I live about two hours from France as the crow flies, to coin an expression. I think that would be a particularly fast flying Crow given how fast I usually drive. But the reality is that from my house to the Channel Tunnel is about an hour and a half’s drive. It occurred to me that I should do a little piece on France as some of my regular readers, yes, regular, possibly haven’t been to France. France is the world’s biggest tourist destination, which makes it sound terribly busy but if you discount the Japanese visiting Paris, I think this number would reduce dramatically. People tend to refer to the French using somewhat scornful language which is understandable if you don’t know much about them.
The French stick up for their Frenchness though and that’s OK. A ‘France first and to hell with you’ sort of thing, which really is OK. It is after all their country and if you spend a bit of time in France you come to realise that actually they have much to be ‘to hell with you’ about. Except they are not ‘to hell with you’. The French are quite a friendly bunch if you approach them on their terms, which is only fair. It’s their country.
So, to France. You should always take the Channel Tunnel. There are also ferry crossings in abundance from the UK but I have no idea why anyone would choose them over the tunnel. You can get sea sick or you can drive your car onto a shuttle transporter thing then sit in your car and play games on your tablet for half an hour. After half an hour of not being sea sick you drive off the shuttle transporter thing into France, where the roads are magically turned into smooth expressways shaming anything in Britain. The surfaces of French highways are actually amazing. I believe they are made from a combination of tarmac, rubber and carpet.
I’m not going to do a detailed tour guide to France as that would be ridiculous, this will be more observation, what the casual observer might like to know they will notice should they find themselves in a nice French city for a weekend. Like Lille for example. We go to Lille a bit, because it’s very nice. It’s only an hour and a quarter from the Channel Tunnel exit.
I believe all major cities in France have had their entire below the ground bit excavated to make the world’s biggest car parks. The excavated earth was probably used to make the Alps. There is a car park in Chartes for example, so vast that the exit is possibly in Belgium. Once you’ve sussed this out you drive the car a few miles around the car park and try to navigate to the exit nearest your hotel. You then emerge at street level into all the Frenchness. When you drive across France and into a city you pass through the crappy suburbs full of tower blocks, industrial estates and retail parks into the small city centre. All city centres in France are small. Even downtown Paris is small. You can walk around all of it. As an aside despite what the movies suggest, you cannot see the Eiffel Tower from every hotel room window in Paris.
But we are in Lille, not Paris. Once you’ve navigated to the hotel and dumped your gear, you hit the streets to look in some shops and sit in a wicker chair or two. The first thing you notice about the French people in French cities is that almost all of them are better looking and better dressed than you. In the countryside it is the opposite. No disrespect to the rural French but the word ‘peasant’ is still a relevant description in a disturbingly large number of cases.
The French get dressed up to go out. You will see ladies in fur, men with cravats, Everyone’s hair is immaculate, and they even still make smoking a cigarette look classy.
When you pop into a shop, every single thing in the shops looks expensive, most of it is. But you don’t mind because of the way it has been displayed and the beauty of the female shop assistant. The female shop assistants make chaps go a little giddy. All of them. There is clearly a very strict vetting procedure for French female shop assistants and it begins at the Miss World contest. They will also wear tight frocks or trousers and blouses with plunging necklines. You never know quite where to look, well you do actually.
When you have purchased your beautiful expensive thing from the beautiful shop assistant she will wrap it for you. Not just some tissue paper and a plastic bag though, she will WRAP it for you. It is an art form and what you are handed after you’ve parted with your money looks too good to open. It is a visual feast of expensive paper and ribbons. It looks like a fabulous gift even if it’s just a sandwich or a box of tissues. After this you need a drink.
The little tables around which are perched the wicker chairs will have a stylish advertising message in them from the 1930’s probably. The waiter carries a tray covered in exotic looking drinks, not just wine and beer. The French huddle, smoking and chatting animatedly or lounging languidly, often wearing some sort of scarf. The French are fans of scarves. There is much gesticulation, hand gestures with a cigarette between the fingers casually waving in the air to dismiss an argument or poked repeatedly to make a point. They all look cool. The waiter seems to walk just above ground level, so fluid is his; it’s usually a chap, movement. He sweeps from table to table, putting down drinks, picking up empties, taking orders all at the same time, usually not writing anything down, he wears an apron. So you sit there at your little table in your wicker chair with your beer and a glass of kir for the lady. You gaze around the ‘Grand Place’ you have stopped at and admire the whole spectacle. If it is summertime the air is warm and the living actually does look easy. If it is winter, it will be dark and all the incredible architecture is lit up and looks amazingly atmospheric. It’s dinner time in Lille.
There are so many places to eat in France you’ll wonder how you ever choose which one you should choose. We tend to go French funnily enough. I don’t see the point in going to France and eating Thai food. So we like to go traditional French, brasserie. The classic French restaurant will have banquette seating down the outside walls, tables for two side by side. There are far more waiters than you would expect to see. They all wear aprons, big ones, with the classic white shirt and black trousers combo. They give the waitresses shirts two sizes too small. You sit remarkably close to the other diners each side of you which wouldn’t really work anywhere else.
But somehow it does here. The meal is an occasion and you should eat in company, so you do. The thing with France though is that the diners each side of you will probably interact with you, just a little bit, look at your food, you look at theirs, you share some comment on the quality and smile. When the meal is over the French people you have eaten with, yet not eaten with, will wish you ‘bon soir’ as they leave. They will actually mean it. The French are friendly, if you are friendly to them.
Contrary to popular myth the waiters are not rude if you show them respect. They are not just waiters in France; they are the keepers and bringers of the biggest part of the day. When the French get together to eat and enjoy the trappings of the life they know and they know it best. Their country is fabulous. Be nice to them and they will be nice to you. They want you to enjoy France and for you to see the best of it. Learn and embrace the meaning of joie de vivre. The French do.
As a foot note, if you do suffer any inconvenience in France, make sure you apologize!