5. France is absolutely gorgeous.
But of course you already knew that. Even so, it’s worth saying.
My host family’s house is in Quaix-en-Chartreuse, a small village just outside of Grenoble- a city of around 150, 000 people.
I’m living in a 200 year-old barn converted into a house, similar to a lot of the homes in Quaix-en-Chartreuse. I’ve noticed that the majority of dwellings in the French countryside and the old part of Grenoble have roofs of ceramic tiles; to add to this halcyon image, rustic timber framing and old furniture are staple features of the standard out-of-city French home. Consequentially, there’s a veritable treasure trove of charming skeleton keys, the likes of which would be museum-worthy in Canada.
Every nook and cranny here has its own lengthy history, and it’s wonderful. I’ve already maxed out all of the storage space on my phone taking pictures.
In the city, there are about as many statues, fountains, and plaques as there are people. Grenoble, though, is a bit different from the countryside; there’s the old part of the city, with all its nostalgic beauty, and then there’s a fair amount of decaying soviet-era buildings as well. There’s also some modern, clean-cut, steel-and-glass architecture peppered throughout the city, and a lot of the buildings kind of imitate a waddle-and-daub look.
Naturally, there’s a plethora of museums and art galleries; additionally, though, words like boulangerie, patisserie, and fromagerie abound on storefronts. The aroma of fresh bread wafting through the streets is sure to provoke a carnal hunger in any North-American.
Furthermore, there’s this huge, colourful market underneath a big train bridge. The pillars of the bridge are painted with images of fruit-laden vines and trees, cheese, vegetables, and bread; coupled with the vibrant displays of food, the market imposes a striking impression on the casual observer. There’s a wide variety of street-food available, too- and it’s actually food, not the artery-clogging crap you’d typically find on the side of the road in Canada.
4. They have a totally different approach to meals and eating
My first taste of genuine French cuisine gave me a toe-curling food-gasm; however, I quickly learned that the French have some very sophisticated rules when it comes to eating.
Before I came to France, I expected meal times to be a very serious and almost sacred affair, which it definitely is (not really le petit dejeuner, or breakfast, though- that’s kind of your own thing). There’s also this kind of lull period after a meal, too, which can last anywhere from five minutes to an hour, where they talk and enjoy each other’s company. There’s definitely no snacking allowed either- the French don’t eat in between meals. At all.
What really caught me off guard is how different foods are viewed here. After the main course of a meal, cheese and bread is served, and then fruit. But it’s not actually part of the meal, really, it’s a goûter– just a taste. I didn’t really get this at first until my host mother told me that I was eating too much fruit- apparently, six ‘pieces’ of fruit, two at each meal, is the absolute maximum for one day, and it’s seen as pretty unusual and kind of rude to eat more than that. You don’t have cheese and bread (or vegetables) at breakfast time- that’s just weird- but you can have fruit. But only two. Yep.
Furthermore, there are different ‘rules’ when it comes to dishes and cutlery: that’s not a bowl, it’s a plate; no, you can’t drink the last little bit of soup out of it. Oh, but if we do happen to put our soup in a bowl, do not leave that last little bit of soup in it- drink it out of the bowl. No, you can’t eat the fruit like that- you have to peel it with a knife and cut it into little pieces, and then you can eat it.
You almost have to eat as though you’re a pompous, uppity jerk without actually being a pompous, uppity jerk; table manners are very reserved, refined, and calculated, especially with the older generations.
This kind of extends into other areas of life as well; I also got told to make less noise when I yawn.
However, I’m still a little confused about when to use your fingers and when not to; I’ve noticed that there’s some food we’d eat with our fingers in Canada that you can’t eat with your fingers here, and vice-versa. I’ll make an update on that when I have it figured out; I get the impression that I’m basically like a pig at the table in the eyes of the French right now.
3. The roads are anorexic
The mountain roads only fit one car, and you have to either pull into a driveway or stop and pull over when someone comes the other way- which is terrifying, considering that the mountain roads twist and turn like a damn snake, and there’s frickin’ bikers everywhere.
Also, I’ve noticed that people don’t really take stop signs* that seriously here, either… maybe they’re seen as just recommendations instead of orders? A lot of drivers are pretty brake-happy, too, and they all drive standards.
However, Antonin tells me that the French licensing program is pretty strict, though, and there are more car-related fatalities per year in Canada than there are in France. I’ve learned to relax a little bit more, but I still grip the seat whenever we whip around a corner.
2. Ruins. Everywhere.
On my first day here, Antonin and I went for a walk behind his house. After a minute or two of walking, we saw an old, crumbling house- from the late 1600’s- just sitting there! After I had excitedly explored every stone, we walked about fifty feet and saw another one.
There’s cool old shit like that every which way you turn! And they’re all covered in moss, too- it’s basically early summer here. It’s essentially a photographer’s heaven.
Just the other day, we went for a balade, which is a kind of hike that a lot of French people love (and do a lot- I’ve been on one almost every day now for a while). We were about two-thirds up a mountain when we came across an old abandoned prison. Pretty freaking neat, eh? Every twenty feet or so, there were these tunnels with jail cells built into the rock face, too, apart from the main building. On that same hike, we came across a faded sign that said something about atomic energy, with a barricade for vehicles across the path. Curious as I am, I got Muriel and Antonin to come with me to see what the deal was: a bunch of small, modern, locked buildings, and this steel door built into the side of a cliff- I felt like I was in a spy movie… very sketchy.
Old stone walls are a dime a dozen, and there’s the occasional forgotten Château crumbling away silently in the middle of the woods.
I mean, come on! How much cooler can you get? It’s freaking amazing!
1. They’re pretty chill (ish)
So, the French elections are coming up (the day before I leave, actually), so naturally there’s a lot of talk about politics. Unlike my experience of Canada, though, you’ll see people talking about it in public places- without freaking out and wanting to kill each other. I get the feeling that discussion about politics is viewed differently because France is such an old nation that’s had lots of time to be divided over the government.
Antonin was telling me the other day that he sometimes gets in pretend fights with his friends because their political views are a lot different than his.
When I heard that, I was pretty surprised. Like any decent person, I do my utmost best to accept other people’s beliefs, and I can’t say that I hate people for their political opinions- but I also can’t say that I seek the friendship of Trump supporters or oil fanatics.
Further still, when I asked Mélanie, my host sister, if she believed in life after death, she went and asked Antonin and Muriel what they thought. That was pretty surprising to me, too; I mean, I would’ve thought that they had had an accurate idea of each other’s worldviews. I suppose the reasoning behind this is that they don’t adhere to social labels that much, and see people as the plastic, changeable beings that they are, rather than just a bundle of prejudices and opinions.
Media and film, too, is more relaxed; nudity isn’t necessarily always sexual in nature, and the ratings are a lot more lenient than you would find in North America. I can’t really see French tweens having a giggle fit whenever someone says ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’, either.
I’m kind of getting the sense, though, that some of the social norms here are a bit more strict than they would be in Canada- for example, the length of time for socially acceptable eye contact with strangers is a bit shorter here, I think. The chillness I’m talking about isn’t the ‘go-to-the-grocery-store-in-your-pyjamas-with-mustard-on-your-face’ kind of chill; they like to look like they’ve got their shit together and have a place to be and things to do. It’s a more realistic and down-to-earth kind of chillness when it comes to people and their interactions.
I’ll be sure to write a whole post about the nuances of French social norms in the future when I’ve got ’em all figured out.
*Also, the stop signs actually say ‘stop’, not ‘arrêt’ like in Québec.