Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Month: October 2015 (page 1 of 2)

French Tourists Abroad

StereotypingWhen the annual summer holidays cause France to pull its shutters down for a month, the holiday reservation site Travelzoo carried out a survey on how their European subscribers viewed the behaviour of French tourists abroad. 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 abroad are extremely hard to please, and never stops 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. And 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.

Arrogance French tourists abroad are also considered to be an arrogant lot – mainly because, like their English counterparts, they make absolutely no effort to speak a foreign language. The French 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, I don’t think this is a particularly French trait. At the age of 14 I went on a school trip to the South of France. For me it was a paradise on earth, and the food, though certainly different, was for me an absolute delight. But many of my fellow pupils didn’t seem to agree: their main gripe was that there weren’t any fish and chip shops around! And what is more normal with this nation of gastronomes that the French also expect to have not only quality food and cooking available at the lowest possible price, but 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.

StinginessBut even though the French consider holidays to be extremely important, and will only deprive themselves when they have no other choice, they don’t want these holidays to cost them the earth. This explains the growing popularity in France of the all-inclusive type of holiday where you know down to the last euro exactly how much it’s all going to cost you, and where you’re certain that, if you don’t want to, you won’t have to 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 the waiter receives a salary just like them. 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, 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.

Seville tour guideNot only do the French want their holidays to bring relaxation and enjoyment, but they also like to come away with the conviction 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 are, therefore, far more popular than with holidaymakers from other countries. So frequently can this be observed that in Seville it has prompted the standing joke that at 4 o’clock on a sweltering summer afternoon only dogs and French tourists are to be seen in the streets. The English and Germans 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.

The World’s Most Popular Holiday Destination

Foreign tourists in FranceSome interesting statistics emerged from a recent survey conducted by the DGCIS (Direction générale en charge des questions de compétitivité), and the Banque de France which revealed that France had a total of 84.7 million foreign visitors in 2013 (an increase of 2% compared to 2012), thus confirming France’s position as the world’s most popular holiday destination  – well ahead of the U.S.A. and Spain.

As might be expected from a close neighbour, the highest number of visitors came from just the other side of the Rhine. In 2013 German tourists alone represented 15%, or a total of 13 million. Next came the British, some 12.6 million of whom headed for French holiday bliss – an increase of 3.4% over the previous year. And even if there were fewer Belgians, Luxembourgeois, Italians and Spanish than in 2012, the number of tourists from Ireland, Portugal and Greece exceeded levels before the economic crisis. France was also an increasingly popular holiday destination for tourists from Poland (+18%), and the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Denmark and Sweden (+13.5%). The largest number of non-European visitors were from North America with a 5.8% increase in 2013 compared to a drop of 7.8% in 2012. The highest number of Asian visitors came from China with 1.7 million tourists in 2013 – an increase of 23.4%. Moreover, these latter figures are in constant progression as the number of Chinese visitors doubled between 2009 and 2013. On the other hand, the number of Japanese tourists dropped by 6.7% in 2013 compared to the year before, mainly due, it seems, to an unfavourable yen/euro exchange rate.

Statistics also show a tendency for tourists to stay longer. The length of stay increased from an average of 6.9 nights in 2012 to 7.7 in 2013 – a rise of 2.5%. However, the number of nights spent in paying accommodation (hotels, rented accommodation, camping sites, bed and breakfasts, gîtes) increased less than the number of nights spent in non-paying accommodation (at friends’, or as part of accommodation sharing schemes), 3.2% as opposed to 4.6%, and paying accommodation represented 67.1% of the total number of nights spent in France in 2013 compared with 68% in 2012, and 69.6% in 2007.

French amusement parkAnother recently published survey, conducted this time by the INSEE (the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), reveals that the 83 million tourists who holidayed in France in 2012 spent a total of 145 billion euros, two thirds of which came from French tourists, and the rest from foreigners. Most of this money was spent on transport, accommodation and eating in restaurants or snack bars. However, this expenditure was not evenly distributed from a geographical point of view as half was spent in only three regions: the Ile-de-France (Paris and surrounds), the Rhône-Alpes and the South-East (Provence and the Côte d’Azur). This was mainly due to the rich geographical, cultural and historical diversity of these regions as well as the amusement park of the first, combined with the ease of access afforded by airports and motorways.

