France, Travel

5 Awesome Things About France . . . (and 5 Things That Have Taken Some Getting Used To)

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When Colby and I chose Europe as our destination for long-term travel, I couldn’t help feeling we’d taken the easy option. We’d buy a van, fill it with the comforts of home and immerse ourselves in a Western culture, not too dissimilar to our own. If we really wanted a different journey, maybe we should’ve been more adventurous? Chosen somewhere with an exotic culture? Somewhere outside our comfort zone?

But by skipping the Eiffel Tower, and embracing smaller villages and towns, we’ve found ourselves immersed in a way of life very different to our own . . . and are regularly transported right out of our comfort zone.

Here are five things we love about life in France:

1. Boulangeries

The French Boulangerie is a testament to every French Woman’s declaration of moderation as her sole beauty secret. With cabinets of intricately crafted temptation at affordable prices on every corner (and regular intervals between) it’s hard to believe the country doesn’t have an obesity problem. My own lack of iron-will however, has done me no favours . . . particularly when it comes to riding up mountains.

2. Farmers Markets

Forget carving out half the weekend to head down to the local(est) farmer’s market ten kilometres from home. (As much as I loved buying fresh and supporting local in Perth, it wasn’t always the most convenient way to shop). In France we’d be hard pressed to go a single day without encountering a fruit, vegetable or local produce market . . . and the price tags are a welcome bonus.

3. €5 Rounds

Dropping €10 on the table at the end of the night and smiling at the waitress as we left the bar with our friends took a bit of getting used to . . . especially after the last round I bought in Perth came to $23 . . . for two drinks! So affordable is alcohol in France, it is more cost effective to drink beer than soft drink . . . or coffee . . . or any non-alcoholic beverage for that matter.

4. Camping

Camping is a huge part of French culture. The sheer number and quality of campsites across France demonstrate this. With all the facilities of nice hotels: bar, pizzeria, swimming pool and Wifi, and from only €10 per night, campsites are the perfect place for the tight-arse traveller. The unpredictable weather however, may not be the tight-arse campers friend.

5. The People

The French are arrogant . . . apparently.

After surviving three weeks of Italian mayhem 2007, we weren’t looking forward to four days in the city of arrogance. Yet what we found in Paris was far from the stereotypical Frenchman. And after three months exploring the French provinces I’m yet to meet an unfriendly Frenchie. Sure the hard-faced woman in the Prefecture office had some ex-Gestapo thing going on, but even she managed to crack a smile at Colby’s disappointment in the rule he would have to leave France should he choose to divorce me.

Of course it’s not all lavender and sunflowers, and some things have taken a little more getting used to:

1. No Boardies Policy

In a culture that leaves cheese in the blazing sun on market day, and hands over naked baguettes with bare hands that have just handled cash, I find it hard to believe that boardies are banned from public pools for reasons of hygiene. (Think the plagues of disease a dirty tissue in a pocket could cause when immersed in all that chlorine . . . ) I have my suspicions the reason lends itself closer to a perverted penchant for spandex hotdogs . . . but who am I to judge another culture’s bathing customs.

2. Toll Roads

Cars in Europe are (comparatively) cheap. Fuel is expensive. But toll roads in France are the wallet crushers that have us dreading long journeys. The motorways are a simple, fast convenience I’m willing to pay for, but the €45 toll to use a nine kilometre tunnel was an expense we’d gladly have driven over a mountain to avoid. Averaging €90 in tolls per five hundred kilometre journey has seen us put a little more planning into long car journeys.

3. Refuelling

Pay-at-the-pump is a great invention . . . particularly when it comes to refuelling during nap time (see below). Only despite the prominent Visa/Mastercard symbols on the payment terminals, French ‘pay-at-the-pump’ requires a special payment card. A couple of nail biting journeys, the needle challenging the empty mark, and we began to appreciate the French refuelling system. An embarrassing session of musical bowsers outside nap time however, indicated that some terminals will accept normal credit cards – only it’s a lucky dip as to which ones do . . . even to the service station attendant who was controlling the music.

4. Unisex Bathrooms (and other toilet bizarreness)

The first time a bloke emerged from a toilet stall as I stood at the mirror of a campsite bathroom, I was taken aback. An unpleasant odour accompanied his nonchalant “Bonjour” and I stared after him as he disappeared through the door. Clearly I wasn’t in the wrong place? Surely? That would have earned me a strange look. I got used to the idea of sharing shower facilities with strange men after our two-week camping expedition across France . . . just as I got used to the rule, not the exception, of seatless toilets and bringing our own toilet paper.

5. Nap Time

Everyone knows the Spanish have a Siesta. Businesses close and entire towns sleep through the heat of the day, coming back to life around 5pm and partying into the night. But the French? It’s taken us three months of slow starts, leisurely breakfasts and rolling into towns as shutters are pulled down to get used to the idea that yes, the French have a nap in the afternoon. ALL afternoon! French nap time seems to go from midday – the approximate time we get our act together and head into town, until 4:30pm – the approximate time we’re beginning to settle down for a quiet evening in, like a couple of oldies. Even the whole of Monday is set aside for ‘napping’ which, although we were forewarned, has taken some getting used to.

Nap time is starting to grow on us however. Check-in in another three months and you may well find us curled up for a nap.