(Featured image: A drink with Joe Dickmann in Lyon)
And so here is part two of my very wordy summation on my findings of France. What surprised me, what didn’t surprise me, and what just downright confused me.
As accurate as my last comments on French food are, I feel like there’s room for elaboration.
Firstly, yes, bread is everywhere. Bread is everywhere and bread is all the time. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, most snacks include it. And the baguette is alive and well, which I’m sure many distant Franco-romantics will be happy to hear. In-fact, my favourite French word of all of them has to be ‘la mie’, only the French would have a word for the soft bit of the bread. There’s also the ingenius ‘dejourner’, literally a lunch-sized baguette, for one.
And what of this bread? Well of course, it’s brilliant. Reliably so, you cannot have bad bread in France, unless of-course it’s been left so long it goes stale. But even the supermarkets cook fresh bread, and it’s absolutely delicious. One of my favourite quirks of France was the baguette vending machine, which is exactly what you think it is.
Moving slightly on, but still in the carb-zone, pastries. A good croissant or pain-aux-chocolat is the best breakfast available across the channel. Watch out especially for ‘maxi’ pains-aux-chocolat, like two put together in a panini-sized delight of chocolate and butter-pastry. A lunchtime favourite is the chausson-aux-pommes, and there’s also a whole host of cream-filled, jam-filled, raisin, nutella, mandarin filled offerings available from your local patisserie. And they really are local, in that a village of 30 houses will still have at-least two.
There is a distinct difference between a French pastry or baguette and a British counterpart, let that be known. But while we’re talking about breakfast, I have to admit I missed a good full English like nothing else, and I think I do prefer my homely offering.
The French are a bit more down on local produce than us, which is to be expected with their fledgling region obsession (not even close to the Italians however). They’re also getting big on organic produce, and with all that land it’s much more comparatively affordable than in the UK. However, vegetarianism, as I’m likely to find everywhere I go, is more a British fashion. As previously stated, expect wine at lunch, and if you’re from most of the North, beer is a suitable substitute at dinner, or ‘souper’, which is definitely more supper than dinner: the French think little of waiting til half 8 for their evening meal. In Paris and the south it’s normal to have it as late as half 9. Speaking of alcohol, spirit and wine are very proud traditions, and there are many French examples of both: Chartreuse, Chambord, Bourbon, Cognac, and Pastis (which is like a drink from Snape’s potions classes) as well as the notorious Absinthe (actually of Swiss origin). And need I even mention any wines? By region, there is Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, Provence…
French beer is also very well established, though there seems to be a general recognition of neighbour Belgium as beer king, and thus the French buy that way often, too. Special shout out also has to go to the cidre of Normandy and Brittany, rivals of each other but absolutely equally welcome in my cider collection (which I wish I actually had). Just watch out for fruit ciders in France, the big brand ‘Loic Raison’ have dabbled in a Framboise mix which is about as bad as French produce gets. It’s really not worth it. Then again, a lot of fruit ciders are barely cider anyway, tisk tisk.
Cheese is that little bit more important than meat, at-least where lunch is concerned, Camembert is a national treasure these days, every house has at-least one kind. Though my favourite was a new flavour of ‘Boursin’ (like a slightly more firm Philadelphia), of the fig and nut variety, which Joe Dickmann introduced me to. I might sound a bit weird namedropping a flavour of branded cheese in a blog post but honestly, it tastes so good that it’s more than understandable to me. And regarding meat, there’s a big sausage following, if you will, especially closer to Germany, and chicken is of-course a big deal. Both frogs’ legs and snails are worth a shot for bonus culture points, garlic butter is tasty no matter what it’s on. I had tripes in Lyon too, though they weren’t nearly as pleasant as the aforementioned. Still, I’ve had them, I know now.
Again, coffee is good, better than most British offerings, and tea is on the rise, though still behind a good honest bru, which is comforting. There is a delightful choice in most cafés and restaurants: the gourmant, which translates as ‘a positive kind of gluttony’ I am told, oh France. It’s coffee (or tea) but served with a platter of bite sized sweet treats, including the delectable macaron. There’s also the ‘diavalo’, the famous French syrup (sirup) mixed with lemonade, a childhood favourite of mine, and just as nice today.