Camping site‘Tourism is the largest industry on our planet, representing 12% of the world’s GNP and more than 200 million jobs,’ Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister stressed at a recent meeting. He also pointed out that by 2030 the world international tourist sector will have doubled in size.  His aim, he added, was to attract more than 100 million foreign tourists to France in the coming years – thereby maintaining France as the world’s most popular holiday destination.

Gare du NordSome of the main measures taken to achieve this include extending Sunday shop and store opening hours in tourist areas, increasing the number and quality of hotels and camping sites, renovating the Gare du Nord in Paris to bring it up to par with London’s Saint-Pancras, improving transport facilities between Paris and Roissy Airport, making it easier for non-EEC citizens to obtain short-stay visas, and creating special police brigades in Paris to ensure tourist security. Monsieur Fabius has also announced his intention to create a Conseil de la Promotion du Tourisme which will work with both the public and private sectors to produce a tourist plan for 2020. The council will meet annually.

Paris Elected as Their Favourite Shopping Town

Tourists shopping in ParisAccording to an article which recently appeared in the Economics Supplement of the Figaro newspaper Brazilian, Chinese and Russian tourists have voted Paris their favourite shopping town. Moreover, 28% of them come to Paris just for the shopping. A solid argument in favour of Sunday opening for shops and stores which, at the moment, is the subject of considerable controversy in France. A recently published study by Advice Consultants, Abington, shows that luxury boutiques are the capital’s trump card when it comes to persuading foreign visitors to part with their money.  Figures also reveal that for more than 75% of tourists Paris is by far the most attractive place to do your shopping – well ahead of its eternal rivals, London (11.7%) and Milan (5%). The survey which focuses on Brazilian, Chinese and Russian tourists (three nationalities representing the biggest potential for development) shows that an almost unanimous 93% of Brazilians place Paris at the top of their place to shop list, while 71.5% of Chinese and 58.9% of Russians do the same.

Place VendomeThe same survey notes that out of an average of ten days spent in Paris these same shoppers devote two whole days just to shopping – 28% of them admitting that shopping is the main aim of their visit. And their budgets are high – which is just as well since their favourite shopping places are the Champs-Elysées, the Boulevard Haussmann, the Place Vendôme and the Rue du Faubourg-SaintHonoré, all of which are famous for their high concentration of de luxe boutiques and the astronomical prices they charge for their wares.

According to the survey, 75% of the Brazilians taking part planned to spend between 3.000 and 10.000 euros, including meals and accommodation, while 8.5% said they would probably be spending even more. The budgets of most Chinese were more modest  – between 500 and 3.000 euros for 57% of them. Nevertheless, 10% of them said they were ready to spend more than 10.000 euros. As for the Russians, more than 60% planned to lighten their wallets by sums ranging from 1500 to 10.000 euros.  Lumped together, these tourists would, therefore, be spending on average the ‘modest’ sum of 4.980 euros.

Chinese shopping in ParisAs for the things they intended to buy in their favourite shopping town , 51% of tourists plumped for clothes, 40% for souvenirs and 38% for cosmetics. The three top designer names quoted were Louis Vuitton (27%), Chanel (14%) and Dior (12%). The survey did show, however, that these tourists didn’t in any way exclude a visit to more affordable shops like Sephora, Zara or even H&M.

Duty-free shopAnd proof that some tourists are quite prepared to leave their purchases to the very last minute is supplied by the fact that 44% of those questioned admitted that they planned to do some last minute shopping at airport duty-free shops while waiting to catch a plane back home. Airport terminal shops could rely on foreign visitors spending an average of 645 euros, the Chinese and Russians spending their money mainly on perfumes and cosmetics, while most Brazilians favoured top of the range wines, cheeses and  gastronomical goodies like goose-liver pâté and truffled sausages.

Why Foreign Tourists Love France

An article I read recently in the weekend T.V. supplement of the daily regional  newspaper Le Progrès reveals some of the reasons to explain why foreign tourists love France.  But when we fall head over heels in love we tend to turn a blind eye to everyday reality. My italicized comments are intended to bring things back nearer to earth .

French Parks. Aynur, 48, a nurse from Turkey.

Jardin publiqueI’ve noticed that French towns have well-maintained parks with statues and fountains. They’re so clean that you can sit on the grass – so convenient for people who don’t  have a garden.

