Monday 17 November 2008

Nobody does it better

Dear Zhu in Canada recently posted a wee list of French activities/customs/products that the Canadians have just never adopted and maybe never will. I did smile on seeing "demos" at the top of the list, Zhu!

Prompted by this, here is a wee list of my own. These maybe aren't the things I miss the most from Blighty, but I do think there's little chance of the spreading to France any time soon!

Cheap, industrial chocolate
I know, I know. It's full of vegetable fat and hardly any cocoa solids, but I'm a true Brit and I love my Cadbury's Dairy Milk (and Fruit & Nut, and Twirls, and Crunchies, and …). The French all like dark chocolate, consumed mostly in the form of tiny miniatures that come with the espresso (or express as the French say) coffee taken after a meal. Yuck. Double yuck in fact. Dark chocolate and coffee. Yuck yuck.

Cheap paperbacks (and hardbacks, for that matter)
I love books and I love to read. My favourite bookseller in the UK is Waterstones. I want to know when Waterstones shops will start providing trolleys so I can really shop! I especially love their ubiquitous 3 for 2 offers. A very clever marketing tool, as you always end up with four books you want, so you shop around for another 2, naturally. When you consider all the offers, probably the average cost per book works out at around £4-5 for a nice paperback, or £10-12 for a lovely hardback. (Aside: who else loves the smell of a brand new hardback? Ooooh, new book smell.)

In France, there is actually a law forbidding retailers to sell books below cost. They can sell them net of VAT (one of the best known bookselling chains, Fnac, does just this), but not below cost. It's something to do with protecting the cultural literary linguistic heritage. Or maybe it's more to do with lining publishers' pockets. Whatever. I reckon your average "nice" paperback (equivalent to a UK paperback, not those scratty poche books) will set you back around €8-9, and a hardback (they call them broché - basically a paperback printed in big typeface and bound with slightly stiffer card-like paper) comes in at about €21. That's nearly £18!

Yes, you do have to wonder at the long-term logic of stores like Tesco selling the latest chicklit paperback for £1.50 (though maybe a lot of these chicklit things are only worth a quid). But I don't care about long-term logic. I just need the books, man. Gimme the books. I couldn't give a stuff about any literary cultural claptrap. I just want cheap books to feed my habit.

Chips from the chippy. With salt & vinegar
What do you crave most when you have consumed maybe slightly more booze than you should have over the course of an evening? What must you have, immediately and right now? It can't wait until you get home can't this craving. You must have thick-cut, fatty chips. Hot from the bubbling oil, nestling in their paper wrapping (which the steam and fat eventually weaken so much that it rips and you risk losing your precious chips). A bag of chips from the chippy. Oh yes. The Scots like them with salt n' saus (salt and sauce to you, pal). The English prefer salt and vinegar. I have to say my English lineage dominates on this matter. But whatever, we're talking artery-encrusting quantities of sat fats plus blood pressure-rocketing volumes of salt.

Now that I'm past-it and mortgaged, I don't much go out on the razz any more. So I don't have these slightly inebriated cravings. But I do miss chippies.

Here in the Nord the locals love chips (is it the proximity to Belgium maybe? Or because main-crop potatoes are one of the main crops grown round here?). And I mean proper chips. Not those silly, skinny French fries. Chips. Thick slices of deep-fried potato. They even have chippies! They are often in the form of little outside catering vans (you know the sort that sell burgers outside football grounds?). But they still look at you funny when you ask for vinegar.

The Brits love to queue. We adore standing in line. We also love automated queuing systems. You'll notice these in post offices, and in some supermarkets (M&S food) or stores (Boots). Everyone stands in the same line, and an LED number board (sometimes accompanied by a disembodied voice) flashes up the number of the free cashier or till. And the corresponding till also has an LED number, which also flashes. So each customer is served in turn. There are also more sophisticated automated queuing systems in places like railway ticketing offices (you will wait for hours in these places, so the queuing process has to be adapted). A machine distributes numbered tickets to all comers, and you can sit (you'll need to sit) and wait for your number to come up. The older, basic systems just gave you a number. More recent evolutions offer a choice of which service you want (buy a ticket, change a ticket, make a journey enquiry), and you are placed in the appropriate queue accordingly.

