Among many great scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant Pulp Fiction, one of the most famous features Jules and Vincent, two hitmen, discussing the “little differences“ that Vincent encountered on his recent travels in Europe. Having just spent 2½ weeks in France myself and had a thoroughly good time, here’s a handful or two of little differences that I (mainly) love experiencing every time I cross the Channel…
- Fresh fruit and veg in the supermarkets (especially down South) is massively superior in quality to the UK. Certainly they have the climate for tomatoes, nectarines, avocados and so on, but the food seems fresher, tastier, more real. It doesn’t have the bizarre uniformity we get in the UK, and actually seems ripe and ready to eat on the day of purchase
- In all the towns we visited, they still persist with the (ahem) old-fashioned approach of shutting shops at lunchtime; similarly, on-street parking is often free over lunchtime. Most of the supermarkets don’t open on Sundays. How do they cope?
- Dunking a croissant or pain au chocolat into a bowl of coffee for breakfast
- Spending £5 every day on bread and croissants. The daily visit to la boulangerie is a real treat, but it needs careful budgeting!
- I love seeing coloured shutters protecting houses from the heat of a Southern French summer
- There doesn’t seem to be any great compulsion to compare prices on everything and anything. One petrol station might charge up to 10% more than another only a few hundred yards down the road, something which, in the UK, would probably spell doom and closure for the expensive one
- The French love a bit of Direct Action. Four years ago we were in Reims when we were treated to the sight of White-Coated (rather than white collar) protests. The local Pharmacists were angry at what they saw as the increasing encroachment of supermarkets onto their traditional areas of specialist advice and expertise. This time, we were in Carcassonne where the workers at a major nearby ice-cream plant were protesting against the proposed closure of this plant by its new venture capitalist owners. Crude hand-drawn cartoons, badly amplified megaphones and trestle tables made up the slightly shabby but very noisy event at the main entrance gateway to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The broadsheet French newspapers are never knowingly underwritten. Libération was always my favourite when I studied in France 20 years ago, and I still like it now. Take this extract from a recent article commemorating the 30th anniversary of ‘The Thriller in Manila’, between Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali…
Ali, c’est Achille aux pieds légers et aux bras lourds. Les pieds sont moins légers qu’il y a onze ans, du temps du match contre Sonny Liston, mais le jab est toujours aussi performant, et ces coups sortent comme des jets de lumière, à sa vitesse. Achille a 33 ans, l’âge du Christ. Et il a toujours sa tchatche. Il convaincrait les marchands de vider le Temple pour lui, mais le Temple, c’est lui.
This roughly translates as…
Ali is Achilles, light-footed but with heavy arms. The feet aren’t as light as 11 years ago, when he fought Sonny Liston, but his jab is just as powerful, and these blows flash out like jets of light, and just as fast. Achilles is 33, the same age as Christ. And he still has his chat. He could convince the merchants to empty the Temple for him, but then, he IS the Temple.
When did you last read anything like that in your paper? Achilles and Christ in the same paragraph. Beautiful, overblown, nonsense!
- When, how, and (more to the point) why do French men grow up thinking that it’s perfectly OK to stop your car at the side of the road, get out, and just take a p**s next to your car, in full view of traffic?
- Why does France persist with those awful ‘footplate’ toilets? Even at the stunning Viaduc de Millau, only constructed in the last decade and a fairly major tourist attraction, the toilets are primitive holes in the ground, with no paper provided. Near where we were staying in the Pyrenées, the local council had amazingly created a sandy beach next to a small lake, marked out safe bathing areas and provided a lifeguard 6 days a week: but the toilets had no doors or paper, or actual toilets beyond the hole in the floor.
- On the other hand, I love love love French markets. For the saucissons secs, the fruit and veg, the live animals, odd clothing, poulets fermiers, cheese and so on. We really enjoyed our local Sunday morning crush in Esperaza, walking back laden with food for lunch.
- Similarly, motorway service stations are very different in France. Probably because of the distances between major towns and cities, there are hundreds of aires dotted around the motorway network at regular intervals, ranging from landscaped picnic areas to full-blown affairs. But even these larger things aren’t much like those in the UK. When we returned home, we experienced Reading Services on the M4 on a Friday evening; a huge carpark rammed full with vehicles disgorging hundreds of people inside, swarming around fast food outlets. In France, far more people seem to travel with their own food; bread, ham, fruit, cheese. The service stations have more expansive grounds and outdoor seating. They feel less like a commercial conveyor belt for you to refuel on calories and caffeine, more like somewhere to stop and relax, recharge for a while.
- But then when French motorists get back in their car, they have a very strange way of driving (especially further North in the country). Most motorways are two-lane, and if you’re overtaking, God help you to be going more slowly than someone behind you. The standard plan is (rather than slow slightly to retain a safe gap) accelerate right up to the back of the car in front, wait two seconds, and flash your lights impatiently.
- Avenues of plane trees towering over long straight roads, with fields of vines or sunflowers alongside.
- Stargazing in Espereza is something wonderful. No light pollution, clear skies. Thousands of pinpricks across the night sky, with the Milky Way scattered through the middle.
- The city centre of Orléans is unlike most in the UK. The Medieval Quarter is full of restaurants, bars and cafés, packed with tourists and locals, students and families. It was often noisy, with music playing out across the terraces and streets, but nowhere did I see people drinking in packs, maurauding from bar to bar.
Vive la différence!