Having spent a good 95% of my life in the UK, I know it pretty well, and it comes as natural that anywhere else I go gets judged on my experience from back home. And it also means that those ‘anywhere else’s are very much somewhere else, and to me relatively unexplored and new.
So here’s a ‘quick’ summary and selection of comments on my time in La République, a 40-odd day stint that redefined cycling, travelling and living for a naive first-timer like me. Feel free to skip to the bit you’re interested in, there’s now numerous people following this blog for just cycling or just language or just touristy stuff, it’s hard pleasing everyone!
In-fact, having written half of this, I’ve realised it’s definitely going to be better sliced into two halves, so this is part 1, with part 2 to follow.
In one word, better.
There are a few things that play into how pleasant cycling is somewhere, and the big one for most people is traffic – how much of it, how fast it goes, and how much it respects you. I say ‘most people’ because for some reason traffic doesn’t faze me at all. Which is why I didn’t think much of taking Ron onto a motorway in Yorkshire. Sorry dear.
But French traffic is on the whole much nicer. They are kinder to cyclists, a few in Marseille even cheered me on, they give you much more room, and on dozens of occasions I started to even feel bad for the poor driver behind me who decided to sit and wait rather than come past slow and close, I had to will these drivers to overtake, otherwise they’d have been too kind to do so. My Dad, with one of those statistics only he would know, pointed out that French drivers have 3 times as much road per person as the English, and it’s noticeable.
The French D road (D meaning departmentale, thus it’s maintained by the depar-blah blah blah) is the equivalent to the English B road in most cases, and they were heavenly. France is not quite as urbanised as the UK, countless little villages have become little towns and are important enough to get served by a well-paved, reasonably direct, reasonably quiet, reasonably scenic road, this made the cycling generally absolutely lovely. The only thing to watch out for are Route Nationales or N roads, which are the French’s A road network, though they are more liberal in the amount of patches of motorway they throw in by surprise, meaning you can inadvertently end up breaking the law whilst also having a really horrible time riding in the gutter to the sound of car horns. Even this is usually okay, because the prevalence of the D (hehe) routes is such that you can quickly find a nicer way. The only issue is that Route Nationales are a modern venture and are often made by upgrading D-roads, which leaves a particular route with no suitable alternative until the department gets round to building another one, which can be very annoying, especially when you’re trying to squeeze between two walls of mountains.
Road surfaces were effectively of a British standard, enough that I didn’t notice any difference, they may have actually been slightly better, apart from the Champs-Élysées of-course, that was a crunching endeavour.
Paris was far superior to London as far as cycling went, though the lanes were a catch-22, with pedestrians using them anyway and their installation leaving no room for bikes on the road. I spent a lot of time riding down the pavement, weaving in and out of people and cars and buses. It might not have been recommended, but it was fast and it was very fun.
Also, I know I didn’t take the most scenic routes in England, but France still trumps it hands down for beautiful cycling. The current champion cycling road has to be this one leading down to a secluded beach in the Calanques, on the south coast.
Sidenote: Be careful for the infamous French driving quirk: unless otherwise stated, traffic joining from the right has priority, so cover that brake.
A whopping two-thirds of my nights in France were in the company of a host through Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. This is hard to put against the UK as I had friends and family to rely on anyway, but it’s my belief that the French are definitely at-least as accommodating as the British in this sense. Both of these sites are well established and popular. From Nuit Debout in Orleans to catching bees in Marseille to a penthouse in Toulon, I met plenty of absolutely lovely people and I am ridiculously thankful for everything they did for me. And above all else, I had a good time too, rarely was I really alone, and given my travel priorities that was worth its weight in gold.
It also sets me in good stead for proving that you really can make a home of the entire world, and friends of complete strangers, no matter what the circumstances, which feels absolutely brilliant.
Elsewhere, the most visited country in the world is understandably good at most forms of accommodation. Camping is very well established but hard to find in April, and the two main hostels I stayed at, one in Paris and one in Nice, were incredible. Special shout out goes to Hotel Antares in Nice and everyone I met there, where I ended up staying two extra nights because I was having so much fun.
Wild camping stands out as a big new experience from France. The general view of it there is that, even though it’s technically illegal, you won’t get into any trouble so long as you keep out of sight, don’t start a fire and leave before about 9am. This is compared with England which on the whole is much less facilitating to a bit of rugged pitching. Having said that though, Dartmoor, conveniently close to where I’ll be studying for three years, welcomes wild campers, and it is sort of universally kind-of basically sort of agreed that it’s okay in the Lake District too. Other than that, nada. Oh, it’s fine in Scotland though.
