and non-verbal sounds can betray spontaneous feelings which it might be considered impolite to show in less physically demonstrative, more reserved Anglo-Saxon cultures where it is considered more seemly to keep one’s emotions under strict control. Take, for example, the legendary Gallic shrug. Now in my youth the Anglo in me had a typically English love of the game of cricket. One day, during my student year in France, I heard that a cricket match had been organized between some English and Australian students, and that it was to take place on the university playing fields a couple of kilometres away on the outskirts of  town. But when I arrived I couldn’t find the playing fields in question. And so, in my best French, I asked a local – an elderly monsieur wearing a shabby-looking béret – if he could tell us where ‘le match de cricket’ was being played. Without uttering a single word, he looked me incredulously in the eye before proceeding to project shoulders upwards and lower lip downwards in the previously mentioned ‘Gallic shrug’. Though my English part found his reaction typically French and, as such, quaintly amusing, the thought did cross my mind that the message he transmitted (which corresponded to little more than, ‘How on earth do you expect me to know where such a stupid foreign sport is being played?’) would have been barely acceptable, and could even have given offense in an English culture where a polite, friendly, helpful and even apologetic verbal response would have been the rule. Had a similar scenario taken place in an English setting (where a Frenchman had enquired as to the whereabouts of, say, a competition of pétanque), the reply would certainly have been something like, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got no idea. If I were you I’d ask in the shop over there. They’ll probably know.’



The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine

Jean de la Fontaine’s more than 240 fables were inspired by those of Aesop and were written between 1668 and 1694.  Most of them stage anthropomorphic characters and contain a self-avowed moral aim, many of which have become French household proverbs.  His fables are generally considered to occupy a deserved place among the masterpieces of French literature. One of the best-known of la Fontaine’s Fables and my own particular favourite is The Cicada and the Ant which praises those traditional, common-sense virtues of working hard and saving for a rainy day – and warns of the dire consequences of not doing so.  Here is my English translation:


 The Cicada having sung his song

All summer long

Found himself without a crumb

When the North Wind did come,

Not one small morsel could he find

Of fly or worm of any kind.

Starving, he went to see his ant neighbour

To tell him he was at death’s door

And begging him for a grain or two

So he might survive all winter through

Until the coming of the spring.

‘By August I’ll pay back everything,’

Said he, ‘interest and principal, both,

Upon my insect oath.’

Now the ant may have a fault or two

But lend is what he will not do.

‘What did you do last summer?’

Asked he of this would-be borrower.

‘Why, night and day, you surely won’t mind,

I sang to comers of all kind.’

‘You sang? I’m glad you had that chance:

Well now you can run off and dance!’

Parking By Ear

When it comes to parking at the roadside an Englishman might be forgiven for thinking that, in a country such as France where mathematical Cartesian logic is held in the highest esteem, a suitable parking space is considered to be one whose length exceeds that of one’s car. He would be hopelessly wrong. For that same desire to maintain the closest contact with fellow drivers on the highway can assume an even more intimate dimension when it comes to parking in town. For here the French driver shows a remarkable ability to defy the laws of elementary arithmetic by introducing himself into spaces which the length of his car should not normally allow. How does he do it? Apart from the fact that it’s a relatively common sight to see a car parked obliquely with one wheel reposing firmly on the pavement, drivers have developed a more drastic technique which, for the moment at least, would be unthinkable to the Anglo-Saxon mind. The method, that of parking by ear, consists in diving head first into the smallest space, and then with eyes tightly shut, proceeding to create enough room for vehicle by systematically shunting the one to the front and rear.

In England, on the other hand, when it comes to street parking that same respectful distance is scrupulously applied as between vehicles on the move. The English driver will, therefore, usually leave a minimum margin of at least six feet (three in front and three behind) so that the driver of the car parked in front or behind may extricate his vehicle without undue manoeuvring.

It must have been the Frenchman in me  who was driving that day when I parked in the street of a large English town. Having left a foot between our vehicle and the one in front, he switched off the engine, and was just extracting key from ignition when its driver happened to appear. After gazing dubitatively at the dozen or so inches he’d been granted he stormed up, rapped loudly on the driver’s window and, even before my  Frenchie had got it fully down, began castigating him in the strongest terms for parking ‘too bloody close,’ and ‘not giving a damn about other road users!’ It goes without saying that in France remonstrances of this nature would have been met with general stupefaction.