Final note, ‘bon appetit’ is definitely still a valid wellwish, but never say anything but ‘bon appetit’ in return. It’s also used sarcastically if a French person, typically fanatical about food, is unimpressed with your consuming of it, such as an unsophisticated picnic outside Aldi, that often earns a backhanded serving of the famous phrase. But then it’s true, food matters much more to the French than it does the English, and it shows.
Special shout-out to the ‘coing’. Both the person I’ve since nicknamed ‘Coing’ and the ‘coing’ itself, which I had no idea existed until I made it across the border. But it’s everywhere in France, as in I had it on my first night there, as well as one of my last. It translates into English as ‘quince’, and this is where I either enlighten an entire nation to a new food or reveal myself to be hopelessly ill-informed in the world of fruit. But it’s delicious, at-least in a jam, it “can’t be”, “shouldn’t be” or “usually isn’t” eaten raw, depending on who you ask, and I will not lie to you all readers, I think it might have actually blown my mind when I discovered it, such that I needed a lie down. It felt like a giant secret the French had been keeping from us Brits, or maybe just me, and it was revealed unto me in a single, swift introduction (reasonably swift, you have to allow the French time to throw as many mumbles into a sentence as they can, which for a few weeks I inherited, much to the bemusement of folks at home who I spoke to on the phone).
Civilisation and Infrastructure
French cities are decidedly European, as you’d expect, often with at-least one central square, overlooked either by the town hall (or Mairie) or cathedral/church, and guarded by a statue of some historical icon, or a war memorial from any time from 1789 onwards. This is what I think so many UK places lack: No, not a ridiculously bloody popular uprising. There are nowhere near as many squares, and those that exist are underwhelming at best. They’re a great meeting place, social space and general thing of niceness. City centres are pedestrianised and there are usually three or four flash shopping streets, so similar to the UK in this sense, apart from London’s dire lack of pedestrian-only-streets.
French cities, on the whole of course, are a masterful mix of old and new. History is well preserved and cheaper to visit, in the case of castles, than the UK, while city centres are in some cases ultra modern, very clean, very tidy, very trim and light-looking. Tours and Orleans in the Loire Valley were shining examples of this, as was Nice on the south coast. And of-course, Lyon. The Tube in the UK is a purely London-based phenomenon (ssssh Glasgow, little thing), but France boasts six separate Metro systems, more than Germany as it happens, but less than Italy. You’re welcome everybody.
But it isn’t just underground, the French love trams too. Lots of them, everywhere. Add to that a similarly extensive bus system, better cycling infrastructure and decent road layouts (bar some silly one-way-systems), getting round cities is a doddle, it’s a miracle anyone walks.
One thing that was noted on numerous occasions while passing through was a much stronger community focus. It seems that it often falls under the responsibility, or interest, of local authorities to get the population to have fun with each other, with great display boards in the centre of most towns, or even in some quarters of cities, letting everyone know when the next jazz club is, what films are coming out this week, where the annual tea party will be held, you name it. In smaller villages, notice boards are defying their British fate of obsolescence and are still all the rage, for example:
Standout towns and cities of interest include:
Bayeux: With a cathedral that seems to completely morph at night time.
Tours & Orleans: Ultra-modern with a brilliant small-city community still cutting through.
La Charité-sur-Loire: For it’s funky name and 3/4 of a cathedral.
Lyon: Like a capital in itself, very healthy, very lively, and very tasty.
Avignon: With walls, and I like walls. Also lots of old stuff.
Marseille: Don’t listen to people who call this place ‘rough’, they aren’t travellers, they’re tourists. Nowhere in France, nor anywhere else I’ve been yet, has had anywhere near as much life, energy or colour as this city of noise, nuisance and expression.
Nice: Barely worth its salt as a major city by itself, but easily the greatest hostel I’ve been in and a brilliant base for other Côte-d’Azur delights like Cannes, Antibes, Eze, Villefranche, Monaco (which was boring) and the Alps.
But this is all seeming a bit positive. What does the UK have above their neighbours in this respect?
