A question of taste

When our conversational French has deserted us, the fact that Eadred and I hail most recently from London has proved to be a useful conversation-filler at many a dinner party. Usually our interlocutor tells us about their most recent visit there, and all we have to do is nod, smile, ask very basic questions, and patronisingly correct their pronunciation of certain key landmarks, Boooking’amme Palass, for example.

During one deployment of this tactic, I asked some fellow guests whether or not they had eaten well in London. The woman looked positively affronted by my question. Beh, non ! she said, raising her eyebrows when she saw that it was not a joke. The food had, apparently, been gras, pas raffiné and, worse-still, sans interêt.

Eadred the Bald and a cheddar cheese ploughmans (plug-mans as it might be pronounced in France)
Eadred the Bald and a cheddar cheese ploughmans (or plug-man)

I gulped. There are many things that I happily waved goodbye to when we left London, but I still sorely miss the food. When we ate out, I enjoyed taking my pick from Indian, Eritrean, Spanish, Vietnamese, or even British cuisine. When we ate in, I enjoyed experimenting with the readily-available ingredients to make delicious meals from all around the world. Lyonnais gastronomy may have a well-deserved global reputation, but pigs’ trotters and quenelles can wear a little thin after their thousandth iteration, and sometimes I yearn for the exuberant range of flavours that I took for granted in the UK.

Back at the dinner party, I decided to probe a little deeper. What had they eaten? Mais nous avons mangé ce qu’il y avait à manger là-bas… Which was?… Poisson frites. Oh. OK. And what else? Ship’er’s pie. And where had these delicacies been consumed? She wasn’t sure, but from her description it sounded suspiciously like a Wetherspoons pub.

I am still raging, months later, about this contemptuous dismissal of the cuisine of an entire nation based on a deliberately perverse selection of its blandest and poorest-quality offerings. Nonetheless, rage though I might, the negative stereotypes of English cooking persist unchecked in my adopted land, apparently being instilled in citizens of the Republic from the very moment of their birth.

I learnt this lesson the hard way. The process began during our first summer here, when our eldest daughter asked me to make gingerbread men for her end-of-year class goûter. What a lovely idea, I thought, and together we baked up a storm, spending ages cutting out the little gingerbread people and giving them tiny faces and the traditional, but anatomically baffling, three dots down the front of their stomachs. Such offerings had always proved irresistible to small hands in the UK.

The men were not a hit. One child picked up one of their number, turned him around, and asked with ill-concealed disdain, c’est quoi ça ? It was a biscuit in the shape of a man, I explained. Her expression did not soften: c’est un truc anglais ? I confirmed that it was indeed an English thing. She shrugged and put the man back, then whispered to something to her neighbour, who shook her head at me in terror as I loomed overhead with my bizarre British offering. A braver classmate bit into a gingerbread girl and started to cry (c’est trop épicé, her mother informed me).

If the suspicion of small children is to be expected, I find the same quality surprising in adults. Each year at Christmas I amuse myself by making mince pies and taking them to French gatherings. I explain that they are an English delicacy but that they have a taste which is particulier. Some people will bravely hazard a nibble, and the look of shock that crosses their faces upon their first bite is entertaining. Many people will simply turn me down with a look of undisguised horror.

mincemeat

An English friend of mine once took a selection of British cheeses to a pot. Hardly anyone could be convinced to even try the mature cheddar that she had taken great pains to procure (many things here in France sell themselves as cheddar, but they mostly appear to be made of plastic, or have been confused with a block of red Leicester). C’est fort, c’est delicieux, she encouraged. Non, merci, they declined, unapologetically, tucking instead into a wodge of insipid camembert.

Whilst my delicacies are a novelty here, I have been surprised to find high levels of awareness of other British specialitiés. On one occasion I was called into the school kitchen where a menu anglais was being prepared. The cook was at a loss as to how to make the something called le pudding, and was, in desperation, having recourse to some native expertise. I had absolutely no idea what she was trying to make: it seemed to be a sort of sponge cake featuring miscellaneous bits of fruit. Not wishing to increase her panic, I told her that she was doing fine and left her to it. That evening we received a recette anglaise in the girls’ school bags giving instructions for a different version of the mysterious le pudding. I have yet to meet a British person who has ever heard of it, but if that is what passes for British food, I can grudgingly concede some degree of misgiving about it.

le-pudding

The same goes for the hypermarché. On my sporadic visits to the British section of the étranger aisle, I am confronted with a wall of jelly, custard, baked beans and Bisto. Mince pies will never stand a chance if this is how we market ourselves abroad…

non-gourmet English supplies
non-gourmet English supplies

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This month, as every month, I have linked up to the Lou Messugo #AllAboutFrance blog linkup, where you will find lots of interesting posts about France.

