I’ve recently returned from a holiday in France, a sojourn in recent years devoted to the planning of my next novel. I’ve tried to work out how many times I’ve been there and failed, but it’s certainly more than twenty, probably approaching forty. Altogether, I must have spent at least eighteen months of my life in France, beginning with our honeymoon in Paris (a shoestring affair – we had very little money and went there in an old minivan with four remoulded tyres, three of which had bulges in their side-walls – but none the less magical for that: eating packet curries that you’ve just cooked on a Primus stove on the banks of the Seine has a certain frisson that couldn’t be captured, say, sitting beside the Manchester Ship Canal).
I’ve had great holidays in other countries, of course, so why does France remain special? In an attempt to work this out, I’ve listed ten things unique to France and very endearing to me.
- The roads. It’s true that France now has some brilliant (if péage-pricey) motorways; but turn off them and you’ll quickly come to bumpy lanes occasionally sprinkled with battered signs announcing that the chaussée is deformée, the accotements non stabilisés. And they don’t just mean a little bit, either. ‘Non stabilisés’ means that, if you drive on to the verge, you’re likely to be pitched into the ditch or sink up to the top of your chassis in mud. And where else in the world could drivers be exhorted to take heed that there are ‘betteraves sur la route’?
- The produce. Almost every gîte owner I’ve ever met has supplied produce from his or her garden – usually tomatoes, often plums, apples, greengages, courgettes, fat elephant garlic and other vegetables, too. The tomatoes, in particular, are a gastronomic delight: outsize and eccentrically-shaped, they’ve been warmed by a fiercer sun than the ones we grow here and ooze juice when sliced and left to steep in olive oil, creating a salad that is a special occasion in itself.
- The restaurants. Even in the tiniest, most out-of-the-way place it’s likely that you’ll stumble on an immaculately-kept restaurant serving several sumptuous courses for a very modest sum, sometimes with wine included. How these places make enough money to survive is a continuing mystery – but perhaps they don’t need to. Maybe they are sidelines run by farmers’ wives or millionaire philanthropists? Conversely (you might not think I’d find this endearing, but it is so French that it tickles me) I’ve frequently stopped at a restaurant in a French town in July or August, only to find ‘Fermé pour les vacances’ posted on the door. English restaurateurs take their holidays in February. French ones? Certainly not. Nothing is allowed to interrupt the rhythm of their lives.
- Two-hour lunches. Speaking of the rhythm of life, French lunches are another case in point. Although, tragically, I see some evidence in large cities of the quickly-grabbed sandwiches and takeaway salads that you encounter in almost every urban environment outside France, the two-hour lunch still dominates and most French people seem prepared to work daily until 7 p.m. rather than sacrifice it. When you’re on holiday, of course, there’s no need to rush!
- The wine. No need to elaborate further, I think.
- Shops in small towns. Practically every town in France, however tiny, supports one each of the following: a boulangerie (often, more than one),
a florist’s and a hairdresser’s. If the town is even slightly bigger, there’s usually a pharmacy as well. The baker’s I can understand, and to a certain extent the pharmacy, but florists and hairdressers, in a place containing perhaps fifty houses? Wonderful, but an economic mystery.
- Low entry prices for tourist attractions and low or no parking costs. The UK could certainly learn from the French here. During my recent holiday I revisited Versailles for the first time in decades, and was pleasantly surprised to find that entry to the whole shebang (the chateau, the gardens, the Petit Trianon, the Grand Trianon and the Queen’s Estate) costs a modest €25.
And car parks, if they charge at all, usually cost somewhere between one and three euros for the whole day.
- French trains. A newish experience for us in our most recent holidays. Aside from the phenomenal TGVs, they’re suave two-decker trains. Even the local ones glide smoothly through the countryside at great speed and seem to be as punctual as their counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands. And, again, they’re so cheap!
- Wonderful old buildings that have been dragged into the twenty-first century. I once read that one in every forty-nine buildings in the UK is listed or had some kind of preservation order slapped on it. Whilst I understand the principle of this and broadly agree with it, we do seem to do to death preoccupation with our built heritage (As a bookseller, I’ve been on the other side of the fence: it’s virtually impossible even to knock a nail into the wall if your bookshop’s in a listed building). The French must have even more old buildings than we do; they’ve survived better because of the climate. Mediaeval barns and pigeonniers and other ancient agricultural buildings abound; many holiday houses are hundreds of years old. The town nearest the gîte I’ve just stayed in is dominated by a donjon built in the early eleventh century. It had a fifteenth century church and many Tudor-style buildings (a timber and mortar architecture I’d not encountered in other parts of France). The French don’t ruin these buildings (I don’t actually think they go overboard on bricolage), but they aren’t precious about them, either. On my way back to the UK, I stopped in an old market town for breakfast at an old-fashioned bar, complete with plastic tables and pinball machine, where several old men were playing dominoes. The fascias, at street level, were of plastic, too, but if you looked upwards the windows were mullioned, the gables (I’d guess) sixteenth century. A building spoilt or a building kept alive because people still enjoy using it? (As an aside, this bar, like many I’ve encountered, sells coffee to patrons and encourages them to buy their own pastries from the boulangerie next door. No ‘please do not consume food not bought on the premises’ nonsense!)
- The people. I’ve already said quite a lot about them in this piece. Self-evidently, they are responsible for making France what it is. The current sick man of Europe? I’m sure they’d disagree with this smug recent IMF assessment of their economy, but even if they were to acknowledge there’s some truth in it, they’re clearly intent on having a ball while they convalesce.