CONNEXION writer Sally Ann Voak, who has a home in Normandy, is furious when Brits moan about France. “We all know the shops have strange opening hours and there’s too much paperwork, but many things work brilliantly,” she said. Here is her list of the services, attitudes, foods and much more that make la vie française extra special.
1. MOTORWAY MAINTENANCE
Motorway tolls are expensive, but at least much of the money is used for road maintenance. The A28, from Rouen to Calais (a notoriously exposed and snowy route), always remains open, and during freezing winter I have seen more gritting lorries in France in one afternoon than in a week at home. There is obviously less traffic and we have very old motorways in the UK, but UK residents do pay £51bn in road taxes and it seems to be spent on other things.
2. COMMUNITY SPIRIT
The French are proud of their town or village, and heritage, and support each other. There are societies for the elderly, music lovers, artists, you name it. When you need pulling out of the mud, your local farmer will turn up trumps and you can count on a drink and helpful advice. My own neighbour, Danielle, recently prevented EDF from cutting off our electricity by standing in front of our gate and saying “Non”. They fled. Quite an accomplishment considering she is nearly 80!
3. WORK/LIFE BALANCE
The French have still got it right: work to live, don’t live to work. I’m glad they retire early, take lunch breaks and spend precious time with family and friends. The majority of people do work their socks off and, when it comes to putting in long hours when there is a lot to be done, the farmers and fishing folk around here really are the crème de la crème.
4. INSPIRING GARDENS
Giverny, Vaux-Le-Vicomte and Versailles are, of course, wonderful, but the gardens I enjoy most are at the country manoirs and smaller chateaux. My favourite in Normandy is Miromesnil, birthplace of Guy de Maupassant, where the walled potager is functional as well as beautiful, and the estate is run by the family, so it is intimate and friendly. French garden centres are great, too.
5. ANTE-NATAL CARE AND CHILDBIRTH SERVICES
Continuity is the key. Pregnant mums receive first-rate ante-natal care, see the same consultants and nurses, stay in a clean hospital for four to five days after the birth and are not pressured to breast- feed. My daughter-in-law Alison, who lives in the Grand Massif, actually tried out the birthing bed before her confinement and still receives on-going care and regular free nutrition advice from RSI, even though Sebastian is now nearly two. Yes, she did breast-feed, and had plenty of help with that as well.
6. PRIDE IN BUSINESS
We have found that French business people are straight-talking, and don’t go back on their word. Many businesses, especially shops and maintenance services, are still passed down through families, too. We have recently had building repairs done on our crumbling cottage, and the maçon and charpentier gave us estimates which they stuck to, the workers were on time, and the job finished on the date specified. They took one-and-a-half-hour lunch breaks every day, and good luck to them.
7. BREAD AND CAKES
Boulangeries should be protected – although the numbers are gradually decreasing with the onset of supermarket shopping, they are still the nation’s favourite place to buy a baguette and chat in the morning queue. How is it that French gateaux are so delicious? Forget Mary Berry’s heavy (but admirable) cakes and tarts, give me a feather-light slice of French patisserie any day.
8. PERSONAL BANKING
We could bank online but we like the French way, so make personal visits. We have a useful arrangement whereby we can phone from the UK and talk to Julien, who is handsome and efficient. We can swap money around if bills come in and keep tabs on our accounts. still use cheques as well as cards (no identity checks necessary if they know you), which some older folk prefer, and banks are open on market morning so traders can deposit their takings safely. There is also an activity area for children.
9. MUNICIPAL RUBBISH AREAS
Every town has a rubbish dump, directions clearly marked. I am in love with my own déchetterie (in Neufchâtel, Seine-Maritime), which is tidy, a haven of calm and staffed by a couple of friendly guys who will help you unload your rusty old cooker, or disgusting, moth-eaten carpets and flirt at the same time! Compared with the unloved, muck-strewn sites, and over- flowing bins (or worse, padlocked so you cannot get rid of your rubbish) in the UK, it is paradise.
