Things I Didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 1, the Positives

Early summer

Early summer

Now, you’re all thinking I’m going to complain about everything I’ve encountered in France since moving here 17 years ago. Not so. What follows in this post is complimentary; Part 2 (to be posted later) is less so. I’ve restricted myself to five positives and five negatives in the two posts and tried to be even handed. So read on, and see if you agree.

Pluses first. Minuses to follow in a later post:

#1: That you can greet complete strangers in the street/shops/restaurants and not be carted off to the local mental hospital 

Traditional local quincaillerie

Traditional local quincaillerie

I really like the French habit of saying hello to everyone in a shop or restaurant. I suspect this doesn’t happen in Paris, judging by things I have read recently, but provincial France is different. You can always tell the Brits when they enter a French restaurant, since they act as if no one else were there.

#2: That the health system is so effective

Urgences - A&E

Urgences – A&E

At least down here. How long this can be sustained is another matter, as funds are squeezed. And there are some perverse incentives built in to the system that mean you could spend all your time visiting the doctor if you didn’t stand firm. However, when we have needed to see specialists urgently, this has been no problem. The preventive tests are well organised. French doctors still prescribe too many antibiotics and palliatives, but they have improved.

#3: That every event from a committee meeting to a randonnée is topped off with at least an aperitif, if not a five-course meal

Teysseroles team enjoying a post-fête bouffe

Teysseroles team enjoying a post-fête bouffe

The French are good at celebrating events, however minor. Every association or sporting club I belong to has its end-of-year meal and quite often spontaneous get-togethers in between. We have been to so many convivial meals followed by a sing-song or a good knees-up. And the French don’t need to get pissed to enjoy it. Usually, there is wine left on the table.

Beware, though: nothing ever starts on time.

#4: That local government is so accessible to local people 

Local Mairie

Local Mairie

France has more than 36,000 communes, the lowest tier of local government, each headed by a maire. Local councils have a surprisingly wide range of functions and are usually the first port of call for official matters.

We have been surprised at how accessible local maires are, having previously thought they were exalted personages at several removes from the local population. We have been to see our maire several times about local issues (notably, the state of our electricity supply, which has now been improved) and he has invariably been welcoming and helpful.

I recognise they might not all be like that, but there is a lot to be said for having units of local government so close at hand. However, it has to be said that some communes are so tiny that they are becoming financially unviable. And, as the recent local elections have shown, it can be difficult to make up the requisite number of conseillers municipaux (local councillors).

In the UK, I neither knew, nor cared, who my local councillor was.

#5: That there is a wonderful variety of petit patrimoine

House with a difference at Promilhanes - beehives incorporated into the walls

House with a difference at Promilhanes – beehives incorporated into the walls

There are so many examples of cultural heritage in France. I had absolutely no idea when we moved here how rich this is. Some of them are almost beyond repair while others have been beautifully restored.

They don’t have to be châteaux or cathedrals. Quite often, they are simply wayside crosses, tiny chapels, bread ovens or barns. They are testaments to a way of life that is now gone, although a few people remain as witnesses.

What pleasant surprises have you had in France?

You might also like:

Surviving in France: 10 Top Tips
That end of term feeling
French social customs 6: greetings in French
A House with a Difference

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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33 Responses to Things I Didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 1, the Positives

  1. Pingback: 19 Years in France | Life on La Lune

  2. sweetmaddy says:

    Parisienne reader here! I felt the need to chime in about your mention of saying hello when entering a resto and your idea that Parisians don’t do the same. It is not systematic, but I find myself saying bonjour to the most random people in public places, a habit I picked up here! Even if people are mid-conversation or physically far away from a new stranger in a space, they will say hello. I found this odd and sometimes disconcerting at first (thinking these people were hitting on me…) but grew to find it nice. Loved these two posts – I might do my own version of this idea.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for your comment and it’s good to know that things are not necessarily different in Paris. I must say, I had read in a number of places recently that Parisians are not so forthcoming in this respect – but you have direct experience and so know better than me. I’ll be interested to see your posts from the point of view of someone living in Paris, if you decide to write them.

      Like

  3. sally says:

    Looking forward to reading the ‘not so positive’ observations too having been here for over ten years and seeing both points of view very clearly, some more clearly than you would wish…

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    • nessafrance says:

      I’ve tried to be even handed and so restricted myself to 5 of each. It’s easy to get carried away with the negatives once you’ve lived here for a certain time! I suspect if I returned to England to live, I’d find plenty of negatives now. Next post follows in a couple of days.

      Like

  4. Don’t know about the UK, but I think the biggest change for me, after almost 30 years in New York, is the pace of life. It might have a lot to do with my being older of course. I loved NY when I was young and could sit through three sessions of jazz before sprinting around the reservoir, showering, and heading for the office. One year I studied French and Italian as well as working full time as an art director and launching seven children’s books. Here I can often be found by unexpected guests shuffling around my studio and garden with a bowl of coffee and pair of secretaries at 2 in the afternoon…

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    • Sorry, I wrote secetaires but my iPad always “corrects” me.

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      • Bother. I meant shuffling around in my pyjamas. I really am going dotty.

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      • nessafrance says:

        Ha, ha!! When I read your first comment, I must admit I thought your having 2 secretaries rather contradicted your point about life here being more laid back. Predictive text is a nuisance but it can make some amusing suggestions.

        Agree that the pace of life is something we value here, having come from the frenetic atmosphere of London and stressful jobs.

