FOR THE past four years I’ve lived in the French Alpine town of Les Deux Alpes. In that time there have been many things I’ve learned to appreciate about French culture. Here are 11 of those which I think could benefit people everywhere.
1. Subsidized after-school activities
Everybody knows the importance of children keeping active, but for many parents, it can be hard to find the extra time or resources to make it happen. France solves this with a huge network of subsidized clubs, providing children with low-cost access to sports and other activities. Sports clubs are regulated by the many French sports federations with acronyms beginning FF. There is at least one for each sport, and these invest heavily in young athletes’ development in the hope of finding future champions. For less sporty pastimes, most towns have a Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture (youth and cultural center), subsidized by local taxes, which offers all sorts of classes to children, teenagers, and sometimes adults.
2. Not being apathetic when it comes to politics.
Activism in the form of strikes and protests is a way of life here, to the point that la grève (the strike) is sometimes known as the national sport. Blockaded ports, blocked roads, and suspended services are all common enough to be met with a sigh and a shrug. It might look chaotic from the outside but through this activism, French people show that they won’t be walked all over. They like to talk about politics as well, to both friends and strangers, and especially at the dinner table. Most people take an active interest in what the government is doing and election turnouts are high, all of which means that ordinary French people have a bigger influence on national life than elsewhere in the world.
3. Apéro time
Before dinner, or sometimes before lunch, is apéritif time. This can be a social get-together in the early evening, or simply a drink taken as you arrive at a restaurant. In many smaller French towns, the bars shut early at night, so l’heure de l’apéro is the best time to catch up with friends after work. When you visit a bar at this time of day, olives, cheese or cold meats will often be served as appetizers. Typical apéro choices include kir (white wine and crème de cassis), Pastis, and Noilly Prat, but if these are not to your taste, a glass of beer or wine is perfectly acceptable.
4. Bridge days
France has eleven public holidays per year, which is among the highest number in Europe. Most are on fixed dates, and unlike other countries, they are not carried over to a weekday if they fall on a weekend. However, the French more than make up for this with bridge or “pont” days. If a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday it is common to take the Monday or Friday off to make a four-day-weekend. The extra day is not officially a holiday, but many businesses allow it as a day off knowing that their staff and customers will have headed to the beach or mountains for a mini-vacation.
5. And real holidays
Speaking of holidays, French schools have more holiday days than almost anywhere else in the world, but long vacations are not only for schoolchildren. During the July and August, the cities empty as the entire country goes away for weeks at a time. Most people stay in France, so this is a real boost to rural and coastal areas that thrive on summer tourism.
6. Using bread to mop the plate.
This one drives my Irish girlfriend mad when I do it, but it is quite normal here. Most French dishes come with wonderfully flavored sauces, and leaving them to be taken away with the plate seems a terrible waste. The French habit of using the bread, which is served with every meal, to mop up the remaining sauce saves waste and makes life easier for the server who has to carry the plates away. Everybody wins.
7. Greeting each other with two, three, or more kisses.
A kiss on each cheek is a standard greeting when a man meets a woman, between two women, and occasionally between two men as well. The number of kisses varies around the country, but it is always a nice personal touch in a society that can be quite formal.
8. Knowing how to lunch.
It is often said that while some people eat to live, the French live to eat, and this is especially true in the middle of the day. Other nationalities might nip out for a quick bite-to-eat, but French workers will join colleagues in a nearby restaurant for a three or four-course meal. Two-hour or longer lunch breaks are not uncommon, but even an hour can be enough if time is short. Lunchtime menus are served efficiently to customers with limited time, unlike the more leisurely evening service. This is a chance to chat with co-workers and recharge before going back to work, but it is also seen as a way to support the local economy.
9. Being proud of their own products.
Most countries take a certain pride in their own produce, but few can match the French for their unwavering confidence. It used to frustrate me when I struggled to find Spanish or other wine in the supermarket, for example. When I asked why, friends would explain as if to a small child, “French wine is the best in the world. Why would we drink anything else?”
10. Being polite.
Some might find the French overly formal at first, but the politeness is really a way of showing respect to each other. When meeting a group of people, it is customary to shake hands or exchange kisses with each person —
shouting ‘hi’ to everyone is not enough. Likewise, when leaving it is important to say individual farewells. Addressing people politely smooths relationships, and makes discussions more constructive, which is something we could all benefit from.
11. A love of cheese
“How,” asked General de Gaulle, “can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” If anything, the famous quote was an understatement. The country actually produces around four hundred distinct types of cheese. French cheeses can be hard or soft, mild or strong, and made from goat’s, cow’s or sheep’s milk. They are usually served towards the end of a meal but always before the dessert. Cheese-making makes up a large part of the French farming industry and specialist cheese shops are a common sight in French towns. The mind-boggling array of different cheeses to choose between is one of the things I love most about this country.