The oddities of France
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As we all agree, we are drawn to the clichés when it comes to France. We may never get tired of French clichés, and we will never run out of them either. Have you noticed though, that we always talk about those clichés - the cafés and beautiful terrasses in Paris, the “boulangeries-pâtisseries” where you get the crunchy-on-the-outside and moist-in-the-inside butter croissants and other “viennoiseries” from “brioches” to “jésuites”, the open-air markets with myriads of fresh produce and fresh flowers, fishmongers shouting at the early morning auction, and cheese makers offering a thin slice of St Nectaire right off the blade of their knife at the open-air market?
Is everything in France so charming and so flawless then? Isn’t there something that is not quite as glorious? Something weird? Something unusual?
Why not start with the bed sheets hanging out of the windows in the morning? Did you know that the French traditionally “air out” the bed before making it?
You may be walking the cobble-stoned streets of a medieval town, mostly looking down as you are trying to avoid stepping onto some slimy, smelly dog’s present here and there - That, by itself, is another topic on its own! You decide to stop and look up to admire the five-hundred year old timber-framed facades of the apartment buildings or some remarkable, old-fashioned shop signs… and you see some sheets, a blanket and a full-size bolster hanging down over a window sill, gently scraping the old, gray stucco and the spider webs, barely avoiding the pigeons’ droppings. When I was growing up in France, what was part of my daily routine can easily surprise me now, not to say shock me. While you may be focusing on all the possible critters that could be crawling into the pillowcase of that bolster, we French people worry about airing out the bed every day to avoid mustiness in the bedroom. Not a bad idea, after all.
The dog mess on the sidewalk is another oddity in France. It does not matter where you are in France.
As you are walking up to a medieval fortress or window-shopping on the Champs-Elysées, you will either slip and know right away what happened, or you will unwittingly step in a pile and not know it, until you are having lunch around the corner and you smell something embarrassingly strong coming from your shoe sole. Some careless and rude dog owners take their pooch for a walk and inevitably, the dog leaves a mess on the sidewalk. They actually have the audacity to pretend that nothing happened while they actually had to stop to give time to the dog to take care of private business. They look around to make sure that nobody is watching, and off they go, typically “insouciant”. They pick up the mess only if they know that someone took notice. Knowing that ten percent of the population that lives in the city in France has a dog, be careful next time you take a walk. There is no safe zone!
Have you ever witnessed a fender-bender in Paris? Hopefully, you were not part of the incident. Both drivers usually get out of their car in a big hurry and start screaming at each other. Obviously, the one at fault should calmly and politely apologize, but … oh non! As if no one was at fault, they both raise their voice, and the car collision can easily turn into a physical altercation. If you are involved in a fender bender in France, my suggestion to you is to be calm, polite, and apologetic to the other driver who, in return, might be … shocked by your rather unusual civil behavior. That may do the trick.
You see, oddities are numerous in France, but they are part of the French culture. If you have watched some episodes of the Netflix series “Emily in Paris”, you can attest that. I am curiously waiting to see if the next series will cover the public restrooms in France. That by itself is an oddity and a mystery. If you have been to France over the last ten years, you know what this is about. Whether you are at a convenience store, at a rest area, at a fast-food eatery, or in a city and you are looking for “les toilettes” (restrooms), you have experienced the same scenario over and over: no lid, no seat, no toilet paper, no soap, no hand-dryer, no paper towels…
When asked, the French always tell you that these items disappear the first day that they are made available to the public… Once they have been taken or vandalized, they are not replaced. I understand the financial burden, but I keep wondering why. Are toilet lids and seats so valuable on the black market there? Whatever it is, I must say, the situation is annoying, and you had better be prepared. No wonder you see the come-back of old-style restrooms with two bare ceramic steps on each side of a basic hole.
There are many things that you should know before your next trip to a foreign country, and France is no exception. I always encourage people to get an education first so that they can be prepared, thus better enjoy their time abroad. Also, the more you know about a culture, the more immersed you will feel, and you will most likely avoid a couple of faux pas. So, get ready for the oddities, but, more importantly, be open-minded and prepared so that you can set the oddities aside and put the odds on your side!
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