French Traffic Lights – When Amber and Red Have a Shade of Green

One might be justified in thinking that the French driver’s aspirations to covering the distance between departure and arrival in a time more commonly associated with the Monaco Grand Prix could be seriously compromised by a set of humble traffic lights. In reality, as my Englishman has had ample opportunity to observe, this is only marginally the case. For the French conducteur has at his disposal a number of tactics aimed at reducing this type of enforced pit stop to the barest minimum. Nowhere is this more evident than when the lights change to amber.

Now, for obvious reasons of safety, traffic lights, both in England and France, are programmed not to change directly from green to red. A brief intermediate phase, signalled by amber, warns the approaching motorist that red is about to follow. In England, where limits are sharply defined, things could not be clearer: amber is amber, so when this colour appears the driver brings his vehicle to an obedient halt. In France, where boundaries are generally viewed in a hazier light, amber takes on a perceptible shade of green.

Sooner or later, however, even the French motorist – albeit with rage in his heart – must resign himself to halting at red. Now the Englishman will generally take advantage of this type of obligatory stop to meditate on the more mundane aspects of his daily existence: if it doesn’t rain on Sunday I’ll give the lawn a trim; it’ll be more than my life’s worth if I forget the wife’s birthday next Tuesday, etc., etc. And when the light changes to green he’ll slip into gear, ease off the handbrake and resume his journey at the same leisurely pace. On the contrary, the French driver is on the starting grid of a Formula One Grand Prix. He waits with car in gear and handbrake off, eyes fixed intently on the lights ahead so as to be able to blast off the very instant they change to green.

I would, nevertheless, be the first to admit that the more sedate behaviour of the English driver should not be attributed solely to his phlegmatic temperament and innate respect of the rule. The difference in colour sequence between French and English lights has certainly a part to play, too. For in England, traffic lights are set to change from red to amber and then to green, thereby providing the driver with a few precious seconds to slip his vehicle into gear, release the handbrake, and move gently away. In France les feux tricolores are programmed to change directly from red to green, so a much greater effort of concentration is necessary for the driver to get his car off to the required racing start.

Though the French driver shows consummate skill in scraping through traffic lights, even when amber has assumed a ripe tone of red, the same cannot be said of all. For occasionally he is delayed by those less colour blind than himself. In cases like this, he spends his waiting time coldly meditating revenge, and if the imbécile in front is absent-minded enough not to crush accelerator to floor the instant green appears, a prolonged blast of horn will teach him to keep his mind on things.

     It is, however, temporary traffic lights which provide those conditions enabling the Frenchman to demonstrate his inborn skills to the full. Now, in France, as in England, major road works on busy highways usually make it necessary to implement a one-way traffic system. This is regulated by a set of temporary, moveable lights positioned at each end of the road works, and designed to enable motorists coming from either direction to avail themselves in turn of the usable half of the road. And in order to prevent cars meeting face to face in the middle, lights are programmed so that when they change to red at one end they change to green at the other only after a sufficient lapse of time has been allowed to enable oncoming traffic to clear.

In England things are again of child-like simplicity: the lights turn to red, the motorist brings his car to a gentle halt, patiently waits for green, and then continues imperturbably on his way. In France, where things are never simple, the system provides the motorist with a heaven-sent opportunity to shave a few more seconds off his moyenne: for when red appears, not only will any self-respecting Gallic blithely carry on, but the more audacious will even overtake a column of those who now consider it more judicious to stop. Moreover, since major road works are often located well outside towns, temporary lights of this nature present the additional advantage of rarely being the object of police surveillance. It might be thought that at some time or other the inevitable is bound to happen, and the miscreant motorist meets on-coming traffic in the middle. In reality, this is rarely the case. For the French driver has acquired a sixth sense of timing, honed to such an incredibly fine degree, that he usually scrapes through at the other end a fraction of a second before the lights change to green. On the rare occasions when he does make a slight miscalculation and comes face to face with oncoming traffic, the driver in his right indicates what he thinks of the driver in his wrong by that well-known screwing movement of forefinger applied to temple. It goes without saying that this in no way prevents the in-their-rights from joining the ranks of the in-their-wrongs at the next set of temporary lights.

The English driver might be tempted to think that such behaviour can only lead to scenes of indescribable chaos. But this would be to underestimate the impressive effectiveness of le Système D which is applied to the full by one and all: for, as if by magic, the disorder quickly sorts itself out, and the same cycle begins all over again.

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