Watch out all the same, Aynur. Generally speaking, the French are an undisciplined lot, and tend to let their dogs do it anywhere … so I’d advise you to look carefully before placing your bottom on that beautiful, clean grass.

French Calm. Maika, 27, a sales assistant and Rachel, 27, a web editor from Spain.

We find the French aren’t as noisy as the Spanish. It’s very pleasant when you’re sitting in a café or restaurant. At home people talk much more loudly – especially in the evening over an apéritif. Sometimes you can’t even hear yourself speak.

In my own experience, when it comes to hearing ’em before you see ’em, there’s nothing much in it between the French and Spanish. Personally, when it comes to loudmouths, I find Italians are the worst of the lot.     

Terrace de café

French Cheeses. Urszula, 25, a museum curator from Poland.

FromagesHow lucky you are to have such a great choice. At home there are only a few cheeses, and they’re all a bit bland. The family I was an au pair girl with in Lyon introduced me to goat’s cheese, Comté and Roquefort Blue. Yum! Yum! I also like your ritual of all dining together. At home people eat alone in their little corner.

Yes, Urszula, I would agree with you about French cheeses. But the downside is that, as General de Gaulle found out to his cost, how do you govern a country which has two hundred and forty six varieties of cheese? And I didn’t realize you Poles were such an unsociable lot.

Provence. Paolo, 55, a department head, and Stefanie, 53, a housewife from Italy.

We were  enchanted by this region. The villages are charming and the countryside is unbelievable. And the lavender fields are just magic. France is really a very romantic country – even more so than Italy!                                                                                                                    Champ de lavande

Yes, yes, Paolo and Stefanie. You make it sound like two teenagers falling in love for the very first time. But aren’t you both old enough to know that once you’ve lived together for a while the  charm can begin to wear thin?                                                                                                                                           

French Bookshops. Kuang, 22, a student from China.

LibrairieI’m really impressed by the number of small bookshops in France. There’s a lot of choice at all prices. I really love books on art, illustrated by numerous photos. My suitcase is already full of them.

Hurry up, Kuang, because all those bookshops are fast disappearing. More and more French people are buying them on Internet. Apparently, it’s much cheaper.

French Confectionary. Katherine, 19, a student from the U.S.A.


I worship French cakes and sweets, especially eclairs and macaroons – they’re so delicious. What I find astonishing is that they’re so refined and light without being too sweet. It makes a change from cheese cakes.

Go easy on that sugar and cream all the same, Katherine. We don’t want you getting as overweight as most of  your compatriots.  

      French People. All, 39, a doctor from Australia.

CommercantSome  friends told me the French never stop moaning. Personally, I find it’s the opposite.  We’ve visited several towns in France, and each time people offered to help us when they saw we were a bit lost. And the shopkeepers are really so pleasant.

Perhaps you’ve been lucky so far, mate. As a general rule, the French are not always noted for being over-helpful to bewildered foreigners, or being convinced believers in the principle that ‘ the customer is always right’. And they do love protesting. Look at all those street demonstrations.

French Weather. Nigel-Mohammed, 41, a Managing Director from Trinidad and Tobago.

Here the sky changes from one day to the next.  You also have as many hot days as cold with rain and wind. It’s so varied! At home we have a tropical climate with a temperature of 30° C all the year round. Mind you, the tourists love it.

Come off it, Nige! If you’d had to endure the kind of summer we’ve just had you’d be glad to get back to that horribly monotonous 30° C temperature you get all the year round back home!

Ciel et nuages

French Bread. James, 29, a school manager from England.

BaguettesWhat a delicious smell you get when you walk past a bread shop! It really makes you want to step inside and buy everything. The person who invented the baguette was a genius: it’s delicious – even though there’s nothing inside. The bread you get in England has no taste to it.

It’s true the baguette has a light and airy crumb, but you seem to be saying that the ‘nothing inside’ tastes delicious. Or is it just the crust you like? And James, not all English bread is as tasteless as you’re trying to make out. Small bakers do exist. Why not try a nice, crusty, home-baked country loaf?

Old French Buildings. Amelia, 36, an interior designer from Singapore.     Vieux batiment

At home the buildings are mostly modern skyscrapers which have far less charm. Foreign tourists have the impression they’re travelling back in time, and each town has its own style. The other thing I love is blanquette de veau.