…Well, fuck that, because it certainly isn’t train travel. The famous TGV did a good job of stealing our locomotive thunder, we being the originals of course, but things have only worsened since in the UK. To put it comparitively, French trains are fast, clean, comfortable, efficient, very rarely late, very rarely used as suicide tools, and do not let me forget, cheap. In-fact, apart from possibly land (I haven’t researched it much), I’d say that rail travel is the biggest monetary divider between these two countries. The UK is extortionate and still useless, while the trips I took from Nice to Eze and Villefranche were probably somewhere about a quarter of the price they would have been at home. I’m not saying nationalisation is good, but nationalisation is good.
Boundless, absolutely boundless and beautiful. However, for whatever reason, maybe the fact I’m English, the French countryside doesn’t have half the eternal aura or atmosphere of its English counterpart. The rolling hills of Pas-de-Nord were nothing compared to the unprecedented undulation I suffered in Norfolk. English countryside has a sensation about it, one of limitless freedom, despite the fact you know full well even the public land is owned and you can’t do much on it. Literature, not always by nationals or nationally supportive, has made reference to everything from English air to English rain, and I would have to agree that there is a romanticism that becomes the countryside of home more than that of France. Too often, the pragmatic purpose of French rurality was left completely apparent, farms were industrial more than they were rustic, and factories abounded, as did power plants (though neither of these things are a rare sight in the UK). There was nothing in France to wipe over the memory of the sweeping lumps and bumps of the Cornish hills, splashed with sunset, gilded with winding hedges and dotted with the odd druistic stone formation, crested by the sea and guarded by the most stereotypically cosy farmhouses.
What France does trump the UK in, at-least in my experience, is landscape, sheer landscape, natural beauty as opposed to rural serenity. The French mountains dwarf the English ones, and they look absolutely beautiful even from afar, which is where I tried to stay in comparison to them. I’m not sure whether it counts or not, but thanks to all the chateaux, the Loire was easily the prettiest river I have ever seen, though the next best was its sister the Rhône, which cut through the alpine foothills like a tram-track. Canal-sliced river valleys were a joy to cycle through. Slightly more difficult were some of the hillier parts, the first big hill was south of Roanne, and from there they got scarier and scarier as the Massif Central and Alps closed in from each side. I hugged the banks of the Rhone all the way to Avignon and just about survived. In-fact, the toughest riding was along the riviera, where rocky outcrops made the most hilly but beautiful landscape I’d seen.
Each cove was more beautiful than the last, and the portion of coastal road leading to Nice threw up some absolutely unreal vistas. The first views that I’m certain will stay with me forever.
Other than that expect plenty of huge farms, like absolutely massive, and pokey little villages with churchtowers poking out of them, like a scene stolen straight from a butter packet. For what the French countryside lacks in soul, it certainly makes up for in image.
The standard of monetary probing (my posh phrase for working out how expensive somewhere is) in France is the humble croissant, as opposed to the price of a pint in England, or the Freddo if you’re a ’90s kid’. If you can get two of the crumby crescents (from a boulangerie, not a supermarket) for a euro you’re in a very affordable area, whereas once the price reaches 80 cents and upwards per croissant you know you’re starting to pay through the nose.
France enjoys its own dubiously stupidly rich place in the form of Monaco, which though technically being a country in its own right is basically just a pretty boring city, full of skyscrapers and vending machines selling coke for £4 a bottle. On the whole however, things are generally similarly priced to the UK. Things that stand out as different include bread, which is cheaper as well as absolutely delicious, trains (as previously mentioned), and university tuition fees (skip to the next paragraph if you’re a student), which are as little as 200 euros a year, approximately 55 times cheaper than across the sea.
Beer runs anywhere between €4 (£3.20) a pint to a steep €8 (£6.40) or €9 (£7.20) in some parts, which is similarly in line with England. Wine is a little cheaper, especially if bought direct from the vineyard. I don’t have a clue how the price of spirits runs against Britain, I forgot to check. Oopsie.
Bike parts? I had pretty much half of my bike replaced in Angers for €150 (£120), if I break down the cost from memory then the same repair in England would probably cost me almost exactly the same, unless I had it done at my local bike shop which would slap about a £40 mark-up on it, and charge £10 labour. However, it’s much easier to be brand-loyal in the UK, for those who give a hoot, France is monopolised in the cycling industry (and a lot of other sports) by the chain Decathlon, who own B’Twin and so only sell B’Twin things, which sucks when you stand by German rubber-wizards Schwalbe.
