Sunday, July 10, 2016

Final Thoughts on France and Why We'll be Back

We spent a fair bit of time of France: Paris, Toulouse, Avignon, Strasbourg, and then Paris again. In total, we spent about two months in the country.

By no means does that make us experts, but living day-to-day for that long in a variety of places does give one a certain sense of a place.

But of course you want to come here, it's France

We knew long before we arrived in France that there is a general belief among the French that everyone wants to come to France - and it's probably true. 

They are one of the few countries that have a long stay visitor visa that permits you to stay in the country for up to a year provided you can show sufficient assets and funds to live for the year without working. Normally, visitor visas are only good for three months. The French make this visa easy to find, and presumably it's possible to actually get since we know people who have done it.

Then we started looking on AirBnb for places to stay in France. Generally, we found some decent postings outside of Paris, but some did not have very good descriptions or photos. Then we started looking in Paris. The descriptions and photos of many, many places left lots to be desired, and gave no real idea at all what the place was like. Reviews help, but I like lots of good photos. It was almost as if the homeowner was saying, "But it's Paris. Of course you want to stay here. Why do you need to see photos?"

We've rented through AirBnb in every country we've been in except Vietnam and United Arab Emirates. Nowhere else have we seen so many listings with so few photos.

The Unions and The Strikes

I think the biggest thing we noticed were the strikes: how crazy they were, how much they impacted the country, and how everyone accepted them because it was after all, spring in France.

The left-wing government is trying to pass some legislation they say will help the economy (1/4 young people are unemployed, and 1/10 nationally) by making it easier for employers to lay off people when times are tough, thereby encouraging them to hire more people when times are good. It also gives employers and employees the ability to negotiate different benefits (such as leave) than what the heavily regulated rules already provide. It also permits employees (or perhaps permits employers to demand that employees) work more than 35 hours a week. As one guide summarized the proposed changes, "The government wants France to work on Sundays."

The unions have not been happy with the changes. They first held a variety of demonstrations, some of which turned nasty and violent. Then one union shut down the refineries. The threat of gas shortages led to gas shortages because people flocked to the pumps to fill up. We noticed one day in Avignon that the line to the pumps was long and backed up traffic. Once we learned what was going on, we were careful with our driving to make sure we didn't run out of gas somewhere far from home.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that you must keep in mind as you read this, the union was not without an agreement. It was not negotiating with the government over a new agreement. It just didn't like the new law.

Then the train strikes came. Not all the national trains, but about 1/3 or so were affected. We headed to Amsterdam the day before the strikes started. Crisis averted. But the strike persisted. Our train to Strasbourg was cancelled. At least we had some warning. And as luck would have it, we were headed to Strasbourg which is on the border with Germany. We found a train we could take through Germany.

Euro Cup started. The trains were on strike, including the regional trains in Paris that head out to Stade de France. The garbage collectors in Paris went on strike leading to some areas having heaping piles of garbage on the sidewalks - together with the odours and the rats. And then the pilots of Air France went on strike affecting flights for fans trying to get to France to see their teams play.

Of course, the union decided to have another protest/day of action in Paris, and there was more violence.

When the union decided to have another day of action, the police union asked if they would just hold a little protest and not move through the streets because the police were quite exhausted from doing their jobs of: keeping France safe since November's terrorist attack, dealing with already violent protests, keeping France safe during the Euro Cup, and dealing with the football hooligans. In a surprising-to-me move, the protesting union said they have a right to protest and to march, and that the state has a responsibility to keep people safe. So they were going to protest and march. Eventually, they gave a little bit and restricted the protest to one small area. There was no violence that I heard about that day.

Everything seems to have died down. The government has weakened its legislation, and the strikes and protests seem to have come to an end. Someone suggested that the law would be passed, but be very weak and have nothing the employers would like, and the unions will continue to be upset that the law, however weak, was passed.

Yet no one complains!! 

Everywhere we went we heard, "Oh, that's just France." Or, "This happens every spring." Or, "It will end soon enough."

So very different from our ways. Canada Post announcing in advance it will take action because they've reached a standstill with contract negotiations seems petty by comparison.