Hey Amelia, you might not know it, but not all the French are still living in the Middle Ages. They do have modern skyscrapers, too! I agree with you about the blanquette de veau, though – provided the calf hasn’t received too many growth hormone injections. Believe it or not, a friend of mine once bought a joint of veal from his local supermarket, only to find a syringe embedded in it!























Picking Wild Mushrooms in France

Wild mushroomsIf you’ve been enticed across the Channel by the prospect of living a rural idyll, picking wild mushrooms in France will probably be high on your list of activities . Literally hundreds of varieties of cèpes grow in the forests and fields. Here are ten tips which I hope will help to make it a rewarding experience.

1. The exact quantity of mushrooms you’re legally allowed to pick depends on the region but is usually limited to around two kilos per day. Recently there have been problems with some East Europeans who actually camp in the forests, remove commercial quantities, literally pillaging certain parts. As a result, mushroom picking in certain areas has now been restricted to the locals. Be aware that officers of the ONF (Office national des forêts) are now on the prowl, and offenders could find themselves facing a maximum fine of 750 euros. So play the game and only pick for your personal consumption.

Propriété privée2. The rules of elementary politeness require you to ask the owner’s permission when you envisage picking wild mushrooms in private fields and forests.

3. That forest you go picking wild mushrooms in is probably vast (some forests in France are more than 300 square kilometres in area), so don’t get too carried away. If you stray too far from the beaten track you could lose your sense of orientation and find yourself hopelessly lost. So don’t forget your mobile so you can call the police.

Pharmacie4.  Some wild mushrooms and fungi are poisonous, and the visual difference between edible or not can be minimal. Eating the wrong ‘uns can cause great discomfort, even death (each year approximately 30 people never live to pick again) – so choose only those you know. If in doubt get your local pharmacist to give it the once over. As part of his studies he’s been trained to identify the dangerous ones. But it’s probably even better to ask a local.

Cueillir des champignons5. Like many things in France picking wild mushrooms is subject to a myriad of rules and regulations as to how, when and where. For more detailed information consult your local mairie. The most important rules are that they can only be picked when a certain size, and you’ve got to cut (and never uproot) the stalk at the bottom using a knife only. And you’re also supposed to carry them in a wicker basket so that the spores can fall out. This helps propagation.

Hunter6. You might think that the most dangerous part of picking wild mushrooms in France is the risk of eating a poisonous one. This is not necessarily the case. Always remember that in the Autumn months you’ll be sharing the forest with hunters – so you could be mistaken for a deer or a wild pig. The French chasseur is short-sighted enough (or such a bad shot) to be the cause of around 170 accidents per year – more than a score of which are fatal, and three score of which are considered extremely serious. Roughly 20 of these accidents involve non-hunters while the remaining 150 stay in the family.  So be wary when you venture into the forest – even if it’s just for a post-prandial stroll. It might be a good idea to wear a fluorescent jacket.

Morel mushrooms7. If you live more in the south you might be tempted to go looking for the distinctive honeycombed and uniquely-flavoured morille (morel) mushroom. They’re expensive to buy in shops (350 euros a kilo), and prized by gourmet cooks, many of whom consider them equal to truffles. Don’t go after them in Autumn, though, for the simple reason that they only grow at the beginning of Spring. They pop up mainly in forests when the snow begins to melt. They tend to grow around pine trees in the mountains, and near elm and ash elsewhere. And they often hide among dead leaves. It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack but don’t get discouraged. You’ll gradually acquire a sixth sense and it’ll all be worth it.

8. You can dry them by piercing the stalk with a needle and thread and hanging them upside down in a dry room.

9. Don’t expect even your French pals to tell you where the best morille spots are. They’re jealously guarded secrets. One of my friends finds hundreds  every year but the only information I’ve been able to drag out of him as to their whereabouts is ‘South from here.’ In the Jura where I live the best spots are only passed on from father (usually on his deathbed) to son.

10. Uncooked wild mushrooms freeze badly but dry well, and can be stored in airtight containers. However, they’re best consumed the day they’re picked. Don’t put them in a plastic bag as this will cause them to sweat.

A Nation of Cheats?

For some Anglo-Saxons recent events might have confirmed  that the French are at all levels a nation of cheats.  And it’s certainly true I’ve had numerous occasions to observe during my more than 40 years of French expat living that the average Gallic’s conviction that rules are necessary – as long as they’re for others – has generated treasures of resourcefulness and daring in devising ways of getting round them. The fact that the French could be accused of being a nation of cheats  is nowhere more evident than with the common queue.