Iconic, intriguing, intimidating. Everybody knows of the French way of life, but what is it really like? I’d need much more than 6 weeks to work this out to any reasonable depth, but one thing is for sure: France is steeped in culture, it bleeds out of every single orifice, if you will. In-fact, I left France feeling more French than I think I have ever felt British, and that’s simply because of the sheer breadth and richness of their culture. It runs through almost every moment of their lives.
Every Frenchman has his home, a deeply important place, then of-course he has his country, one of the proudest in the world, but in-between is the gemstone of his identity: his region. Normandy, Brittany (never to be confused or alligned with each other, ever), Picardy, the Loire, Provence. Each of these places felt like entirely different countries, and it’s splashed over the world around you, as opposed to in Britain, where cultural variation remains a part of the individual. The architecture completely changed anywhere up to half a dozen times as I passed through the country, food, for now at-least, is still reasonably regional – expect plenty of crêpes and cider in the North-West, but once you’re south of the Loire, say goodbye.
And that is easily the most notable difference: in the UK it’s customary, almost a sign of respect, to hate where you live, to pick at it and put it down, there is a quiet pride in living close to, if not actually in, a place that even foreigners know is a shithole, because it’s something to complain about.
France is the opposite: ask someone in Lyon and they’ll tell you that their city is the second city of France, before continuing with their long day of jogging everywhere, everyone jogs in Lyon, it’s amazing; but then you’ll get exactly the same response from a local in Marseille – while they hand you a beer and build a bonfire in the middle of the street. The rest of France is too busy loving their own region to pick a side and so they just explain the conflict to you.
Cultural nuggets are my favourite, the things even the French don’t realise they do, so you learn simply by following the code: I got some strange looks when I walked into a barber’s, and assumed it was because of my cycling kit. Twenty minutes later I realised what I’d done wrong when the third person in a row entered and shook everyone’s hand, every stylist, every client, everyone waiting. So now I know, and so do you.
When it gets close to 5pm, keep an eye on the exact time, to the minute, 1700hr, as the French call it, is the changeover, and if you give the shopkeeper a hearty ‘Bonjour!’or even a brave ‘Bon après-midi!’ and get a polite ‘Bonsoir, monsieur’, you know you’ve just made a bit of a tit of yourself. Only a bit of a tit though, like tripping on the curb. The same can be said for being too eager and wishing a good evening before the vital swap. Feel free to get extra points on the sabbath at any time though, with the universally understood ‘Bon Dimanche’.
Toasting is to health (‘Santé!’) rather than to nothing which the French claim the English ‘cheers’ is for, and you must hold eye contact and you must not drink before, nor put your glass down before drinking. This is a bad paragraph to make this point in but on the whole, despite its depth and strength, you will find the French to be much more lax than expected with regards to their culture. They hold on to it but in most instances they do not hold you to it, which is what many conscientious travellers (i.e. not some Americans) are worried about. Only a few people still insist on cutting the bread with a knife as a sign of respect, and some instead insist on tearing it… as a sign of respect (you see the issues of regionality here). Just don’t put the knife in your mouth, as if you would anyway.
An absolute mouthful for a heathen like me. There are numerous challenges to learning French, you need a completely different ‘mouth’, never again do I wish to be lectured on the different between ‘u’ and ‘ou’. And if you thought getting gozzy was reserved for the Dutch and Germans, think again: get ready to gurn for your life whenever an ‘r’ appears in the middle of a word. On-top of this is the context, grammar and subtext, which is responsible for my embarrassment at coming onto a couple of hosts by merely explaining I was hot: It’s ‘j’ai chaud’, definitely not ‘je suis chaud’, which means ‘I’m horny’. Every minute, an utterance must be made, the choice is yours; usually ‘alors’, ‘putain!’ or just a mumble. If you’re speaking to someone, just nod and ‘d’accord’ your way through it.
But the plus side of French is that these challenges are really, really rewarding. Speaking French is a delight. I have been consistently reminded of my fortunate position as a native English speaker, the breadth and size of the Anglophonic lexicon makes it poetic and beautiful in its very nature, in the pictures it can paint, which explains why Guy Garvey can look like your slightly racist uncle who spends his days down’t pub but still write the most moving lyrics you will ever have the pleasure of listening to. In contrast, French feels good. Speaking it correctly is like having a fine Burgundy wine swilling round your mouth, your tongue articulating the words perfectly, dancing about your chops like a skateboarder in a half-pipe. And rolling off an impeccably timed ‘de rien, mon ami’ to a grateful stranger is an experience I hope to live through again and again.
