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|
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.
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.
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.