I've just returned from a lovely family holiday in Brittany, France (hence the gap since my last post) and I'd like to share with you the things I learned and/or confirmed in that week.
I've been to France many times in the past, as a child and into adulthood and I've always loved it there. This post delves into comparisons between the French and British way of life, confirmation of my prejudices and the explosion of at least one myth.
Them and us
There are any number of differences between the French and British, most of which have been documented ad nauseum but, due to the amount of driving I did, the biggest difference I noticed was the road travel.
The French manage to suffer the inconvenience of free flowing dual carriageways as opposed to the grid-locked three carriages made popular in the UK. The price of diesel is markedly cheaper than petrol - which is how it should be (I drive a diesel), and in the entire week I only had to pay to park my car on one occasion. But most noticeable of all was the huge number of road signs the French don't seem to need.
In the UK you need signs to warn you of road works, signs to warn you of wildlife, signs to warn you of low-flying aircraft (although what you're meant to do in the event of an aircraft descending towards you I'm not sure), signs to warn you of crossroads, signs to warn you of happy roads and signs to warn you of impending road signs. This isn't to say that the French don't have road signs they just don't have them every 5 yards, on every post, stacked in threes, one above the other. But even with this distinct lack of signage, I didn't once end up in a ditch, round a tree or impaled on an airplane which would suggest that the UK has gone over the top with its signs (which probably needs a sign of some sort). What the French do have that the UK don't are signs to tell you when you're leaving a town so not only do they tell you where you're going they also let you know where you've been, which is nice.
Life's a beach
I've never been keen on going to the beach and French beaches are no exception. Apart from the fact that the sea is a place that, millions of years ago, our very distant ancestors were desperate to leave and therefore we should take the hint and stay out of, every beach I've ever been to clearly isn't happy where it is and will always try to follow you home. This it will do either internally, by hiding in your sandwiches for you to consume, or externally, by secreting itself in any available crevice - between toes, in ears, up noses, behind scrotums etc. This leads me to believe that if the beach is trying to escape why should we be so keen to go there.
The other frustration I have with going to the beach is the view. Whenever I go to a resort where the female sunbathing population have the decency to go topless I never seem to reap the benefits. Any number of topless beauties can be camped out along the beach, just out of my range of focus, but the ones in my direct eyeline unfailingly have the strangest shaped breasts in the world. These range from the dried out raisin variety to tits that perfectly resemble roof tiler's nail bags (or, if you prefer, a cowboy's saddle bags). I will say however that this tends to be the only true entertainment I get on the beach, finding similes for the full range of boob shapes on display.
Explosion d'un mythe
As previously mentioned I have visited France many times over the years and I'd built up the opinion that you will never see a fat French person. I'd arrived at this conclusion based on their diet and their discipline over meal times but mainly because I don't ever remember seeing one. On this year's holiday however this myth was completely exploded.
I saw my first portly Frenchman in a supermarket but, as the area we were staying in was popular with tourists, I naturally assumed he was British. It wasn't until he spoke to the fishmonger and I couldn't understand a word he said that I realised he was French (although he could have been Glaswegian and I still wouldn't have understood him).
The sight of this large gentleman was quite a shock but I let it pass as a freak anomaly. It wasn't until I went to the beach that it became obvious that this was not a one off. The place was full of French people who, to be generous, were edging towards the rotund.
This display of corpulence gave me another reason to dislike the beach and also reflect on how unfair it is when large people sunbathe. Those who know me will attest to the fact that I am built like a match with a toast rack chest and could hide behind the leg of a flamingo. With a physique of this nature I struggle to get a suntan, as I tend to fall between the sun rays, so it is doubly frustrating when halfway down the beach there is a butterball getting more than their fair share. The only consolation I get in this instance is the knowledge that, due to the fact that they have to apply it by the acre, they spend far more than me on sun cream.
Despite enjoying France I am the stereotypical Brit who believes that if you speak slowly, shout loudly or affect the right facial mannerisms you can carry on speaking English and still make yourself understood in any country around the world (with the exception of America, where they still struggle with basic English - it's colour not color etc.) With an expert fluency I have also learnt to say 'Je suis désolé, je ne comprends pas. Je suis Anglais et ne parle pas Français'. Even though this is the only French I know and translates as 'I'm sorry, I don't understand. I am English and don't speak French' I deliver it with such confidence and perfection that it displays a willingness to attempt their language and usually achieves the desired result of a pitying look and a keenness to help me out, more often than not pointing me in the direction of the nearest public convenience*
The above having been said, my wife and I did stumble across a very useful new phrase this year which allows me to be able to use my favourite English expression in a foreign land and 'Tete de bouton' (knobhead) was freely delivered every time a maniac driver deserved a mouthful of abuse.
*Author's note - I should point out here that anyone wishing to find a public toilet in France, but with no-one to ask, should look for the building where everyone coming out is shaking their hands and flicking their fingers due to the lack hand driers.
As stated at the beginning this post is based around what I learned or confirmed during my holiday so to conclude and in brief here are few other things I would like to impart.
1) I have confirmed - The French are quite happily a law unto themselves. I have often said "F@#k this for a lark, I've had enough, I'm going home" then I've sighed, sucked it up and got on with whatever I'm meant to be doing. Had I been born French I would have f@#ked that for a lark and gone home. This was made evident when the local supermarket, with opening hours of 8am till 8pm, was shut at 6:45pm - it's even called '8 a Huit' (8 till 8).
2) I have learned - No matter how much silage a French farmer puts on his field it's never enough (I can only assume this is something to do with EU subsidise)
3) I have confirmed - My legs should not be permitted to be displayed in shorts and in public.
4) I have confirmed - No matter how good your holiday, there's nothing like your own toilet.
5) I have confirmed - France is a wonderful holiday destination and if you haven't already been, you should go.*
*Author's note - Contrary to appearances this post is in no way sponsored by the French Tourist Board (I am open to offers though).