Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

Author: Barry A. Whittingham (page 1 of 2)

Living with the French

IdiosyncrasyThe following are tips on how to deal with what I’ve personally found to be some of the more common things which may surprise or even shock the  Anglo-Saxon expat when he first starts living with the French. The list is by no means exhaustive.

1. Don’t be surprised at the number of strikes and/or street demonstrations going on every single day of the year. The latter are perceived by the French as being a legitimate manifestation of direct democracy. When it’s safe to do so they’ll even take the kids along. French Street Demonstration

2. Living with the French also involves being led to believe that they invented the game of tennis, rugby, golf (I once even read an article in my local newspaper claiming they’d invented cricket). Use all your inborn phlegm and reply something like: ‘This might possibly be the case but don’t you think …?’

3. Think twice before admitting you’ve made a mistake. I know that in Anglo-Saxon countries it’s usually considered to be a sign of honesty but in France it’s an admission of incompetence. You can blame anyone or anything.

4. Be patient at your local tennis club’s Annual General Meeting (or any other meeting for that matter). Expect them to waste a considerable amount of time chatting about what you consider to be irrelevancies. And don’t be surprised if the only result is that they agree to disagree. Oh yes, and you’re not expected to turn up dead on time.

5. If you see someone letting his dog do it on the road or pavement in front of you, turn a blind eye. After all, it’s none of your business. Aren’t people in uniforms paid to stop this sort of thing? Dog Pooping

6. Bear with them when they keep reminding you that France is the cradle of human rights. This is drilled into them at school. It all goes back to their main claim to glory (apart from Napoléon) – the Révolution and the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (1789).

7. Don’t be too hard on them if they seem to spend most of their time moaning. They’re the first to admit they’re a nation of criticizers, complainers and protestors.

8. Don’t be surprised that in a country like France which has a plethora of rules, regulations and laws you find people doing their best to get round them.  Be aware that applying them officially is often considered to be the ultimate sanction.

9. Just as the English show a deep distrust of the weather but love talking about it, the French have no faith in their politicians but adore discussing politics. So gen up on Mr Cameroun (or whoever’s replaced him by the time this blog is published) and his policies. You’ll be expected to know all about them. And they still love to hate Mrs Thatcher.

10. Despite the fact that Marxist-inspired, egalitarian ideology still influences Gallic thinking, living with the French will soon reveal that they’re a bunch of conservatives at heart with little desire for change. As an Anglo-Saxon (especially the U.S. version) be prepared to be treated as an ultra-liberal capitalist with a strong tendency to exploit the downtrodden poor. The media remind them of this every single day. American Capitalist

11. Be suspicious when he tells you he agrees that motorway speed limits should be lowered, there should be more speed cameras, tax evasion should be punished more severely, etc., etc. What he really means is that all this is fine as long as it applies to everybody but him.

12. When an Englishman walks past a pretty woman in the street he’ll usually fix his gaze on an imaginary spot two yards ahead. Any Frenchman worthy of his salt will actually look at her with desire. I quite understand that the newly-landed Englishwoman might find this a little disquieting at first, but try to be positive and consider it to be a form of flattery. Though they’ll never admit it, most Frenchwomen expect this. And if a Frenchman doesn’t eye you up and down, it could simply be that you’re getting on a bit. Or you’re just letting yourself go. Take a cold, hard look at yourself in the mirror to see what needs to be done.

13. Living with the French also means you’ll have to deal with that infuriating habit they have of serving tea with a jug of warm milk. Be sure to point out to the waiter when ordering that you want it ‘avec du lait froid’.

14. If you’re English and are confronted with authority in France, try and get out of that silly habit of doing what you’re told without asking questions.

15. Unlike the English who’ll go to extraordinary lengths to reply, ‘Well you certainly might have a point but on the other hand don’t you think that …? when they’re intimately convinced you’re speaking total rubbish, the French don’t normally consider direct rectification, disagreement or contradiction as being tantamount to a declaration of war. So don’t be offended if you’re told, ‘Non, je ne suis pas d’accord!’

Boucherie Chevaline16. Living with the French also involves not throwing up your arms in horror when he says he’s looking forward to eating a nice horse-meat steak for lunch. Though the number of boucheries chevalines is now fast declining you can still buy horse meat in some specialized shops or market stalls.

And finally be aware of and make all necessary compensations for the fact that with many French people the sight of a uniform can have very much the same effect as that produced by a red rag when dangled close to the nose of a bull.


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.

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!























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 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.

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.

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