Sunday, October 01, 2017

When in France

I mentioned in the last of my posts about our travels that one of the things I love about being in France is the fact that it is so different from home and what we're used to, but there are moments when this can be challenging. It's not only the Wifi (see last post) that presented us with puzzles though. There are many aspects of life in France that we in Holland and Belgium have to get used to. A lot of the time, we found the differences fascinating, fun or amusing, but sometimes it could be a bit frustrating when we just couldn't seem to get things right. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love France, I love the north and I love the people. They are kind, helpful and easy to have fun with even if you speak limited French, as I do. But here's a taste of what we experienced, both the good and not so good.

Waiting...we did a lot of this in France


Greetings

Luckily, as strangers and foreigners, no one tried to kiss us as I believe that can be a minefield. Is it one? Two? Four? Working that one out can end up in some highly embarrassing nose bumps. And for safety's sake, I address everyone as 'vous' and don't take the risk of 'tu'ing them. Not ever. However, one custom we encountered that was new to me is the shaking-hands-with-everyone-in-the shop, restaurant, and café. The first time this happened, we were in a small bar in Harmes on the Canal de Lens. Koos and I had stopped in for a cup of coffee. There were a couple of customers there when we arrived who greeted us without any apparent demur, and we sat down with our cups of espresso. But then the café started to fill up. And with every new customer that came in, our hands and those of everyone else in the place were shaken briskly with an accompanying 'bonjour'. It took me by surprise at first and it was a moment before I realised the man (for so it was) wasn't trying anything more sinister than a greeting. Well, I wasn't expecting it, you see, so my instincts drew their own conclusions.

One odd thing about it is that it seems it's not done for the greeter to look the greetee in the eye when clasping hands. I noticed that each of the new arrivals approached us, reached out and then suddenly seemed to see a fly on the table, or the wall, or somewhere. It was slightly disconcerting, I must say, as I never saw the fly and only twigged after about the third shake. Apart from that, I found it a charming custom and only hoped the coffee drinkers who were already there when we walked in were not offended that we didn't rush to clasp them in a friendly grasp. When the same thing happened on a later occasion, we were with Koos' son and daughter-in-law, who were also delighted by it. We of course were old hands (sorry) by then.

Closing time

Now we know that lunchtime in France is sacrosanct. From 12:00 to 14:00 everything shuts except the big supermarkets (and even some of them do too). It's time to eat and the French believe in allowing proper time for the digestive juices to gently process what has just been tasted and savoured. Businesses, offices, hardware stores etc, they all close for these two hours and you just have to get used to it. I love it. I think it is such a civilised idea and applaud the French for giving such honour to lunch. I also noticed that lunch is 'the' meal of the day and it quite often happens that restaurants are only open during the lunch time hours.


Other closing times

Right, we all know about the lunchtime thing, but what is not clear is when other shops and businesses open. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking some places are never open. The bakery is fine first thing. That's a given and they are nearly always open early in the morning until at least about 10:00, but after that, it can be anyone's guess. They might open in the afternoons for a time as well, but not always, so if you've been counting on breaking your baguette with your evening meal, just be aware you might end up with supermarket fare (good rhyming there, huh?). Other shops, though, seem to open and close at will, and even when they say they are open, they quite often aren't.

Then there's the dreaded Mondays. In some towns, like Courcelles near Lens (for instance), the shops don't open on Mondays at all, but you can never be sure (if you don't have internet that is), where or how this will apply. Example: in Aire sur la Lys, the tobacconists were all closed on Mondays as well as most of the town shops. The out of town shopping mall was open but there was no tobacconist there and in France, you can only buy cigarettes from a tabac. If you live with a smoker (as I do), this can be a weighty matter (or a burning issue?) Actually, he became quite philosophical about it in the end because very few shops are open on Sundays either, and thinking about ciggie supplies three days ahead was too much of a challenge.

A restaurant that was only open at lunchtime - for Jo public
anyway. In the evening, they said they catered only for groups
but we think we might have been a bit scruffy for them too.

As I've mentioned, not all restaurants are open in the evenings. This wasn't usually a problem for us as we tend to cook on board and we're not great eater-outers. On the few occasions we did want to splurge, though, we couldn't find anywhere open. In Pont L'Evêque, for example, of the two restaurants, one was closed for a July holiday announcing proudly it would be open in August (but whether in the evenings or not, we couldn't tell)) and the other, a brasserie and bar, shut at five o'clock. This was in high holiday season, which you could say surprised us...given that the north of France is not doing all that well economically.

Added to that were the locks. On the whole, locks are self-service on the canals we used and are operated by means of a télécommande, or remote control, but there are even places when you cannot use these at lunchtime or after six o'clock. And they're supposed to be automated? I know, I know. It sounds bonkers. But there is a logic to this all the same. Just think; if anything goes wrong with the lock, you need to call someone and yes, you've guessed it - they don't work at lunchtime or after hours, so they simply switch them off. The manually operated locks followed the same pattern, but lunchtime is even longer because it takes the lock assistants about twenty minutes to drive from the lock to wherever it was they're going to eat and vice versa. Thus we had to calculate. Waiting time = lunch hour + 2 x 20 mins. It's France after all (says she with a Gallic shrug).

A manually operated lock on La Lys. We had to wait the 'extra'
long lunch hour for this one.

