The French mode de vie epitomises that of one of their beloved delicacies: les escargots. (Their preferred walking speed also has a lot in common with those slimy molluscs, but that’s a topic for another time.) Aside from the snail-like pace of life, there are all sorts of other peculiarities that crop up in life across the Channel and I couldn’t resist sharing the crème de la crème of them with you at some point. At long last, that time has come . . .
Out and About
Does anyone else remember the adorable animated hedgehogs from the government’s road safety campaign at the turn of the millennium? It pains me to say it, but if those poor hedgehogs were French they wouldn’t know what had hit them (pun intended). All manner of wheel-bearing contraptions take to the pavement: roller blades, scooters (ridden by under-tens and businessmen alike) and even motorbikes, to name but a few. (“Keep death off the roads – drive on the pavement,” as my dad would say.) Reversing up one-way streets is commonplace – after all, the vehicle is still facing in the direction of the flow of traffic. It also saves driving all the way round the block if you’ve just sped past an available parking spot. Speaking of parking, if there isn’t a space, the French appear to have no qualms in treating the pavement – or, for that matter, one lane of the road – as an overflow car park. (The manoeuvre itself is then undertaken in a very Inspector Clouseau-esque fashion: nonchalantly and often with several bashes to the cars either side.) Public transport, on the other hand, works like a dream. Except when the SNCF changes timetables and cancels trains with little-to-no advance notice.
Bureaucracy: Sink or Swim
French bureaucracy may be the butt of many jokes, but that’s for good reason. If you ever find yourself living in France, chances are it’ll drive you up the wall, round the bend and off the cliff for good measure. The French are notoriously technophobic, and the reams of paper used for their nonsensical administrative proceedings are testament to this. PAYE is yet to make its début in the Land of Red Tape, meaning come May you’ll have to fill out – yes, you guessed it – oodles of paperwork stating what you earnt the previous year. (Still waiting on those forms, so it would seem that even the mighty Administration can’t keep up with all the paperwork it generates.) In the UK, you can stroll into any branch of your bank to enquire about the state of your account. Here – as I was haughtily informed when I made the mistake of going into a different branch – you must go to the exact branch that you opened your account at to make any enquiries. Bureaucracy is, of course, a great source of stress – so expect to see banks (and other such establishments) close for a lengthy lunch break, shut up shop completely on weekends and give themselves Mondays off for good measure.
What did the big chimney say to the little chimney? You’re too young to smoke! I’m pretty sure this joke would be lost on the French, who continue to light up and get their nicotine fix irrespective of age. (It never ceased to amuse me that the university’s main campus is housed in a former cigarette factory.) For a nation of hypochondriacs – a sneeze seems to be enough to trigger a trip to the doctor for that all-important justificatif d’absence – their tendency to cough without covering their mouths is somewhat perplexing (and incredibly revolting). There’s never a dull moment in the hygiene-related aisles of the supermarket – take chlorophyll-flavoured toothpaste, for example. (The packaging was certainly right when it pitched it as having “un goût unique”. Never again.) Then there’s the exorbitant price of deodorants, shower gels and shampoos – which may or may not have had a significant bearing on the classic stereotype that the French smell. And as for picking up a box of ibuprofen for the equivalent of 30p in a supermarket – think again. Such a purchase necessitates a trip to the local pharmacy, where the prices are likely only to add insult to injury.
As Easy as ABC?
I could probably write an entire post on how baffling the French education system can be, but I’ll try to keep it short and sweet. For starters, the paper. In the UK, we have lined paper (for most subjects), square paper (for maths) and graph paper (for science). Here, broadly speaking, there’s only one option on the menu: graph paper. (Ugh.) Next, grading. This is where the French education system – to the uninitiated – really takes the cake. Theoretically, the marking scale is from nought to twenty; in practice, anything above a sixteen doesn’t really exist. Since every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Pierre, Paul et Jacques) can get into la fac with relative ease, harsh marking is, apparently, the way public universities weed out the students who simply aren’t making the cut. Finally, if you thought you had it bad with 9am lectures, spare a thought for the poor students (and teachers) subjected to the horrors of the 8am-8pm timetabling nightmare at Lyon 3.
Renting a flat in France is somewhat different from renting one in the UK; things you may take for granted back home, simply don’t come as standard over here. There’s a reason launderettes can still be found on many a street corner in France: it’s because many flats don’t have washing machines. (And you may as well forget having a tumble dryer.) When I lived in Colmar, I had to carry my washing across the railway line to the nearest launderette. (I once dropped a sock and discovered it on the pavement a few days later.) Such problems are fortunately a thing of the past, as I do actually have a washing machine in my flat this time round. In the UK, we are rather fond of carpets. Sadly, Continental Europeans don’t appear to share this fondness. Here, it’s tiles, linoleum and wooden floorboards – and a rug if you’re lucky. (Flip-flops are thus a necessity if you don’t want cold feet walking around your own abode.) On a final note, whoever owns the block of flats you live in will – in all likelihood – control the heating. Cruel, but true. For weeks, we thought the heating just didn’t work . . . and then it transpired that we were simply expected to freeze until the owner deigned to switch on the heating for everyone.
Last but by no means least, a few gems which didn’t quite fit into any of the previous categories. Domino’s, for some inexplicable reason, is much cheaper than it is in the UK. A medium ham and cheese for €5.99? Oui, oui, oui! (I’m quite proud of the fact I’ve only caved three times, given I live round the corner from one.) The quirks of the French numbering system are well-documented, but it must be said that “I live at four-twenties-sixteen Rue XYZ” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. AZERTY keyboards leave a lot to be desired; the humble full stop (arguably one of the most-used keys) necessitates a tap of the shift key. (Why?!) Forming a nice orderly queue is something us Brits are good at (and proud of), but something which – a lot of the time – completely bypasses the French. (Especially, in my experience, les vieilles grenouilles.)
Chers lecteurs, this is intended as a very lighthearted post on the things which puzzle me on the other side of La Manche, and is not intended to cause offence. While you’re here, if there’s anything bamboozling that I’ve missed, do let me know in the comments!