Thanks to everyone who commented on Part 1, the Positives. They added to my list of unexpected pleasures, including: the (comparatively) empty roads; the variety of regional produce and recipes; the friendly interaction with neighbours and rural French people’s lack of concern with outward show; and the fact that dogs are welcome in restaurants.
Now for the minuses. To be even handed, I restricted myself to five positives in the previous post and five negatives in this one. And, it’s worth bearing in mind that few things are exclusively positive or negative. Also, these are things I wish I’d known, so in some cases it’s my fault for not informing myself.
#1 That it can be very cold here in the winter
Nobody – and certainly not estate agents – tells you how cold the winters can be in inland France, even in the south. We were lulled into a false sense of security by our first winter, which was unusually mild, although we didn’t know it then. We have experienced temperatures approaching minus 20°C. I’m not suggesting this is the norm, but the thermometer can drop to well below zero. We’ve often been snowed in at the end of our steep lane.
These stone houses are beguilingly beautiful when you see them on a sunny spring day, as we did. But nothing prepares you for the heating bill: we pay far more on heating here than we ever did in England.
However, I do like the changing seasons, although I could wish that recent springs hadn’t been quite so gloomy.
#2 That you can eat badly in France
Sadly, this is true. There are plenty of small, family-run restaurants that provide a well-cooked meal offering good value for money (especially at lunchtime). And I can remember certain lovely meals, such as one we enjoyed in Burgundy more than 20 years ago.
But we have also had indifferent meals and some that were downright bad. Incidents that stand out in my memory are:
- A plate of calf’s liver in a restaurant in Montauban. It was overcooked and gristly and the accompanying sauce was inedibly salty. The veg had been cooked to destruction.
- A disgusting soupe au fromage in a café in Albi. Not only was it tepid but the cheese had congealed into an inedible gunk.
- A very disappointing meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The food wasn’t actually bad but the portions were so tiny that we thought we’d strayed into a health farm by mistake. My starter was devoid of the girolles it was supposed to contain.
#3 That French is a very difficult language to master and the regional accent is impossible
I learned French at school for about seven years, so I thought I’d get by when we moved here. But it didn’t equip me at all for everyday living. We were never taught the colloquial phrases that French people use (tomber dans les pommes – fall into the apples. Hello? Meaning: to faint).
This, of course, says more about how French is taught in English schools than it does about the language. But the grammar is hard and the French themselves are often foxed by it. It took four years of classes and a lot of effort before I became proficient.
The other thing we were unprepared for was the regional accent. No received pronunciation here. It’s a thick, soupy, rapidly-delivered dialect. An ‘e’ is placed at the end of many words that don’t actually have one. ‘Vin’ becomes ‘veng-er’; ‘demain’ = ‘demeng-er’. While this has a certain charm, it doesn’t make communication easy. Our neighbour is still virtually unintelligible to us.
#4 That we will never have broadband where we live
The Internet was in its infancy in 1997. However, even then, we were unable to have an ADSL line that would have made dial-up faster. The reason: too far from the telephone exchange. And that is still the case, meaning that we have a ropey satellite connection with a dish. Fibre-optic cables? Dream on.
So we can’t have any of these Internet/phone/TV packages that are now available. People are astonished that we can’t use Skype or that it takes half an hour to download a computer programme. And the system balks if I try to send an email attachment of more than 1MB. The connection is probably better in Outer Mongolia.
#5 That customer service is so poor
Naturally, there are exceptions, and we’ve received some excellent service. However, our overall impression is that the customer in France is usually a nuisance and never right.
Shops rarely have a brochure that you can take away to study before committing yourself. Either something you ordered never arrives (or was never ordered) or they don’t bother to tell you when it has. And try complaining or taking something back.
A few examples:
- The dress shop whose staff were all over me when I entered. I handed over a money-off voucher, which they omitted to deduct from my purchase. When I pointed this out, they said, “We can’t cancel your credit card transaction and redo it. Choose something else to the value of the voucher.” They lost interest. They also lost a customer.
- The shop where the SF ordered some wine glasses and watched them write down the order. We heard nothing and went in. They denied all knowledge of the order and insultingly suggested that the SF’s memory was at fault.
- The maçon whose labourers botched part of the job. He examined it, said he’d attend to it – and never came back.
I could give you many more examples, but you get the picture.
So, living in France is not unalloyed pleasure. But, then, nowhere on the planet is perfect. On balance, it was a good move for us and it has broadened our horizons and enriched our lives.
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