French queueWhile the Anglo-Saxon approach to queuing reposes exclusively on a notion of orderly, single-file alignment in strict conformity with the rule of ‘first come first served’ – the slightest deviation from which will unleash unbounded fury – not only do the French tend towards a more roundabout conception of linearity but show a marked inclination to favour the principle of ‘every man for himself’. Why only the other day I was waiting patiently in a long supermarket queue when the cash desk next to us opened up. Without so much as a by-your-leave those who had joined our line well after me rushed gratefully into the breach. I’ve also witnessed supermarket customers stick the price tag issued by the fruit and vegetable weighing machine onto their plastic bag before surreptitiously adding a couple of bananas or tomatoes more. And people jumping over a Métro station tourniquet rather than pay the price of a ticket is a fairly common sight. Moreover, a third of those aged between 18 and 65 questioned in a recent survey admitted that at some time in their lives they had stolen at least one article of less than 20 euros in value. And not only does undeclared work and fiddling the national health, family allowance or unemployment benefit system cost the country billions, but tax evasion seems to be a national sport.

Jerome CahuzacMind you, how else do you expect the engine room crew to behave when the captain and his officers at the helm of state fail to set an example? For somewhere I can’t help thinking that holding public office in France gives some high flyers the idea that they’re 10 000 metres above the law. Take, for example, the case of Jérôme Cahuzac. Now Jérôme Cahuzac, a former reputed surgeon, was until two years ago the brilliant Socialist Budget Minister entrusted by Monsieur le Président with the arduous task of fighting tax cheats. The problem was that, after promising a merciless clampdown on those of his concitoyens who held secret tax haven bank accounts, he was finally obliged to confess (after weeks of vehement public denial) that he himself had salted away an estimated 600 000 euros in a Swiss bank account; he’d even reportedly tried to invest around 15 million euros (£12.7 million) in a Swiss fund in 2009. It goes without saying that not only was he obliged to resign his government position but also that of député (though he was extremely reluctant to do so), and is now being investigated for tax fraud.

Thomas ThevenoudAnd, as if that wasn’t enough, it was revealed more recently that when it came to not paying bills Thomas Thévenoud, a former Secretary of State in the present Socialist Government had no equal. Not only had he not bothered to pay his local taxes but he was late in declaring his taxable income for 2012 and 2014; and he’d even ‘forgotten’ to make a tax return in 2013! Mind you, he was finally obliged to settle a total amount of 41.475 euros to the French Inland revenue this year, including some 12.000 euros in penalty fines.

But this was far from being all. He’d also failed to pay a number of parking fines over the years, and seems to have been convinced that the electricity and water he used came absolutely free. And after hearing all this we can’t really blame a former landlord who revealed that his former lodger hadn’t though it necessary to pay his rent for the last three years. And then there was a physiotherapist who declared that the same highly-placed politician had been reluctant to pay for his two daughters’ physiotherapy sessions back in 2007. Apparently it took two years, several reminder letters, and a visit from a bailiff to remind him that he hadn’t settled the bill. And if that wasn’t enough, Monsieur Thévenoud also omitted to inform the appropriate authorities that he’d been the director of a wholesale wine company in 2010 – though admittedly it only lasted a month. Mind you, I suppose you’ve got to hand it to him somewhere. For in his defence our former Secretary of State (he’s still a député, though now disowned by his Socialist brothers) was imaginative enough to have put all these omissions down to what he described as a chronic case of ‘phobie administrative’. I’ve heard of claustrophobia, arachnophobia, agoraphobia and even acrophobia, but I’ve got to confess that ‘administration phobia is a new one on me.

French Rudeness?

Mr Rude FrenchYou know, I can’t help thinking that the arrogant French rudeness some Anglo-Saxons seem to find whenever they cross the Channel is the result of a misunderstanding caused by a different cultural conception as to what constitutes basic politeness. This was once again brought home to me during a recent week’s holiday I spent in Portugal with a group of 20 or so French tourists. Even though I’d had several lengthy conversations with at least two male members of our group (especially at mealtimes when the wine began to flow), it was only towards the end of the holiday when we really started getting to know one another that we began using first names. It goes without saying that, had we all been Anglo-Saxons, we would have been on Christian name, even back-slapping terms right from the start. And the Frenchman in me is tempted to think it is this importance you attach to ‘friendly’ politeness which can cause you to view some aspects of the more formalistic French codes of socially-acceptable behaviour as little more than unamicable aloofness. In this respect, I distinctly remember one occasion when I’d just landed back in Blighty, and the Englishman in me must still have been fast asleep.

