To sum up then, I love France.
Agreed, there are lots of differences that exist between our two cultures. Some of them are irritating, some baffling, but wouldn’t the world be an incredibly dull and vapid place if everywhere resembled our homeland?
Also, in every good and lasting relationship, surely there has to be the grit in the oyster to keep the relationship looking its pearly best? Mustn’t we be able to look back at our joint history like any long-term relationship not simply tolerating but also appreciating the differences that exist between us? In my role at school, this is the type of attitude that I try to foster amongst the students.
So here are just a few of the differences that I truly appreciate about France:
* The language which (when spoken fluently) is the linguistic version of smoothest silk on the ears
* A culture that sees a main meal as an event worth investing time in
* Food, that appropriately enough only the word ‘gourmet’ can best truly describe
* Breath-taking architecture and vistas (often in unexpected, humble places)
* Open roads and mostly free parking that Brit drivers enjoy with a good degree of envy
So, where will I probably be spending my holidays next year?
Most tourist interactions naturally occur in shops and restaurants. This is where my 30-year linguistic battle for supremacy continues.
Part of the interview process for positions in the French restaurant and food retail business clearly involves selecting employees who possess an ability to detect the slightest English accent in spoken French. No-one is appointed to deal with the moules-frites-consuming public unless they possess this skill.
The next stage (following the realisation that an English accent is present in its minutest form) results in a switch flicked in the French brain which means that only English can be spoken in response and it would be a matter of utmost humiliation should French be used from this point onwards. This is hardly the story that I want to be telling my classes back at school, but I can understand why the French act like this. You see, the plucky Brit has worked out what he/she wants to say or ask to initiate the conversation. However, when the response comes in full-flowing fluent French, our British linguistic adventurer takes on the appearance of a goldfish out of water, with mouth opening and closing at 2-second intervals but with no audible utterance forthcoming. Our French restauranteur (following many such stilted conversations with UK tourists) has learned that the best thing to do is miss out the middle man completely and just use the language of fullest communication, i.e. English. It just saves everyone involved so much time and effort … apart from those with some aptitude for French who would like to practise it please!
To come in Part 5: In conclusion
We rely on our satnav in France. It is the metaphorical ball of thread that we start to unwind as we leave our base camp and then reel in as we return. Indeed, it leaves a luminous blue line on the display showing the route we have taken.
Every time my wife reaches for the road atlas of France, the kids remind her that we should ‘always trust the satnav’ This stems from the time last year when, in search of a suitable picnic spot during a 5-hour French road trip, we ignored our computer-aided navigational ally and relied instead on good old map-reading. The combined result was a 30 km detour, a minor family falling out and a satnav onscreen display that looked like a ball of bright blue wool that had been left in a room all day with an overly-inquisitive kitten.
The satnav (and no doubt your trusty road atlas also) takes you through many a French village which all combine the following features:
1) a church that resembles what any city in the UK would feel privileged to have as its cathedral
2) no people on the streets at all.
My current theory for this is that the GB vehicle detection device is now located in French residences too. French families are all inside frantically hunting for their half-Tricolore, half-Union Jack bunting to rush out and wave at us. Clearly the warning system is not sophisticated enough to give sufficient time for this process and they are all mid-search as we pass through their seemingly deserted village.
To come in Part Four: Je parle francais au restaurant
I have undertaken numerous visits across the Channel either as French teacher responsible for eager young Francophiles or as family member in search of sun and relaxation.
Many of the cultural differences between our two countries are immediately apparent and well documented. However, certain differences only occur to you when you take to the roads; roads that for the most part are dead straight and conveniently absent of substantial amounts of traffic unless you hit the major town and city centres.
However, display a British car registration plate and the accompanying GB sticker and you will immediately attract attention in an almost magical fashion, like in Lord of the Rings when Frodo places the One True Ring on his finger. All of the French driving public within a 5km radius (Nazgul-like as in Tolkien’s epic fantasy) are suddenly and instinctively aware of a British presence on the roads. We are then a focus for all driving attention in the vicinity.
I feel it is clearly in recognition of our role as part of the Allied liberation forces of 1944. The French gratitude for this event is exhibited by:
a) driving close behind any GB vehicle (in an attempt to display solidarity and intimacy with their liberators)
b) overtaking in an over-enthusiastic, even reckless fashion just to be able to escort the GB vehicle to its destination. I was undertaken on a particularly tight urban roundabout by an incredibly keen White Van man (known coloquially as Homme de Camionette Blanc) who then got so carried away that he completely forgot about his escorting duties and sped off at high velocity. He remembered shortly afterwards though, as we saw him career into a side road clearly racked with embarrassment at this dereliction of duty.
To come in Part 3: The ally on the dashboard?
I’ve been visiting France on and off for more than 30 years now as ‘homme’ and ‘garcon’.
Our ‘person-to-country’ relationship didn’t get off to the most promising of starts when, aged 12, I accompanied my Dad and younger brother on a day trip (yes, a day trip) to Boulogne from Birmingham.
Two lingering memories from that trip still resonate:
1) Following encouragement from my French teacher at primary school, Mrs Sambrook, I was keen to buy something from a souvenir shop. Spotting two embroidered badges with the Boulogne crest, but not aware of the word for ‘badge’, I nevertheless launched in with ‘Je voudrais deux badges de Boulogne s’il vous plait’, no doubt sounding something akin to Inspector Clouseau as he discussed his now legendary ‘berm’.
The reply came with crystal clarity and in sparkling English.
‘Red or blue?’
‘Er, un rouge et un bleu’
This transactional dialogue continued in the form of linguistic jousting, a sort of one potato-two potato, with the fist stack building to ever greater heights, with neither one of us wishing to admit defeat and retreat to the safety of our native language. More of this later.
2) Having had a long day’s travel (we had left Birmingham at midnight), I had a good, hearty meal on the ferry as we departed Boulogne. However, during a crossing which my dad subsequently (and supportively) described as ‘rather rough’, I was cruelly separated from my meal (despite desperate attempts on my part to hang on to it) within sight of those famous white cliffs. Dad soon after insisted on taking a photo of me with said white cliffs in the background and a clearly visible vomit stain still lingering on my Parka coat.
In Part 2: Out on the road