There are only three weeks left until I finish work for two (hard-won) weeks of holiday at Christmas, meaning that I am now well over halfway through my time in France. My posts up until this point have contained little other than a continuous summary of my life in France and, as thrilling as that is, the time has probably come to begin reflecting more broadly on what I’ve learnt so far. This post will be my first attempt to do so.
Obviously, the biggest challenge presented by doing a year abroad is that of being thrown into the culture of another country and, although England and France are in many ways almost indistinguishable, there are some things about the latter and its people that I have found, and continue to find, completely baffling. Variety is, indeed, the spice of life and many of France’s quirks add to its charm, but some of them are remarkably frustrating for somebody unaccustomed to them. The following list contains a selection of five things – mostly, if I’m honest, sources of frustration – that have struck me over and over again during the time I have so far spent living in France.
- The reluctance of French people to speak French to non-native speakers. As a languages student whose primary reason for being here is to speak French, this is particularly grating; many a time have I braced myself to speak French only to have then opened my mouth, said one sentence – and received a reply in English. And, contrary to my beliefs before arriving, it’s not as if the French have generally got a stellar grasp of the English language, so why do many of them continue to make life difficult for everyone involved by refusing to converse with anyone who possesses anything less than a flawless French accent? Maybe I’m being hypersensitive here, but I know that my French is, by now, perfectly understandable – so why is it that some people still seem doggedly determined not to understand me, and instead choose to put themselves through the trauma of attempting to speak English? Not only is it unnecessary, it’s also extremely disheartening – and I like to think that I would always try my absolute utmost to understand and respond to a non-native English speaker, regardless of accent or level of fluency. I know that I will always be extra sure to do so in the future.
- Nothing – at least, nothing of any use – is open on Sundays. Even Parisians are barely exempt from the French legislation that means that only supermarkets (but not, apparently, hypermarkets), shops catering largely for tourists, and boulangeries, amongst some other small shops, are allowed to open on Sundays – and even then only until 13h00. If it’s bread or cigarettes that you’re hankering after (#Frenchstereotypes), you’re sorted; anything else and you’ll have to wait until Monday, when normal service resumes. According to this article, changes regarding Sunday opening hours are soon to be implemented, but I imagine that this will affect Laval to an almost non-existent degree. Despite just having read something describing France as “an overwhelmingly Catholic country”, the annoying rules regarding Sunday opening hours is one of the only ways that I’ve seen this supposed Catholicism in action. Thankfully, the Irish pub down the road from the foyer opens as normal – it’s the small things, eh?
- “Tu es végétarienne? Alor, donc tu manges le poulet?” No, actually, I don’t. But, on the other hand, I do eat fish (technically making me a pescetarian), eggs, and dairy products, meaning that I’m not “une vraie végétarienne” according to one of the women I work with, who thinks that real vegetarians don’t eat any of those things. Why is it so difficult to distinguish between vegetarians and vegans? Probably because there are seemingly so bloody few of either of them, and fear of ridicule and complete lack of understanding could well be enough to make those who do exist want to keep their status as “one of them” as secret as possible. I’d been working at the château for about two months before I plucked up enough courage to tell my boss that I was vegetarian – and, trust me, I’d have waited longer if circumstance had allowed for it. And don’t even get me started on restaurants: in Laval, almost all of the restaurants I’ve visited have had no meat-free offerings whatsoever on their menu. In one crêperie, the waiter actually laughed when I said that I didn’t eat meat. I understand that the French are, seemingly almost without exception, massive meat-lovers, but that doesn’t excuse or explain the reluctance to cater for those who aren’t – especially given France’s status as the world’s most popular tourist destination. (I wrote an article for The Oxford Student about my experience of being a vegetarian in France. You can read it here).
- Cheddar just doesn’t exist. This is the country that produces somewhere between 350 and 450 distinct types of cheese, dedicates whole supermarket aisles to the stuff for which it is famous, and eats it as a stand-alone course between main and dessert almost everyday. Despite this national love of cheese which, believe you me, I have grown to share, there is apparently not a single dairy producer in France able to roll out (pun intended) a half-decent cheddar or something like it. I like goats’ cheese, Roquefort, and Camembert as much as (or possibly more than) the next person, but sometimes I just want some good ol’ cheddar to sprinkle over my pasta. As I discovered in my first few weeks here, Emmental doesn’t taste like anything at all and so, needless to say, is a shockingly poor substitute; the best I’ve found so far is Comte, but it’s still got a long way to go before coming close to rivalling that bastion of British cheese, Cathedral City Extra Strong.
- Wine costs the same as tomato juice. In bars in Laval, at least. Tomato juice might seem a strange choice for comparison, but as it’s my soft drink of choice I know that all of the bars in town charge €2.50 for a 33cl bottle of the savoury, surprisingly addictive red stuff – which is the same price as a (large) glass of wine. Many an unexpectedly wild night has started with the question: why stick to juice when you can get wine for the same amount of money? Needless to say, this is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. And it gets better (or worse): whole bottles of dangerously drinkable wine can be bought in Carrefour for less than €2. Sara, my Canadian friend, put me onto a €1.60 Sauvignon and I’ve not looked back since; in the UK, I would expect to spend at least £4.50 on getting a bottle of wine that isn’t like vinegar. Almost all of the wine on offer is French, which probably goes some way to explaining the absurdly low prices, but the French know their wine – and I will definitely be taking advantage of this up until my very last day here.
So yes. I’m very aware that this whole post probably seems like a long rant, but, actually, these quirks are fascinating; as I said earlier, variety is the spice of life.
On that note, I’m going to go and move some furniture around because, in about an hour’s time, I’m celebrating Thanksgiving for the first time ever and am yet to figure out how exactly 20 people are going to fit into my room for a sit-down meal. But I’m sure it’ll work out. Then, tonight, the Christmas lights in Laval are officially being switched on, and I will be bitterly disappointed if there isn’t a mulled wine stall to mark the occasion. I might even be prepared to pay more than €2.50 for a glass…