And best of all are bus queues. People may sometimes loiter around the bus stop in no particular structured queue. But when the bus comes, there is no desperate surge forward. If there was no orderly line to begin with, the passengers all stand around looking at each other, wondering who was there first, and motioning "no, after you".

The French don't know how to queue. It's an internationally accepted truth. At bus stops, in subway stations and on railway platforms they, too, loiter in a disorganised group. Yet when the bus or train arrives, they form a ruck around the doors, jostling for position and trying desperately to be the first on. It's not so bad on the buses, as most of them have at least two sets of doors. You must get on the bus at the front, so passengers alighting can do so at the other doors and avoid the scrum.

The train is another matter altogether. Especially the TGV. One of the reasons the TGV timetables are so (reasonably) reliable is the strict station stopping times. Before the train arrives in the station, the guard announces how long it will stop for. And you can bet if they said 2 minutes, it's 2 minutes and not 2 minutes 03 seconds! The result is passengers scrambling to get off the train, and more passengers scrambling to get on. Sometimes they don't even let you descend before trying to push on. It's stressful!

The French also like to stand right up close behind you while you conduct your business at the post office, or at the supermarket checkout. I mean close. I mean boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife close. Now, in most banks and post offices, there is a red line on the floor, and customers are asked to wait behind it until a teller is free. This is a step in the right direction.

As well as loving books, I also love a nice cup of tea. Like most Brits, I like a simple cuppa: black tea, made with boiling water. I take mine quite strong and milky. You can pretty much get a decent cup of tea anywhere in Britain. I mean, it's hardly rocket science is it? Boil some water. Pour it over a a teabag. Leave to brew. Fish teabag out of cup. Add milk and sugar to taste. Use a teapot if you can be bothered.

The French drink coffee. Some of them drink tea. But they like poncy, arty-farty tea like green tea and white tea and herb tea. Made with tepid warm water. When plain old black tea is on offer it's more often than not something called Lipton Yellow Label. I think that this is some sort of phoney tea brand sold the world over as British tea. The world over, that is, apart from in Britain (where we aren't fobbed off by this pale imitation). When I first came to France this stuff made tea that looked like dishwater (and tasted like one would imagine dishwater to taste). Foul. I think it is now a bit of a stronger blend, but still. It's really hard to find satisfying tea in France. I always stock up on plenty fairtrade teabags when back in Scotland. I just wish I could import some nice, soft Scottish water to make it with ;)

I, too, have in mind a couple of expats I'd be interested to hear from one this one:
  • Confused Vicky: life in Switzerland for a confused Brit.
  • Sugar: another Brit in France, but I bet she'll do a good list


Anonymous said...

I used to love sweets in the UK and I still buy unhealthy and sugary chocolate bars in Canada, so I get that!

I'm not a huge fan of British tea though, I like green tea best.

Books are expensive in France... Once I became fluent in English, I realized that and I love buying paperbacks in Canada. The FNAC as gotten very expensive I found.

Salt and vinegar chips... you can keep these :D

Thanks for doing the meme, I love reading about cultural differences!

Lis of the North said...

Zhu there is one thing the French do marvellously and the Brits will never get the hang of: 15m-long cheese counters in the supermarket!! Bliss.

Anonymous said...

Is Cadbury still using chocolate as in real chocolate or have that glorious corporation gone with the new EU rule about fake chocolate ?

me wonders -

I'll take cote d'or over cadbury and hersheys any day of the week (month and year)

It's a no brainer.

Lis of the North said...

Anon it must be said that cote d'or is quite yummy. I particularly like the one with hazelnuts. But I still love me Cadburys. And surprisingly enough there are some cocoa solids in there!