The Work-Life Balance

The French are pretty good at this work-life balance thing. When the work week is only 35 hours, it's pretty easy to get some living in.

Sundays are for families. Outside of Paris most shops are closed. In some places a boulangerie or grocery store might be open, but only until noon. The afternoon is family time with a good meal, or a picnic in a park. We were caught more than one Sunday night making due with what was in our fridge because we forgot to stock up on Saturday.

A variety of shops also close for a day during the week. Sometimes it's Monday to make up for a Saturday opening. Sometimes it's Wednesday because kids either don't go to school that day, or go for just a 1/2 day.

In Alsace (Strasbourg area) many museums or other tourist sites close over lunch from 12:30 to 2. Because I suppose, those workers need to eat a civilized lunch too.

And of course, the French are famous for taking the month of August off for holidays. Fortunately, we missed this. I say fortunately only because it would have inconvenienced us, but really, we could learn something from them.

The Food

The French have done a great job of having the world believe their food is the best. And it is mighty fine. But some of their super expensive food is really just a cunning and traditional use of left overs. For example bouillabaisse. You can pay a lot for what started as a fisherman's stew where he threw the leftover bits of unsold fish into a pot. 

They've also been clever in using the food that's close to home. The north cooks with butter. The west cooks with duck fat. The south cooks with olive oil. The east with pork and goose fat. And they use local good to make their traditional dishes. Of course, with it being so easy to transport goods these days, these are merely rough guidelines for the traditional foods.

The food is good: baguettes, croissants, pastries, cheese, sauces, sausage, wine, desserts - so very much. Yes, there are vegetables too, but they really pale in comparison, and are not that much different from home.

All this good food has led to day-long cooking classes popping up all over. I splurged and went to one. A fabulous day! A classically trained French chef, who taught for years in Lyon, moved off to Provence to open a cooking school for amateurs in his kitchen. I thought the cooking channel taught me a lot, but he taught so much more. We made such fancy, yet simple-to-make food. It got me excited to get home and start cooking in a kitchen that is stocked with some basic provisions.

Our best find of all though was the discovery of Café Gourmand for dessert. It's a coffee (the wee French espresso) together with 3-5 little dessert samplers. So freaking fantastic. We don't want huge expensive desserts, but these little samplers were so perfect! 

The Myths

Not everyone in France is well dressed. Some of those outside of Paris would give some of the lesser People of Walmart a run for their money.

As for another myth -- remember that book that came out a couple years ago written by an American who is raising her kids in France. She talked about how French kids sit so nicely when they eat out, and then she explained why that happens in France and not America. Well, I'm here to tell you that not all French children behave or sit nicely in French restaurants. In one the kids were running all over like crazy children. In another café we were in that had some room between the tables, a kid was doing cartwheels! Yes, cartwheels. Granted, the place wasn't busy, but still, cartwheels?

The Language

I can get by, almost, in French. There are not big conversations happening, but I can order, find the toilets, mostly understand directions and instructions. But I was surprised this time by the number of English speakers we came across. There were a lot - even in Paris. I don't remember that many from any of our other times here, though the last time was 15 years ago.

Maybe, too, it seemed easier because we had Meaghan with us. More than once as I was taking a moment to digest what had just been said and then thinking of what to reply, Meaghan had replied already. 

But here's a beef I have with certain people who think France French is so superior to Quebecois. They do actually speak French in Quebec. It's the same language. But this year we've come across so many people who put their noses up in the air and say they just don't understand people from Quebec, it's just not the same language.

Well, it is the same language - albeit with a different accent and lots of different slang. It's no different than me struggling to understand someone from Glasgow, Newfoundland, or the deep south of the U.S. They're all speaking English, I just don't quite understand the accent. Or, as we may find with Australians and Brits, they may use different words than we do for some things. 

The Scents

So many places at home are scent free now, that it's rare to find someone wearing gads of cologne or perfume. There are still some, but they are few and far between. 

Colognes and perfumes are everywhere in France! And the men's colognes were heavily advertised during the Euro Cup telecasts. No fun, party beer commercials for the French men; just some crazy avant-garde cologne ads convincing men that life will be even more awesome if they just wore this particular cologne.