The train taking me from the airport was almost empty and I had no problem in finding a window seat. The next stop, however, was a large town where a crowd of people were waiting to board. Pointing to the vacant seat beside me a lady politely enquired, with an amiable English smile, ‘Is anybody sitting here, please?’

‘No!’ I replied, shaking my head, and with what I thought to be a cordial tone of voice.

Now, had this been in France the lady would certainly have gratified me with a primly polite ‘Merci, monsieur,’ and then, without further ado, would have proceeded to sit down. Not so with our English one.

‘I’m asking you if this seat is free!’ she repeated with barely-concealed annoyance.

A little surprised, I retorted, ‘Your original question was, ”Is anybody sitting here?” My reply was ”No!” That means nobody is sitting here!’ And with a gentle smile I beckoned her to take a seat.

She sat down stiffly. Despite having brought to her notice the correctness of my grammar, something in her demeanour made it obvious that offence had been given, and a long, heavy silence ensued. Puzzled, I gave the matter some thought. And, as we rolled along, it must have been my Englishman who began to stir; for it gradually dawned on me that, not only had my response to her first question been far too laconic, but totally lacking in English-style, friendly warmth.  And it could even have been mistakenly construed as ‘No, I don’t want you to sit here!’ In fact, what I should have said was something like, ‘Not at all, go ahead and sit down, love!’ accompanied by the broadest of smiles. But now the harm was done and all my attempts at reconciliation were in vain (she curtly refused my offer to lift her heavy-looking bag onto the luggage rack above). I finally retreated into resigned perusal of my newspaper.

Rude French waiterPersonally, during the 42 years or so I’ve been living in France I’ve always operated on the principle that if you’re pleasantly polite with others in the vast majority of cases they’ll be pleasantly polite back. For me, at least, this has always worked with the different nationalities I’ve crossed the path of, including the French. Perhaps I’ve been lucky but, apart, perhaps, from the odd Parisian waiter (never address them as ‘garçon’), I’ve yet to come across the arrogant French rudeness some Anglophones seem to find so rampant. The only exception was some years ago when I was having a drink in a café with a Scottish friend. We were sitting at the bar and our conversation was in English. Suddenly, an elderly man standing nearby announced loudly to one and all, ‘Ca sent la merde ici!’ and proceeded to storm out. In his favour, I think he’d had too many, and had perhaps mistaken English for German (perhaps he’d suffered during the German occupation of World War 2). So great was the indignation of the café owner (and several people standing around) that he offered us a drink on the house!


The French and the Doggy Bag

Doggy bag 3If you’re eating in a restaurant in the U.K. or America you probably wouldn’t think twice about asking the waiter for a bag or box so you can take that nice bit of filet steak you couldn’t quite finish home for Rover, or even for yourself. In France, however, the doggy bag is still not quite the done thing. If you asked for one  in a restaurant here you might come in for some strange looks from the person serving you, and a good deal of mockery (behind your back) from other diners. But, as a result of the present European year of fight against waste, all this could be about to change. For while most French still tend to make fun of the doggy bag, in a world where resources are increasingly limited some restaurants, companies and internet sites are now doing their best to promote this Anglo-Saxon invention as a means of combating waste. And in France where, according to a recent study each person throws away on average 21% of food bought (that’s 90 kg of food per year), 8% of which hasn’t even been removed from its packaging, this kind of waste is coming in for more and more criticism.

And it’s the restaurants which seem to be taking the lead. According to another recent survey which questioned 2.700 restaurants in the Rhône-Alpes region restaurant owners’ greatest fear is that their customers will become ill after eating left-overs which have not been kept in the best of conditions at home. In this respect, however, they can rest assured as, legally speaking, restaurants can no longer be held responsible for a dish which was started in their restaurant and then taken away in a doggy bag.  A total of 31% of the establishments questioned already offer or are thinking of offering a box or bag which customers can use to take uneaten food home.  And 86% of them feel that, since the customer has paid for the entire meal, he’s entitled to take the left-overs away. It’s also a good preparation for 2016 when restaurants will be legally obliged to limit organic waste.

