MY LOVE-HATE AFFAIR WITH FRANCE
BEN HATCH, BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF ROAD TO ROUEN, THE STORY OF HIS FAMILY’S EPIC ROAD TRIP THROUGH FRANCE, EXPLAINS HIS LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH OUR FAVOURITE HOLIDAY DESTINATION...
1. FRENCH BREAD
It’s hard to beat the rustic thrill of queuing in the local boulangerie to buy freshly baked-on the-premises baguette. You exchange a kindly mispronounced “bon journee,” with the charming lady behind the till before you leave with your delicious bread waist-coated in shiny white paper.
The tyranny of bread. In England you’re never more than 100 metres from a Happy Shopper or Tesco Metro, selling bread that’s edible for days…weeks. In France, where you can only buy it from boulangeries that close for two hours in the middle of the day, occasionally don’t open at all on random weekdays and never open on Sundays, the baguettes, that you’d think by necessity must last at least a week, are as hard as rounders bats after 12 hours.
I’ve lost whole mornings scouring the French countryside like a Cro-Magnon hunter-gather searching for bread. Like my wife said one forlorn afternoon near Chateaubriand, when starving for their lunch, our kids had been reduced to sucking pickled onions like gobstoppers for sustenance: “It’s no wonder Marie Antoinette said let them eat cake. She wasn’t patronising peasants, it was practical advice. The lazy-arse boulangeries were probably all shut.”
2. ATTITUDE TO KIDS
They treat kids like mini adults. In restaurants, for example, French kids sit at the table eating the same exquisite food as their parents. They never throw chips, hide under the table pretending to be their cocker spaniel alter egos Dibs and Dabs, and instead like to discuss politics, farm subsidies and Monet’s ability to convey light and movement.
They treat kids like mini adults. The French don’t give kids any leeway. They’re instantly shushed if they open their mouths in museums and galleries. Châteaux never have kids’ trails and their theme parks are ridiculous.
Take Terra Botanica, for example, in Angers in the Loire valley. It’s Europe’s first horticultural theme park. Only the French would spend ten years and £70 million on a theme park dedicated to ingredients.
Spoiled by Pixar movies featuring imaginatively animated talking creatures going on epic adventures across time and space, a film about what happens to a drop of water when it gets sucked up by a magnolia tree doesn’t quite hit the spot, I’m afraid.
And, as for story of the hydrangea in the Plant Theatre, let’s just say it’s minus the plot twists English kids have come to expect. Our kids weren’t that interested in the display about the correct way to cook haricot beans either. And the main ride consisted of us sitting in a hollowed-out pedal-operated giant walnut shell that travelled slowly on rails not quite above the treetops where we got to stare below at lettuce.
Or as our daughter put it: “I don’t want to look at salad. I want to have fun.”
"It's instructional to see how we’re viewed through the products we’re deemed unable to live without..."
3. THE ROADS
The roads are always empty, you never run into traffic jams.
Every 10 minutes on major roads you hit a hugely expensive toll-booth. Because the French drive on the wrong side of the road (yes, they do) the toll booth ticket machines are on the passenger side. Also for some reason they are never right next to the kerb meaning my wife has to climb so far out of the window to put in her card she looks she’s attempting to flee a gearbox fire.
I love French supermarkets because you never know what you’ll find in them. I’ve seen live lobsters in tanks, live crabs, profiterole-flavoured yoghurt, canned croissants, rabbit feet and once, a skinned badger.
You’ll come across fruit and veg that would be worthy of a picture caption in most regional British newspapers, tomatoes the size of footballs, aubergines a small child could hide behind and peaches so soft you can suck them down to the stone liked boiled sweets.
And of course they have the wondrous Brit aisle. Acknowledging the 12 million visitors a year from across the Channel, the French reserve special shelves for us. It's instructional to see how we’re viewed through the products we’re deemed unable to live without. Marmite, Jacobs Crackers, McVities biscuits, Heinz tomato soup, Branston Pickle, Roses marmalade and, unfathomably, Dr Pepper.
Occasionally I’ve seen Pot Noodle, though I’m assuming that’s a joke – something for the French to scoff at as they walk past it to buy their veal cutlets. Those dirty British bastards!
The supermarkets. They stock not only the sort of items you’d expect but also culinary delicacies so rare just a small tiny jar of them can cost as much as your weekly shop.
I am talking here about the jar of Special Volante black truffles that I accidentally bought thinking they were a peppercorn sauce that would go nicely with some bootlace chips. They cost me 90 EUROS!
Also, how the hell can deodorant be so expensive? I don’t want to make that joke about the French smelling but, come on, 7 Euros for a stick of Mum! And, as for Marmite, it costs more per ounce than myrrh. Sort it, France.
"One of the most liberating aspects of France is its almost total disregard for health and safety..."
5. HEATH & SAFETY
One of the most liberating aspects of France is its almost total disregard for health and safety. Almost 30 per cent of 18- to 75-year-olds in France smoke because the ban on lighting up in public is largely unenforced.
Motorway tailgating is not considered a traffic offence in France. And whereas the responsibility for not injuring yourself in most developed countries lies with the place you’re visiting, in France it’s down to you.
I realised this the first time my kids ran ahead at a chateau and almost toppled 60 foot into a moat through a gap in the battlements.
French restaurants serve nut dishes without warnings, supermarkets sell unpasteurised cheese that would be burned in great pyres in Britain and we once watched in astonishment as a fully grown circus lion was towed through Carnac town centre in the sort of trailer you’d normally expect to see wood-chippings transported in.
And in Nantes (get this) – they have a 45-foot high, 25-foot wide mechanical wood and metal elephant. Like some clockwork creation from a 19th century Jules Verne novel, this beast resides on the outskirts of the city like some caged King Kong in a giant hangar. It takes 50 passengers a time on a 45 minute clomp around the Ile de Nantes.
In Britain its route would be stewarded with the intensity of a royal walkabout. Yet in France, when I visited, small kids risked being stomped into pate as they darted in and out of its tree trunk sized legs with just a solitary whistle-blowing security guard there to stop them.
I find this refreshing. I love France for being so dangerous.
They are terrified of swimming pools. Pools absorb France’s entire safety angst. I have seen notices outlawing alcohol, topless sunbathing, jumping in, running, consuming and preparing food, bringing in glass, using mobile phones, shampoo, reading and even chatting has been banned.
On one occasion we saw a picture of a skeletal man in trunks with grotesque raised pustules all over his body with a red line through it. Vomiting and haemorrhaging blood with ulcerated skin, it’s clearly still felt necessary to warn smallpox sufferers away from French swimming pools.
Also they make men wear Speedos. You cannot wear shorts in French pools. That is not healthy. It is not safe. They HAVE to wear Speedos. Speedos! Try and digest that.
6. THE LANGUAGE
The French accent is beautiful and sexy. It makes any sentence, even if it’s just one about gravel, sound like a come on.
It’s impossible to learn French. I have a six-year-old’s command of French. The French language is ridiculous. The verbs are impossible and the idea that every object has to be male or female makes no sense. How can a vase be male? How can a spanner be female? And on what basis are these things decided?
BEN HATCH IS AUTHOR OF:
The P45 Diaries The International Gooseberry, Are We Nearly There Yet? And Road to Rouen, out in paperback October 2
WE'VE READ THEM ALL AND CAN THOROUGHLY RECOMMEND THEM.