Kissing friends and relatives, saying “bonne journée”, offering a handshake to all and sundry – these simple greetings are one of the reasons we just love it here. We sit in our favourite café in the mornings and wonder how anything ever gets done as everyone kisses everyone, on entering, leaving and in between. Children are taught to be polite from babyhood. Brilliant!
As a former fashion journalist, I won’t knock the talented British clothes designers but, for bras and knickers, France is simply sublime. French women demand comfort as well as sexy frills. Even the smallest country town has a smashing lingerie shop. If you are still wearing ill-fitting bras or baggy Y-fronts from a UK supermarket (shame!), treat yourself to some Chantelle or Hom undies and feel the difference.
12. PRE-SCHOOL CRÈCHE SERVICES
You pay according to your income (Alison and husband Tom, who are self-employed, pay €2 an hour, which includes a three-course meal of salad, main course and dessert), nursery assistants are charming and well-qualified, and the system is flexible, so you can book longer or shorter periods for your child. Their crèche is open on Saturdays and during holidays. In the UK, there are moves afoot to have higher-qualified assistants, and regulate the charges made – however, chances of getting your child into a state nursery are very poor.
13. LOCAL PRODUCE
Nos régions ont du talent! I admire the way French supermarkets promote local, seasonal products such as freshly-caught fish, fruit and vegetables, and often sell them at lower prices. Flexibility, rapid distribution, informative labelling, and knowledge about where goods come from and when things such as herrings and apricots are due in store are all part of the service. Why can’t UK supermarkets do the same?
14. LA POSTE
Our Normandy cottage was once the village post office and we still have our own post box and a regular daily collection. Madame La Poste arrives in her yellow van every afternoon, even if the only thing in the box is a postcard to the UK! Post Offices are bustling, friendly and efficient; you can bank there, or pay your bills. I like the fact that the post is a state-run service, and not being cut back so drastically with demoralised staff, as it is in the UK.
15. OUTDOOR SPORTS FACILITIES
Football and rugby pitches, tennis courts, golf – and, for cyclists, the wonderful avenues vertes – are free, or cheap (even the posh golf course fees are cheaper than in the UK), and well-maintained. We also have the randonnées, which are well- marked and available to all. There are plenty of clubs and groups to join, and good instruction, too, if you want it.
16. LA MAIRIE
For local queries and complaints, sorting out services and making contacts, la Mairie is the ultimate one-stop shop. Even in the smallest communes where the Mairie is only open on Saturday mornings, it is the hub of the community. The best bit is that the Maire will actually talk to you, has the power to get things done and can give you a straight answer. You will not get fobbed off with countless emails and delays.
Having spent many hours in ironmongers’ shops and bricomarchés in both countries, there is no contest – the French know their nuts and bolts. My engineer husband is a big fan of the smaller quincailleries. His favourite, in the market town of Buchy, is a treasure house, he says. I prefer Gedimat for its sheer size and scale, dazzling displays of bathrooms and garden furniture and glamorous staff. They will order quickly and hang on to items for us if we are in the UK.
18. FISH MARKETS
We live near the coast so have a choice of half a dozen wonderful fish markets, plus fresh fish stalls on market days in our town. At nearby Le Treport, the lady owner of one family firm told me that her smooth complexion is due to the misty, rainy weather at sea (she goes out fishing with her son), and eating so much oily fish. The displays are magnificent, and there is plenty of helpful advice and recipe ideas for novice fish chefs.
This year, there’s a bumper crop of festivals – from the mega celebrations in Marseille to the arrival of the armada of tall ships in Rouen. They are all fun, and you can be sure the food and drink available will be good. I like smaller bashes like the cider festivals, the herring and scallop festival in Dieppe, where people dress up, and the fromage festival held every year to celebrate the heart-shaped Neufchatel cheese.
20. CHEESE AND WINE
No list would be complete without these two, but the 1000-odd cheeses and countless wonderful wines available here would not be so good without the French passion for keeping them so well, and informing their customers. You can learn so much from small shopkeepers, neighbours and complete strangers.
Well done, France!
Photo: ©Dudarev Mikhail – Fotolia.com