Last October, I moved to France. In the grand scheme of things, it was incredibly low-key. It was a mere skip over the English Channel (the sea which I have since learnt – but it somehow didn’t make it onto this list – is not called le canal d’anglais, but La Manche which just reads as a very obstinate French word (meaning ‘the sleeve’ by the way), although it seemingly suggests that we English like to refer to ourselves at any opportunity) along with a couple of suitcases. Then, two days later, the French lockdown began.
Come Christmas, amidst all the flurries of excitement about travelling home, seeing my family, and eating a lot, the Northern hemisphere went into utter meltdown. Now there was a UK lockdown AND border closures.
Eventually, I returned to France. Six months later.
This French adventure had a rocky beginning and consequently a slow start to discovering all the quite frankly weird stuff that happens in this country. There is little need for me to tell you that despite geography, the same colours in our flags, and our age-old alliances, there is a distinct lack of shared culture between France and Britain, and the British tea-with-milk, queuing and apologising ends abruptly at the water’s edge. However, there may be some twists to French culture which you weren’t expecting, so sit back dear reader. Here are the 7 things I’ve learnt in France so far:
- This might be anti-climactic start, but, honestly I still haven’t got used to it, so hear me out. None of our saucepans and frying pans have handles. Instead, there is one (yes, just one!) removable clip-on handle which all the pans share. Doesn’t sound that weird at first, in fact, it’s reminiscent of camping, but believe me, if I have three pans on at once and I need to drain pasta, pour sauce, fry meat, maintain my sanity, I need to HOLD all the pans. Wherever my hand goes, the handle goes with me. And don’t get me started about taking a pan to the table, then going back for another before realising I left the handle behind.
- On every first Wednesday of the month, at 12pm there is a long, loud, wailing siren. The first time I heard it, I didn’t immediately run for the air-raid shelter but I did wonder if the French are expecting a foreign invasion. Apparently it’s the signal to the population that they must take cover or go somewhere safe. The monthly siren is just a test which is slightly different to the real one, and hopefully I will never have to hear it.
- One of the most popular starters in France is a pile of grated carrot. Yes, this is the country of gourmands, however des carrottes râpées is a delicacy here. This salad (I don’t even know if it’s technically a salad seeing as there’s just one item on your plate) is tossed in a lemony dressing with seasoning, and that’s it. Très simple. At the end of the day, the French were the great minds behind crudités which they would usually eat with a creamy creme fraiche dip not hummus, so they clearly respect their raw vegetables.
- All the pillow cases are square. And all the pillows are rectangular.
- Why do they put a space between the end of the sentence and the exclamation mark or question mark ?!
- Just like the rest of Europe, France prefers UHT milk. As is the case with any food on which you’ve been raised, whether it’s Britain’s Marmite versus New Zealand’s Marmite, or a real Mexican tortilla versus the Old El Paso range, as soon as you taste that new, unusual flavour, you’ll be horrified. It takes time, time and a few strange cups of tea to get used to UHT milk, but the plastic undertones are growing on me. And apparently the French think fresh milk tastes like cow, so it goes both ways. (FYI, just so you’re warned, if you order tea with milk in a café, expect the milk to be warmed, frothed UHT.)
- Since arriving in the capital of meat, the south of France, I’ve eaten more ‘morally questionable meat’ than I’d probably consumed in my life. Foie gras and veal are delicacies here whereas in the UK and throughout other parts of the world they are dishes which cause considerable welfare concerns. There will always be a precarious tight-rope between ethics and enjoyment, and the French are content to sway wildly from side to side. And while I am proud of my morals, I also can’t deny that I am a glutton.