Doggy bag 2What’s more, some young entrepreneurs see this as a market opening, and are doing their best to make the bag or box more attractive. This is certainly the case with the Trop bon pour gaspiller (Too good to waste) project launched by Laurent and Rabaïa Calvayrac. ‘We’ve lived in North America where the practice is very common,’ says Rabaïa. ‘When we came back to France we decided to try to make it more popular by improving the quality of the box. We think this is very important.’ As a result they’ve produced a luxury doggy bag – a rigid, recyclable, bio-degradable box suitable for both microwave and normal ovens (up to 180°C), and made in France. The problem is that, in spite of its qualities, only small quantities (5.000) will be produced to begin with. And the cost price will be around 1€, a bit too expensive to hope for massive success, even though those restaurants who have shown interest say they’re willing to make an effort as far as the price is concerned.

In addition, Rest-o-Resto, a Grenoble-based company, is compiling an online directory of restaurants which offer a doggy bag or box. At present it has 130 addresses from 11 towns. And the numbers are expanding. ‘The reactions we get vary from one restaurant to another,’ admits Alexandre Teodosio. ‘Some owners are very enthusiastic, while for others it’s unthinkable that a meal should end up in a bag or box.’ The company is in the process of developing a box which will be less upmarket than the Trop bon pour gaspiller one.

France’s Belgian neighbours, on the other hand, have adopted a different approach to making the doggy bag more acceptable. This involves finding not only a suitable French name but – since most left-overs are taken home for human consumption – one less associated with a canine. It doesn’t seem to be an easy task, however, as their site has just launched a Facebook consultation page inviting people to come up with their suggestions. Among these can be found Restopack, Restrobon (Restes trop bons pour être jetés), or even Gaspipa.

The French Breakfast

It has always been an enigma to me that the English, so universally condemned for the uninspired nature of their cooking, could have managed to impose on our planet such a varied, copious and delicious meal as the cooked breakfast; or how their French neighbours, who have elevated cooking to no less than a creative art, could have come up with nothing more imaginative than a miserable slice of bread and butter, or a solitary croissant, and a bowl of watery coffee or hot chocolate by which to start the day.

English breakfastThis is not to say, however, that the French fail to appreciate the qualities of a full English breakfast. But there exists, perhaps, no other country in the world where so many people unreservedly admit that there’s nothing like a substantial meal to get the day off to a flying start, and where so few actually find it possible to believe that anyone can have either the time or the stomach to take it – even at the weekend or during the holidays. This was confirmed to me during a recent trip to Portugal in the company of a group of 20 or so French people. Not only was I the only person hungry enough to indulge in egg, bacon, sausage, fried bread and tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans, but a great deal of surprise (and in one case horror) was expressed at my stomach’s ability to cope with such copious and varied quantities of food at that early hour of day.

And according to a recent survey conducted by the Credoc (Centre de recherche pour l’étude et l’observation des conditions de vie) on Gallic eating habits the French breakfast has suffered such a severe decline over the past ten years that now only one person in five is willing to devote an average of 14 minutes per day to eating it.  And they don’t necessarily do this every day. Is this a sign that the meal is on the point of disappearing in France? Whatever the case may be the danger is present enough for producers of breakfast foods and drinks to launch a campaign designed to convince their compatriots that going to work or school on an empty stomach is not the best of ways to start the day.

And not only has the number of French people who eat a breakfast progressively declined over the last ten years but the tendency seemed to have accelerated last year. Is it because people are in more and more of a hurry in the morning? Or is it just one more manifestation of the present economic crisis? It’s still too early to say – even if the common ingredients of the French breakfast are not outrageously expensive. This 2013 tendency  does, however, confirm recent concern shown not only at the drop in consumption of bread, dairy products, cereals and fruit juices, but the impact not eating breakfast may have on our ability to concentrate later in the morning – especially when it comes to schoolchildren, 29% of whom go without breakfast at least once a week compared to only 11% ten years ago.

The decline of the French breakfast is all the more paradoxical as the meal enjoys a generally favourable image in France where 93% of people consider it vital for a good dietary equilibrium. Among those who spend an average of 14 minutes eating breakfast, nine out of ten consider it to be an enjoyable way of starting the day. 95% eat the meal at home (and not in a café), and 88% of these sit at table. However, almost half of them eat alone.