Coffee is European-style and so the standard espresso (that is the standard, you uncultured Brit you) is set at around €1 (80p).
The scary thing about the Euro is
the vast swathes/scourges/stampedes/INFLUX of migrants it’s supporting who are definitely plotting to ruin everything ever with their horrible foreign ways, who runs away from war these days anyway? I don’t want to share a currency if it’s been handled by a Syrian, they are bad, trust me I have a GCSE in politics and my uncle was in the army the fact that it’s close to the value of the pound, such that you get into the habit of treating them as the same thing, but you still spend it 25% faster than sterling, meaning you can withdraw €40 and have a mini panic attack when you realise it’s all gone, thinking you’ve overspent. I mean it’s true, I have overspent, but it’s always good realising I haven’t done it to such a dramatic extent that I have no money left with 4 months to go, just the clammy palms it gives me before that realisation that I could live without.
Safety & Comfort
France benefits, like the UK and many other western nations (bar the USA) from a decent, well-meaning, sensible, honest, not-corrupt police force. Also my EHICcup card is safely stored in my wallet, which if you know me you know is not safe at all as it gets left everywhere, and that grants me the very nice benefit of free healthcare. I don’t want to push any buttons but there’s a small chance that it won’t be worth jack all in a few months, which would be very bad, for everyone.
In- fact if it isn’t already clear, in a modern, pragmatic, non-cultural sense, France is very similar indeed to the UK. Almost every nice thing and freedom afforded by being in 21st Century Britain is similarly afforded to you here (there) in France, with the odd exception that you technically aren’t allowed to get anyone in your photograph of the Eiffel Tower/Louvre/Arc de Triomphe, without their consent, or else they could take you to court if they had the time and money to bother. In England, you don’t own your face in public. (Rupert Murdoch does of course). You have your police, you have your fire service, your ambulances, your hospitals, it’s all very safe and simple and good and yes. Stop worrying and go and buy a baguette.
Regarding comfort, and I mean this seriously, carpets are a rarity in France. So if you’re a fan of a soft floor, you might want to live elsewhere. However, you’ll be less inclined to stay in when the weather is, in some places, heavenly (the Riviera gets 300+ days of sunshine a year), and whether it’s legal or not (it varies from place to place), the general attitude to open-carry (alcohol in public) is lax, so go ahead, buy 20 beers, some Fig and Nut Boursin and that baguette you were already off to get, and sit anywhere you like. Enjoy it, because you know the minute you so much as put the bottle opener to the cap of that ‘bevvy’ in England, all the mothers will tut at you, someone’s nan will ring the council from behind her curtain and the police will let an entire family die in a burning building to come and ceremoniously pour it down the drain in front of you as you stare back, thinking of inventive ways to hide as a fugitive after you’ve killed him through rage.
National Sport: Football and Rugby, like England, and they’re better than us at both typically. They’re also strangely fond of Handball, Aldi or Lidl sponsor the national team.
Roads: Similar to England, most are named after either people (which I suppose is rare in England unless they’re a Saint), the town they go towards, or something that’s on them (I liked Rue de Chateau d’Eau, Road of the Water Castles, which is apparently their name for those mushroomy things they have all over the place).
Mushroomy things: Water towers, great storage tanks for towns, also known as water castles.
Drivers: OBSESSED with Hazard Warning lights, it seems that they have to be used at-least once a day, no matter what you’re doing. I think it serves as a general excuse to do something that would otherwise be illegal.
Traffic lights: Some in big cities have crosses on the back of them so traffic across the junction can tell whether there’s a red light on the other side or not, useful for cyclists, for whom red lights mean nothing, especially in Marseille.
Window shutters: Still in popular use, though there’s now a wide range of versions to choose from, from blind-style with an internal pull-rope, to the classic open-the-window-and-pull-them-closed model. No house is French without them.
And that, I think, is that.
It’s been a pleasure France, and thanks for reading this if you made it all the way through, this would nearly qualify in length for an EPQ..
Anyway, until the next one, keep…doing whatever you’re doing. And I’ll keep…doing what I’m doing…
Et au revoir.