The United Oddness of France
I am travelling through France for not the first time but for an extended time. I would like to share with you some of the quirks I have come across, which I believe are both charming and mildly enervating… especially to someone who’s been before and therefore not over-awed nor painfully seduced or terrified by the place.
This is a beautiful country, in many respects: the sweeping vistas from the trains à
grand vitesse (which do sometimes reach 300km/h); the delicious bread (whose composition is strictly controlled through law); the exquisite pastries which often look too good to eat lest one experience the mild nausea of a violator; the fashion, which albeit exists mainly in shop windows rather than on the streets among the real people; the glorious architecture, ancient, medieval and modern; and finally and crucially, the wine, which is also controlled legally—feel free to Google AOC, AOP, IGP….
But there are behaviours which astound someone who spent most of his adult life in central Sydney, Australia. Etiquette in bakeries, shops, cafés and even museums comes to mind. Say a man is queuing to ask the deli counter for 100g of especially tempting French ham and say a woman walks in after him: well, it’s not out of place here for la femme to be served first, and with a smile, simply because she is a woman. And after she’s off on her perky way, and you confront the shopman, he wryly smiles and says this is right and chivalrous: so much for egalité!
The smoking rate among adults in France are roughly 35%—it is really noticeable when compared to Australia’s 16% (Population Review), especially as outdoor dining implies al fresco smoko in this fair land. Any place serving food outside also allows smoking: one must dine inside to avoid the airborne poison. It is hilariously amusing to see a Frenchman and woman out on a romantic date at a wine bar, sampling amazing drops but not before first expelling carcinogenic clouds. The scene was repeated at a Michelin-star restaurant… I’m sure those tastebuds were grateful!
Trains are definitely superior to back home. The high-speed ones between big cities are generally well-kept and large affairs, up to 10 or more carriages, including a dining car (but don’t get fantasising about Agatha Christie decadence!) and seat reservations. Maybe because I’ve been here for the summer rush or because the French government curtailed plane travel for short distances but there have been delays and the trains have been crowded. On the other hand, a cute little regional train with dodgy marks on the seats left the station with comical precision: literally on the dot down to the second! It was like being a movie.
A rather bizarre quirk I’ll call “French logic.” Basically, the City of Avignon has free museums, which is a big deal in Europe but not in Australia. The catch of this cavalier approach is that not all the rooms in the museum are open at any one time because they are short of staff! Ah, but the museum is free! Surely a paid museum with all rooms open to the public is a better option…. I found it rather perplexing.
Not speaking French is a barrier I bring with me. One pleasant change in this country seems to be generational. During my first visit in 2006, there were some downright rude older women who refused or could not speak English. One round little thing in a Parisian bakery literally turned her back on me. I guess she was happier without the Euros. I am pleased to say, younger people now staff points of customer interaction and most of them have some English and even a smile!
Dining out seems to be hit and miss. Unless one spends quite a bit of money—and/or follows the Michelin Guide—there is always a risk of getting mediocre food, be it French or foreign. You can get a damn good baguette for around €5 but a mediocre meal for €12. Of course, if you spend €50, you’re right to expect a great time and the system is such that you will have it.
Aussie coffee is king and I won’t hear anything to the contrary. I have found coffee in France challenging because one must really hunt down places that use proper espresso machines. Many, many cafés are reliquaries run by older ladies with their push-button automatiques and one cannot be sure what machine is in use until one eyes it! Of course, this would be strange behaviour and it is very easy and sometimes right to just be swept up in the ease of sitting at a beautiful, sun-spangled table with a cathedral or a gorgeous park as the setting and imbibing the joie de vivre more than the caffeine. My go-to has become an expresso or a noisette, which is often (but not always) a macchiato, because less milk means less can go wrong.
My last intention is to sway anyone from visiting this stupendously wonderful country. There are so many positives that outweigh these negligible negatives. I would, however, love to hear from anyone else who has been to France and come across these or other quirks.
About the Author
Felix Staica, a seasoned book editor whose expertise has been sought after by authors, including Laelie Starla. But Felix’s story extends far beyond the confines of the publishing industry; Not only is he an adept wordsmith, but also an avid reader, an unapologetic foodie, and a devoted traveler, for whom each page, each dish, and each destination hold the promise of adventure and discovery.