Supermarkets

To finish this post on an up note (because as I've said, I love France and all things French), I just adore French supermarkets because they are so...well...French! They cater totally to the French way of life and that means home-produced, so don't even think about trying to buy South African wine or anything other than good French made food. It is either not available or tucked into places that you won't see unless you hunt for it. Even the Dutch cheese they probably sell for their Flemish neighbours is often made in France. As for buying such gastronomic unthinkables as peanut butter, forget it. I love the whole focus on what the French eat, drink and consume, and above all, I love the fact you can buy almost anything in one of the big supermarkets, even hardware stuff we needed for the boat.


I don't have a photo of a supermarket, so here's Douai instead
where we really enjoyed the E. Leclerc hypermarché

One of the wonderful aspects of visiting different countries is experiencing the different customs, and I am hugely grateful that living where I do, I can reach so many so easily, but for me, France is the most different of those within reach and I will never tire of going there. It's like a beautiful view; there's always something new to see and enjoy.

Now of course I'm wondering...what is the culture you've most enjoyed experiencing in your own travels?

Have a great week, allemaal.

22 comments:

  1. Where do I begin? I love the laid-back Nepali, but they don't hug and I have to restrict myself to a 'namaste' even with Shobha and Tika. I love the Far East - and have, at last, got my head round it being ok to have red dots and blessings on my forehead when I'm neither Hindu nor Buddhist. I loved Ecuador - and there was every conversation has to begin with 'how are you' even if you just want to buy bread. In Malawi. The faithful Everlasting always called me 'madam' though I wish he'd felt able to use my name ... isn't it a wonderful world!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jo, it is! You more than most know what it's like to adapt to local conventions even if it's not quite how you'd do it! Thank you for this!

      Delete
  2. Well darling, here the shops are closed from 1 - 4pm so in France you were lucky :) Hairdresser's never open on Mondays, restaurants don't open till 7pm, local shops are closed on Wed afternoons. Xxx
    Tonia

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh my word, it's just as confusing as France then :) Getting used to these times is a real challenge! xx

      Delete
    2. Colin, Tonia's in Italy - Tuscany to be precise!

      Delete
  3. Hi Val - I couldn't compete with Jo ... getting used to being unable to get petrol on Sundays in South Africa and yes probably no shopping either ... I'm not sure I like shopping on Sundays now as we do here ... I'd rather have a day when we do something different .. well I do still ...

    ... and yes France is lovely - I'd love to see more of it ... sometime - cheers Hilary

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Hilary! I think things have changed in SA now, but it may be that local petrol stations are still closed. I remember all the shops used to close on Saturday afternoons, didn't they? But I'm not sure if that still applies.

      Delete
  4. Marvelous as always. Lively and lovely...but it would be a challenge to need something(like to eat!)and find everything closed! And I thought Scotland was a challenge! (Steph)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha, Steph, yes! Considering France is one of the food countries of Europe, it's surprisingly difficult to find shops open when you want them!

      Delete
  5. Val, I loved this blog. As usual it is beautifully written, extremely accurate and, well, SO French. Thank you. xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah thank you, Beth! That gives me a sigh of relief...I know that you know! :) xx

      Delete
  6. Val, in our part of France the region is quite cosmopolitan, marmite and peanut butter in the supermarkets! But I agree with you regarding opening hours. On this summer's cruise on the Saone in Bourgogne we found that on virtually any day of the week in any of the towns we stopped in the opening hours of restaurants, shops and even museums varied. You could not guarantee anything. But the towns were geared for tourists with well laid town tourist trails, even tourist offices with friendly officers meeting the boats at the moorings. There were large Hotel Peniches with 100 plus passengers cruising, but we all had to take pot luck. however the French were very friendly and helpful. Probably Vietnam was the most friendly country we have visited with the least hassle.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's interesting, Colin! I wonder if that's because where you were is generally more attractive to tourists than the north is? Great that there was so much assistance, but I'm glad to know we aren't the only ones baffled by opening times :)

      Delete
  7. Oh' on one of my visits to the UK. I became annoyed with the fixed hours for serving lunch, the parking tickets that littered the back seat and the uptightness of a lot of the locals... I guess my Englishness has worn clean away.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a pity, Mel! But it's interesting to know you have so thoroughly 'changed; cultures :)

      Delete
  8. I love the custom of shaking hands, how wonderful! I can't imagine that happening in Birmingham haha ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was a big surprise to us too, Shelley! It doesn't happen here in the Netherlands either :)

      Delete
  9. We were caught out and confused on our first visit to Paris, expecting things to be open when they were not. Happened again on our third visit, come to think of it! We have not been there long enough to work it out, but I love Paris no matter what. Also enjoy the culture of Quebec, French but different. And, very different but most enjoyable were two holidays in New York, a culture in itself. It really is the city which never sleeps!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yes, I can imagine New York is its own place with its own customs and habits, Patricia, but I think the whole of the US is very different from Europe. I wonder how different Australia would be for us? Now there's an interesting thought :)

      Delete
  10. A lovely post, Val, that had me chuckling a lot. I agree entirely, France and her people are a one-off, and their habits can often be a puzzle to the mind of the Brit - or the nederlands persoon (which are you??) But I'm glad you found lots of positives. Thanks for sharing them.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks, Roger! Aren't local customs wonderful!? I'm glad you enjoyed my observations. I might shake my head at times, but I love all these differences all the same :)

    ReplyDelete

Apologies for switching on comment moderation, but this is to make sure everyone can comment without jumping through captcha hoops! However, anonymous comments will not be published, so please would you sign your name.