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  5. Kate Swaffer says:

    Hi Vanessa, You’ve almost made me decide France will be the country we spend a couple of years in… I’ll wait for the next blog before I make my mind up!! Hope you’re well? I have not had a chat here for ages, but wanted you to know I still LOVE your stories, photos and travel dialogue. Take care, Kate

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    • nessafrance says:

      Hi Kate, yes – best wait for the minuses! However, none of them is really off-putting. I must admit that I haven’t been blog-hopping much recently, either, since I’m so busy at the moment. But I do enjoy your blog, too. Vanessa x

      Like

  6. pfornari says:

    Buying a baguette in the early morning and half finishing
    it on the stroll home. Watching the flamingoes near Jill’s house.

    What a lovely blog, Vanessa, think I will do one similar about Dhaka!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Nice freshly-baked bread is indeed one of the pleasures – although I already knew about that from the many holidays spent in France! One of the things that encouraged our move. I saw flamingoes in the Camargue about a year ago and they were a sight worth seeing. I hadn’t realised that their pink tinge comes from eating shellfish!

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  7. Right with you on all of these. Would also mention that the rural French, at least round here, aren’t materialistic. They don’t care what car you drive, clothes you wear or gadgets you own – they care what kind of person you are.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, I’d say that’s true around here for the most part. In fact, it’s better for people not to look affluent. Rural France is less concerned with outward show than other places I’ve lived.

      Like

  8. Floss says:

    Well, I agree with all your positives! In addition, knowing where your fruit & veg come from…

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    • nessafrance says:

      Buying from the producteur seems easier and more widespread down here than it did in England when I lived there. Mind you, that was 17 years ago and farmers’ markets seem to have sprung up everywhere in the UK.

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  9. I agree about all of these and I have a lot of other positives, for instance I enjoy the way that the French believe that rules don’t necessarily apply to them such as it’s perfectly permissible to take a dog into a restaurant if it’s well behaved (and it’ll get given a bowl of water before you get your carafe…). Looking forward to seeing the not positives – there are plenty of those too, no where’s perfect!

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    • nessafrance says:

      I don’t have a problem with dogs in restaurants, either – they are better behaved than some children, or adults for that matter! Negatives to follow in a few days. Of course, this is all greatly simplified for the purposes of blogging and it depends on your viewpoint, too.

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  10. RobboC says:

    For me it’s the empty roads, at least here in the south west. It makes journeys something to look forward to – well, almost! Also, the French are terrible salespeople. In the UK I would dread discussing the pros and cons of something I’d like to buy for fear of getting sucked into special offers, discounts for today only, etc. In France they give you the information and leave the choice to you. If you want to go home and order it from Amazon, no-one is bothered; or if they are they’re not communicating it to me – that language thing again!

    Like

  11. I’ve thought of a couple more things that are good about France: the space! Twice the area for the same population as Britain, less houses, less cars, less people. And the motorways: you don’t have to worry about petrol and peeing, aires every few kilometres!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, I like both of those. I tend to take these things for granted now but it’s a good corrective going back to the UK, because you realise how spoilt we are here. The roads are comparatively empty (although they have got busier around here in 17 years) and the population density in the countryside is quite different.

      Like

  12. MarinaSofia says:

    Another plus: actually knowing your neighbours: we’ve just had a lovely barbecue in our close for the Fete des Voisins, the children are always in and out of each other’s gardens, we happily pick up parcels for each other or help each other out with eggs, sugar, printers, photocopiers etc. I lived in a very similar close in England, with children as well, and there was very little interaction between neighbours (and what there was, was usually initiated by us).

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      That’s a good one. I do think it can vary enormously, though, depending on where you live. A French person I know who used to live in Provence said the neighbours weren’t very friendly (although that is a generalisation based on one person’s experience). At a dinner party with non-French people last night, I was very interested to hear their thoughts about the neighbour issue. They generally agreed that French people in this area had been very welcoming and helpful (with the odd exception).

      Like

  13. Having lived for the last eight years in a small commune in the Auvergne (a lieudit of six souls in a ville of 500) I have to agree with you on all points.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I’ll be very interested to see if you agreed with the negatives – post to follow in a few days! It sounds as if you are even deeper in la France profonde than we are.

      Like

  14. Miriam says:

    Waiting for my son to finish an activity in Paris’s science museum, I saw a mother give her son a smack for being naughty. There followed a long discussion (not all of which I understood) about the rights and wrongs of smacking. I thought, in Britain the mother would have been eyed disapprovingly, but no words would have been spoken.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      The French attitude to parental discipline is rather different (although I don’t speak from experience, not having any children). Interesting that a discussion ensued. I agree people in Britain would probably have kept quiet.

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  15. Good post, Vanessa, I agree with your positives, especially the patrimoine bit… I’d add the localness of food, the langoustines in the Finistère, the canard gras and truffes in the south west, the cheeses (although England does has an astonishing number of really lovely cheeses), etc. I could go on and on. I almost wish you had done the negatives first, given that I am leaving France after 48 years to go back to England, almost against my will, and there is so much that I shall miss…

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, agree about the local variety of food and recipes. I deliberately did the positives first, since I didn’t want to be branded a whingeing Brit! However, it’s all very simplified for the purposes of blogging: nothing is pure positive or pure negative. Just thought it would be interesting to think about it. Really sorry you are leaving France. You will definitely miss it – but perhaps you’ll find unexpected pleasures in England.

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  16. lizgyooll says:

    I completely agree … nice to be reassured about this. I await, with nervous anticipation for the bads. We are about to move as we have FINALLY found a buyer for our house …. just hope we’re not out of the frying pan and into the fire!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Pleased to hear you have a buyer for the Italian house. Different people are bound to find different positives and negatives and the length of time you are here makes a difference, too. On balance, for us it’s positive.

      Like

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