France is not England
bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago,
My intention is to tell you about the France the tourist does not see; not the France of the tourist guides, nor the France of the “ain’t they quaint” pop writer.
My intention is to show you the quiet France, the miniature France, the practical France.
I will be telling you about ‘my’ France; and most definitely about my responses, and the responses of some close associates, to France. I am neither a Francophile nor a Francophobe; just a monk observing what takes my eye, what I think matters to understanding the place, sometimes better than the French, and often at more psychological distance.
Countries accumulate myths, and my experiences widely tend not to accord with the myths. For example, I hate Paris with a passion, as a dirty, ugly and unhelpful place. I don’t much like cities and large towns anyways, but Paris still ranks for me amongst the very worst along with Edinburgh. Paris, for me, is a town with a few good museums but a place inhabited by zombies, lacking style, ill-designed, cold runways blowing with litter, paved with dog droppings. (Apparently, this last is changing as fines are being enforced.)
Again, I dislike French cooking as among the worst around, as do many others with international experience. But, the raw materials for cooking are much better than can be easily obtained easily in England. The problem is the French insistence on covering most everything with a superabundance of fat – in my experience, only the Greeks are worse. No, if you want cooking, you are far better off in Italy.
Why do I tell you such negatives early on? It is to give you some grasp of my biases, so that you may allow for that while using this sub-site of the abelard experience.
I prefer being in France because I am warmer and, above all, the French are far less intrusive than the British. There are downsides, but the lack of intrusion is the principle advantage for me.
The quiet France - a picnic
I shall now tell you more of the details. There are cars on the local roads, but not so close to make a serious distraction. I just saw some movements across the area so I stood on the weathered concrete bench and then on the table – two people with bicycles. I cannot hear them, but I can hear a crow or two.
There are cork oaks and the endless maritime pines of the region. Often in this French world, I will not tell you just where I am. I am not wanting to turn local places into tourist features. There are such areas all over France. You will often see French groups stopped by the roadside at such places complete with meal, and even with their own folding table and chairs, all complete with tablecloths and bottles of wine! All you need is to be sure to have your French bread and cheese and whatever else to hand for a visit that gives you content and comfort.
These relaxation areas are often called aires and are also abundantly provided along the French motorways [autoroutes]. Eventually, I shall build up a catalogue of the motorway aires, in particular the five yak aires.
Ah yes, your bread and cheese. “How can anyone rule a land where there are 200 different cheeses, ” said Charles de Gaulle. In any supermarket you may buy a range of good cheeses that puts a UK supermarket to shame. In fact, even local French supermarkets, nowadays, sell two hundred or more different cheeses. I would not be surprised if the numbers went well above one thousand. There are vache (cow) cheese, brebis (sheep), chèvre (goat) and and even more estoteric breeds such as buffalo and probably yaks too! There are even mixtures in any combination of vache, brebis and chèvre.
Larger supermarkets [hypermarchés] often have well over three hundred different cheeses. In many areas of France, there are dozens or hundreds of small farms in any area that produce their own cheeses, to their own idiosyncratic recipes. The varieties and subtleties of the taste and texture differences are simply amazing. Even these smaller production runs are often available at the supermarkets and at local street markets and fairs. It is normal for the cheese-makers and supermarkets to offer you a small taster prior to purchase and, in my experience, they will always do so if asked.
It is not uncommon for a French child going on an exchange visit to the UK to be on the ’phone within a day or two, bleating that they cannot eat the food available in Britain. But then French children are taught in school, and often at home, to taste food. The fruit is better, the bread is better and similarly for other foods. I told you about the fizz I had at my table (I’m now back in my studio, developing this item for the site). It was orange ‘Fanta’. Before I return to the UK, I stock up with French Fanta. What! You may wonder. Well, I’m a very attentive soul.
I wondered why the stuff in the UK did not taste so well. So I studied the tins. In France, the product has 10% orange, while in the UK it has 5%! In Spain, it has 7%. Many manufacturers will sell you what they can get away with. Fanta is produced by the hugely profitable international Coke corporation. Doubtless, they have heard that the British have no tastebuds and will swallow anything.
You think things tasted better in France? You’d better believe it, it is not holiday tourist imagination! You simply cannot sell mediocre or bad food so easily in France.
|on first arriving in France - driving||motorway aires, introduction|
|travelling by rail to and within France||Les Pyrénées, A64||Poey de Lascar, A64|
|aires on the A75 autoroute from clermont-ferrand to béziers||Pic du Midi, A64||Dunes, A62|
|aires on the A89 autoroute from bordeaux to clermont-ferrand and beyond||Hastingues, A64||Mas d’Agenais, A62|
|aires on the busy A7 autoroute from lyons to marseille||Pech Loubat, A61||Garonne, A62|
|aires on the motorway to Spain - the A9 autoroute||Port-Lauragais, A61||Catalan village, A9|
|three aires on the canal du midi, A61||Ayguesvives, A61||Tavel, A9|
|aires on the autoroute of two seas - the A62||Renneville, A61||Les Bréguières, A8|
|aires on the other autoroute of two seas - A64 and A61||Carcassonne, A61||Lozay, A10|
© abelard, 2004, 04 april
the address for this document is http://www.abelard.org/france/intro-picnic.asp