The letter of the law

A French friend has just returned from a trip to London. When asked for her impressions, I received a five-minute soliloquy on queuing. C’est incroyable, she gasped, breathless: les personnes arrivent à l’arrêt de bus et elles se mettent en rang. C’est bêtement efficace. Mais comment ça se fait ?

Every British person knows in their very bones that the order of precedence for getting on the bus, with the exception of the elderly, disabled and heavily pregnant, is basically first-come,-first-served.** Just as important as following this rule is being seen to follow it. That is why we organise ourselves into a queue, which is merely the visual expression of a deeply ingrained principle.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that France, a country which regulates so comprehensively, can be so apparently lawless in everyday life, whereas England, where the rules are far fewer, obediently toes the (unwritten) line. I have come to the conclusion that this has a great deal to do with the legal systems in the two countries.

Bear with me for a minute… In the UK we have common law, which, however much we howl about the growing weight of the statute book, is minimalist in its approach. It is law by custom and usage, with judges using (and making) precedents in order to reach verdicts.

France, like the majority of countries around the globe, uses a civil law system that derives from Roman law, in which everything is minutely codified. Its own particular version is called the Napoleonic Code, in which all law springs from a series of abstract principles, and is difficult to modify in the face of real life cases.

(If you want a very neat summary of the two systems from people far more expert than I am, you would do well to read this article in the Economist.)

If you live within any system for long enough, it affects the way that you think and behave without you realising it. Thus in the UK we are so accustomed to unwritten rules that bus queues materialise out of thin air. In France, the idea that everything must be codified in order to function gives rise to the sort of infantilisation whereby adult musicians are instructed in the arts of punctuality and bringing their own music stand. It also, as all parents of toddlers and adolescents know, leads to a certain degree of pleasure being derived from circumventing the rules. Furthermore, it creates the idea that the rules are inherently right whatever the context – that by doing no more than slavishly following them you yourself become flawless and irreproachable.

Let me illustrate. One of our neighbours, let’s call him Monsieur le Bricoleur, is building a house in the garden of his children’s home, which happens to be just beneath the terrace of our house. We have been subject to several of Monsieur le Bricoleur’s laments about other neighbours’ dislike of his construction. Nous avons tout fait dans la légalité, he says, donc, je ne vois pas le problème. This last pronouncement—that because everything is legal he cannot see why people do not like his house—makes me choke on my croissant.

The law states that Monsieur le Bricoleur cannot build his house closer than four metres to our shared boundary. Garages, however, are exempt, and yes, you guessed it: Monsieur le Bricoleur has kept his house four metres away from the fence but built his garage right up to it. It may be legal to have done this, but the effect is no different from that had he built his house right up against the boundary line. If having the house so close would have made us unhappy, common sense suggests that the garage will too. The fact that one of those scenarios is legal and the other not makes not a morceau of difference to the effect the construction has on us, or to our feelings.

For Monsieur le Bricoleur, however, our feelings are indivisible from the legality of any given situation. Unlike us, with our common-law sense that every individual circumstance will make for subtle variations in the interpretation of the rules, Monsieur le Bricoleur has the civil law feeling that rules are best made in the abstract, and that reality will simply flex to fit them. If the rule says that people will be happy with a garage abutting their land, they will be happy: no need to bother seeking their opinion on the matter or indeed to consult one’s own common sense.

The house just below  our garden
The house just below our garden

There is no getting away from it: we find the new house, in all its worthy legality, moche, especially compared to the nice square of green that preceded it. Other than muttering darkly about this to ourselves, the action that we have taken has been to start planting a hedge that will eventually grow tall enough to hide the house from our view: a pragmatic solution averting all non-neighbourly feeling, we thought.

Prim and proper as we are, we e-mailed Monsieur le Bricoleur to advise him that the hedge would be planted. The response was immediate. He drew to our attention the rules which stipulate that no hedge on any boundary should be higher than two metres tall. He did not pain himself to point out the less convenient part of the law, with which fortunately we were already acquainted, that the hedge can exceed two metres when it is planted two metres from the boundary.