French breakfastJust what does the French breakfast usually consist of these days? Ingredients tend to be varied. It goes without saying that bread is indispensable for 75% of them. Bread is followed by coffee (78%), butter (57%), fruit juice (51%), plain milk (38%), yoghourt and pastries (22%), fresh fruit (15%), honey (14%), while the various types of breakfast spreads available on supermarket shelves come last at 10%.

Wining and Dining in France

The recently arrived Anglophone expat might find the following do’s and don’t’s useful when wining and dining in France – both at a restaurant or a French friend’s home . They’re the result of my own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during more than 40 years of mainly peaceful co-habitation with the French.

Man under shower1. Don’t arrive at a dinner party too early, or even dead on time. Try to organize things so that you turn up five or ten minutes later than the agreed time – otherwise your hostess might still have her apron on, and her husband rinsing himself under the shower.

Chrsyanthèmes au cimetière2. If you’re invited to a meal by a French family in Autumn and you decide to offer your hostess a nice bouquet of flowers, for heaven’s sake don’t go for a bunch of chrysanthemums. Though she’ll do her best not to show it, this could give her the impression you’re wishing her an early demise. Even though in England the chrysanthemum is a hobby plant, and no-one would think twice about brightening up their living room with a nice vase of Japs, in France this flower is inextricably associated with the cemetery and death. Traditionally, they’re placed on the graves of relatives on 1st November (All Saints’ Day).

3.  Wining and dining in France also involves not putting your hands on your knees under the table. For some obscure reason (perhaps some Frenchmen have wandering palms), it’s considered to be the height of bad manners. When not eating, keep them above board: rest your forearms (but not your elbows) on the table where everybody can see them.

Loo4. If you’re wining and dining in France at the home of French friends don’t ask to use the loo (especially during the meal) unless you’re absolutely bursting. Going to the toilet in someone else’s house can be considered to be an impolite invasion of their privacy. So try to bottle it all up until you get back home.

Mopping up sauce5. Always remember that the pleasure of eating was a French invention, and that it was the English who invented the rules. My mother, who always insisted on good table manners when I was a child, would have been horrified, for example, by the French dunk – that widespread habit the Gallics have of systematically using a piece of bread digitally, in much the same way as a sponge, to mop up their soup or the sauce remaining on their dinner plate during the final stages of the main course. Even though it’s not done in the very best of circles (though, apparently, it is tolerated when bread is impaled on fork) the practice is extremely common. In addition, the same technique is frequently resorted to at breakfast time when bread is plunged into a bowl of coffee or hot chocolate until it has imbibed as much liquid as the laws of physics will allow.

Basket of bread6. Unlike in England where it is not systematically provided at meals, bread in France is considered to be an integral part of the pleasure of eating, so don’t be afraid to ask the waiter to fill up the bread basket when it’s getting low.

7. The French are not in the habit of using a side plate on which to place their bread. So don’t be afraid of plonking it on the table cloth on the left side of your plate.

Elbows on table8. My mother always taught me that a meal was eaten using both a knife and fork. In addition, she always insisted that a knife belonged exclusively to the right hand while a fork always stayed in the left. The French have a more liberal view of things. So don’t be surprised when you see them take the earliest opportunity to abandon the knife (unless there’s a piece of steak to be cut up first), transfer fork to right hand and then use it as the sole eating tool for the rest of the meal. What’s more, on a popular TV programme where participants take turns to invite one another to come dine with them at home I’ve even seen contestants unashamedly commit what for my mother was the unpardonable sin of placing their knife in their mouth.

Pouring wine to taste9. When the waiter pours a drop of wine for you to taste don’t give the glass a good swirl and then go into raptures about its focused bouquet, or try to show off by vaunting its complex wild black fruit flavour mixed in with subtle overtones of black pepper spice. It’s simply to know that it hasn’t been corked (i.e. contaminated with a cork taint which makes it smell and taste of damp, soggy wet or rotten cardboard).

Cheese board10. Wining and dining in France means you’ll  be presented with the cheeseboard before the dessert. Even if there’s a huge selection it’s not considered polite to choose more than two. If you do decide to go simply for that nice, mature-looking Camembert, don’t cut yourself too large a wedge by way of compensation. It could give the impression you’re pig greedy. And don’t expect to be provided with crispy cheese biscuits and butter. The French eat their cheese with plain, unbuttered bread.

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