But cologne is not the only scent you will find. Personal hygeine products are also heavily scented, including feminine hygiene products. I know some items at home are scented, but we generally have an easy time finding whatever we need unscented. Not so in France.

The Courtesies

Regardless of the type of shop you enter, you will hear and should say, "Bonjour Madame" or "Bonjour Monsieur" without fail. I quite like that this bit of polite courtesy remains. We just don't have the equivalent in English. "Sir" sounds very military and overly formal to bordering on facetious. And "ma'am"? Please don't ma'am me. Ever.

Most surprising of all to me where how polite and helpful people were on the Paris Metro. This Metro is old and has a lot of stairs. We do manage our bags wherever we have travelled, but if there are a lot of steps we will help out the kids with their bags. Just about every single time we were on the stairs with our bags, someone helped us with the bags. The one time when Kerry's back was sore, he took Eamon's bag down separate from his own leaving his bag at the top of the stairs. Someone grabbed his bag and carried it down. That bag is our heaviest, yet this fellow didn't hesitate to help. So fantastic!

The Pressure to be French

There's no cultural mosaic in France. The goal is to be French, not Algerian-French, not Syrian-French, not anything-French. Just French.

The law forbids the wearing of any conspicuous religious symbols in public schools or in the civil service workplaces on the grounds that the church is separate from the state. Despite the government's assertion that it applies to all - and it does - the most heavily affected are Islamic women who choose to cover their heads. So girls who want to wear a headscarf cannot attend public school - they need find an Islamic school, take distance learning classes, or leave France for school. Additionally, all women are banned from wearing the niqab (that leaves only the eyes exposed) in public. It's not surprising that this law, and the debate around it, has been divisive in France.

Let's just say, I prefer Canada's approach. Actually, I will say just one more thing: if you so desperately want people to conform then perhaps you would want to encourage them to attend public school, rather than drive them away....

The Security

The level of security really depended on where we were. 

Paris had the most obvious signs. We saw a whole lot of armed military and police in Paris, wherever we went. After the Eurocup started, there were even more military and police on the streets. 

After three weeks in Provence, we'd seen police only one time at the train station as we were leaving. It was like a different world there and seemingly unaffected by everyday woes elsewhere in France. 

We went through a proper border patrol landing in Marseille from Rome. Yet crossing the border by car from Germany we moved down to just one lane of traffic and passed about 1/2 dozen officers who would sometimes pull people over.

Most surprising of all was leaving France. We took the Eurostar train through the Chunnel. I hadn't been paying much attention to whether or not the track was fenced, but I assume it is because the TGV (high-speed trains) are all fenced to keep animals and people off the track. As we approached the tunnel it looked like we were in a prison. There wasn't just one high fence, there was the high fence with barbed wire on top, and then another fence! I'm certain too, that just as we entered the tunnel, there were rolls of barbed wire on top of one of the fences. That may not be totally right, but that's certainly how it felt.

The Miscellaneous

You can buy pink toilet paper! And people do buy it, because we had it in most of our places. I guess the threat of skin irritation or the damage the dye might do to the environment doesn't matter if the pink rolls look better in your bathroom.

Many women change their surname when they get married. I had always thought that the Quebec law making women keep their maiden names on marriage was a French thing. Nope. It's a Quebec thing.

According to one guide, the French don't have middle names! I had assumed that since it was mostly a Catholic country that many would have the same few religious middle names. Nope.

They still continue to smoke up a storm. One Parisian guide said it was because they all have the downer view of life that you're going to die why not smoke.

The Return

Oh yes, we'll be back. It's just too wonderful a place to not return. It's got great history with Roman ruins, medieval castles, WWI trenches, other war memorials. It has great art and architecture throughout the country. The food is fantastic. It's easy to get around. I really do believe that you could stay anywhere in France and have a terrific time, surrounded by beauty and great food. By the time we left Paris the end of June, we were all a little sad that it was time to say good-bye. Perhaps we'll have to start dreaming of our next trip to France. Where should we go? Any suggestions?

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