Let me be clear, je ne peux pas parler français, mais je comprends un peu. I spent a fair amount of time listening to two or more native speakers conversing and when you concentrate you will be surprised with what you can understand with a month’s worth of learning. Entire sentences and meanings can unravel out of a single word picked up on, and that can make life a whole lot easier. It scores you endless brownie points being a foreigner, especially a Brit, and steering clear of English. They key is in the trying. Just like everything else, the French are deeply proud and passionate about their language, and although they will know English, if you start a conversation in it they will refuse to speak it, which I think is fair enough. Be brave, use your French, be completely misunderstood, and then let them take the lead. The procedure is pretty uniform: I was usually given two attempts to either say something or understand something, and failing that they would then quite happily revert to English and have it done with. It’s a very pleasant realisation that almost every Frenchman sees themself as, and takes pleasure in being, a teacher, for a brief moment. It’s one of a few incredibly reliable methods to completely unlock a French person, and break through what is in reality a very thin veil of strangerhood to meet the person inside. Know this, there are practically no such methods with English folk, the veil is too thick and quite often the person inside isn’t interested at all in being met anyway. Speaking of…
Again, this is a tale of two halves. On one side, be ready to have all of your stereotypes personified, but on the other, forget everything you ever learned about the French people.
In essence, as I already knew, they are much more human than they are made out to be. They do not smell of garlic, they don’t all wear stripey shirts (this is a Breton thing anyway, not a French thing, for god’s sake guys), BUT they are still hopelessly easy to spot.
A coffee culture to rival neighbouring Italy, and a fashion taste that in every sense does rival Italy, in that they find it hilarious that anyone could ever find an Italian fashionable. A French person is cultured in almost every kind of alcohol there is: beer, cider, wine, spirit, they do it all, and they have among of the best taste in every one of them. They care about drinking, they start at lunch, where wine is more than acceptable, to the point at which it is almost expected, whether working or not, and yet binge-drinking is a rare phenomenon. Smoking is still a big deal, not quite a national identity but close.
Socially, the French are, by my findings, much more ‘with it’ than their English counterparts, discussion is much more central in the mind of a group of French friends, and it is far more open-minded than across the channel, people wield their beliefs with passion and will charge into any debate brandishing them proudly, but if they are convinced otherwise, if they are proven wrong or merely won over by another argument, they waste no time in admitting enlightenment. A French conversation, more often than not, actually gets somewhere, which is refreshing.
And a conversation can and will go deep, and go there suddenly. This is where I should refer back to that veil, maybe it was simply the fact I was doing something the French may see as ‘spiritual’ in travelling alone for half a year, but they were more than happy to peruse the inner workings of my psyche, the reasons I was travelling and the things I was gaining from it, and then they would offer up their own musings on life, love or whatever. The heart very quickly gets pulled out from within the self and worn upon the sleeve. Make the right impression and you have yourself a very good friend in the blink of an eye. This was probably the most pleasant surprise: the cliché of arrogant, uppity French people is only true as long as you neglect to speak to them. The only exception is the buzzing worker bee of Paris, but the same goes for any capital.
Also, if you’re looking to become French, get ready to exercise your rights rather than complain about the lack of them. I visited at a particularly turbulent time in French politics, with more and more workers striking and protesting about all sorts, especially new labour reforms set to, surprise surprise, reduce worker’s rights and benefits. There have been gatherings in a whole host of French cities, all of them unlawful under the current ‘state of emergency’ following the attacks of November 2015, with scores of poeple, young and old, black and white, meeting in squares and city centres, merely to make a statement, and then discussing all sorts, from gender equality to climate change to city cycling. It’s one thing I’ve noticed since about the British – we love to moan, but we don’t like to actually get up and do anything.
I don’t say this lightly, the French are, to the best of my knowledge and findings, a more lucid, approachable, genuine people than the English have become. The only other piece of advice I can offer is to get ready to take your time if you visit the south coast. Everyone takes their time there, about everything. Nothing gets done in a hurry. Oh, and don’t hug, never hug, it just ain’t a thing.
Anyway, apologies for the wordiness, but that’s part 1.
Number 2 will be done soon. J’espère..