Taking the lead of Monsieur le Bricoleur, we decided, therefore, that, even if the effect on him of a hedge planted two metres back from the boundary would be the same as one planted on the boundary line, or indeed worse if we allowed it to tower above three metres, given that planting such a hedge was entirely within the law, he would be happy about it. When in Rome…

 

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** I should deal with those of you who are already brimming with examples of UK-based queue-violation. I suggest that the reason that you can bring individual examples to mind is that they are not—yet at least—the norm. In France, having my place in the queue ignored is such a commonplace occurrence that I struggle to recall specific incidents. In the UK, the phenomenon is sufficiently rare as to make it remarkable: the exception that proves the rule.

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Je t’aime

At the end of term, our younger daughter plonked herself at our kitchen table, rested her chin on her hands, and emitted a stagey sigh. I was busy clattering pans and had presumably failed to react with sufficient concern, so she dismantled her pose before casually reassembling it and sighing with more force. Realising that I was required to play along, I asked her what was wrong. Oh maman, je ne sais pas quoi faire, she said, despairingly: j’ai vraiment trop d’amoureux.

The children are habitually very picky about their choice of language. They speak French to French people and English to English people, and if ever I attempt to speak French to them—usually out of politeness to a French person listening in—I will be met with protests and eye rolling. Our younger daughter will, however, sometimes express herself in French at home when she is talking about a matter of which she has no experience in English (playground politics, for example), or is describing a sensation which, to her, has no English cultural equivalent.

Faced with my sighing six-year-old, I could only surmise, therefore, that the feeling of being overburdened with suitors was irreducibly Gallic in nature. It is true that the same daughters who now clock up six or seven amoureux apiece struggled to find a single one back in the UK.

Coming as I do from the English playground, the idea of being in love at the tender age of four seems rather quaint to me. In the UK schools we frequented, girls and boys started off as friends, but fairly quickly divided themselves into gender-based herds, instantly recognisable by their tribal colours of pink and blue. The idea of remaining friends with a member of the opposite sex became more and more unlikely as the children progressed up the school: by Year One the mere suggestion of girls and boys playing together already elicited groans and titters. The notion of them being “in love” would, no doubt, have caused utter pandemonium.

The French playground presents a very different kind of environment. Lolly pink has not yet become a requirement for girls, so, despite the lack of uniform, from a distance, it is hard to separate out the genders. The point is really, though, that the genders do not separate themselves out. Both our daughters invite boys back home to play as frequently as they do girls, and, although girls tend to steer clear of fist fights at break time, there is no idea that boys climb trees and exchange Pokemon cards whilst girls skip with a rope and have secrets.

I have sometimes wondered whether the harmony with which girls and boys co-exist in French culture is due, in part, to French notions of chivalry. From a very tender age, all the boys our daughters have befriended seem to have been taught an etiquette which can probably be summed up as “ladies first”. Our eldest took to having doors held open for her like a duck to water (though she was less keen on being embrassée-d).

When I have expressed surprise at the number of amoureux clocked up by my offspring, I have been informed by the mothers concerned that it is due to their cheveux or their jolies yeux, or the fact that they are très fines. I accepted these explanations uncritically until it occurred to me to wonder what on earth a seven-year-old boy was doing admiring someone’s hair. The English boys we know could not care less about how a person is coiffed. Where on earth do these jeunes gallants, then, pick up the notion that the colour of one’s eyes counts for something?

The answer probably lies in the attitude of their parents. I have long admired the queue of the same middle-aged men at the flower stall every Saturday morning, all of them buying enormous bouquets for their wives, not because it is a special day, but just parce que. Observing these men it’s easy to understand why Valentine’s Day has taken off in the UK (when else would you get bought flowers?) but has not even got a toehold in France (why limit your overblown romantic gestures to a single day of the year?).

Eadred the Bald started buying flowers more often once we had moved to France
Eadred the Bald started buying flowers more often once we had moved to France

I admire somewhat less the corollary of all this door-holding and flower-buying. There is, in France, more of an assumption that the woman will spend a considerable amount of time chez le coiffeur (nice) and at the kitchen sink (less nice) in return for the floral attentions of her man friend. I always have a sneaking suspicion that doors are held open for me only because they are just as likely to be closed in my face in certain male-dominated domains. I am, however, a woman who agreed to get married during the course of a telephone conversation, so who am I to judge…?

Dining a deux: romance is not dead
Dining a deux: romance is not dead

 

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Should you wish to have flowers purchased for you and doors held open, Eurostar is currently featuring Lyon as one of its romantic European destinations. You can read all about it on the Eurostar website, where the sharp-eyed amongst you may spot a small contribution that I have made on the subject. Now that it is possible to travel between London and Lyon without changing train, even the unromantic amongst you might be tempted to hazard a visit.

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I have linked up to #PoCoLo.

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