Friday, June 24, 2011

Things French People Like

After living in Grenoble for a while I started making a list of things particularly beloved of the French. And they all seemed to start with the letter "s". Of course I couldn't help but try to shoehorn other noticed items into the list. So here it is!

Scarves: everyone wears them, all the time, regardless of weather, age, or sex. Now I wear them too, feeling like I'm wearing a disguise to blend in, yet am learning to like it. I bought a very lovely silk scarf in Lyons. But I know I'll feel odd continuing to wear them when we move back to Toronto.

Smoking: so many more people smoking than in Canada. Particularly odd to have a merchant selling fresh vegetables to you at the farmer's market blow smoke in your face.

Scooters: the kind you push with your feet, like a skateboard with a handle (not the motorized scooters). Everyone rides them, young and old. I've seen a mother and young child riding a scooter together. Mark thinks we should get matching scooters for ourselves.

Singing: People sing much more freely here. I see kids and parents singing songs together as they walk along the sidewalk. Rowdy drunken people at the bar sing out loud at night. The birds even seem more musical.

Saying hello and good-bye (but only when in the same space): If you enter a shop, you say hello to the shopkeeper, and good-bye when you depart. If you enter an elevator, you say hello to the occupant, and good-bye when you exit. But you don't say hello (or nod, or make eye contact even) when passing strangers on the street. It's quite the opposite of the usual Toronto social interactions.

Simple hair and make-up: I often feel a little understated in Toronto, but in Grenoble I'm just one of many women with simple hair and make-up. It's great - it all feels very natural and easy-going. When you see someone with noticeable eyeliner you almost do a double take.

Set menus: all menus, lunch or dinner, offer a three-course prix fixe option, with starter, main and desert. And they're generally great deals, especially for lunch. I love how it encourages desert at lunch - how decadent.

Scooping (not!): Sigh. There is dog shit on the sidewalks everywhere. The government has installed "espaces de chien", little fence-enclosed gravel plots, but they seem to go unused. Over time I have developed a radar for it. Thank goodness it wasn't sandal season my first month in France.

Small dogs: Dogs are everywhere. Cafés, restaurants, shops, markets, parks, transit. They are generally small and quiet, so they blend in to everyday life easily. It is unusual enough for dogs to be forbidden from establishments that prominent signs have to be posted, warning people not to bring their dogs in. It is regarded as a right to be able to bring your dog everywhere. We'll miss this when we return to Toronto and get a puppy. It's just now occurring to me how few places we can take a dog in Canada.

Shopping for food: weekend market mornings are hopping. Old, young - everyone is out early to shop for food. They all have their own baskets (big wicker baskets, that you picture an 1800s milkmaid carrying) and carts that they bring along. There are entertainers at the market. It's a party every time. I love it. If all we did was go to the market to shop it would feel like a weekend well spent.

Sidewalk parking: Sidewalks are fair game for parking, since there are never enough spots. It makes being a pedestrian a surprising challenge at times.No one seems to fear being ticketed, maybe because they're just one in the crowd of drivers doing the same thing.

Small coffees: I'm not a coffee drinker, but even I have noticed that coffee is always served in very small cups. But I'm told that it's good, so I guess that makes up for it.

Subway: It's the only North American fast food chain that seems to be widespread in Grenoble. Which is surprising, considering how good French baguette sandwiches are, and how easily obtained. A submarine sandwich just can't hold a candle to it. Maybe Subway uses French baguette bread here, but I'm not going to waste my time finding out - no Subway for me, please!

Subtle wines: We wanted to love the French wine - it's so easily accessible and reasonably priced. But it always seemed a little underwhelming. And then we traveled to Spain and had fantastically tasty wine. I guess our tastes run to something bolder. Or we just need to spend more time in France, trying more wines, to really learn what's out there. We did our best, aiming to drink a bottle a day during our four months, and we just about succeeded.

Salad greens: I have never so many varieties of such beautifully fresh and perfectly displayed lettuces as in France. And every salad I eat is made of what must be freshly picked leaves. They're also very inventive about what goes in a salad - slices of quiche, pickled beets, corn kernels, pickles, cheese, large slices of prosciutto, green beans - salad greens are really a plate for a mixed bag of delicious foods.

Shower spray: No hotel or apartment in France seems to be designed to keep the water from your shower contained. Spraying all over the bathroom is to be expected. Prepare to have wet feet any time you step in the bathroom. Surely a curtain, door or small wall wouldn't be such a crazy invention?

Sweets: Desert with lunch and supper. Bakeries, pastry shops, chocolate shops. This is a country that loves its sweets. Breakfast is designed for sweets - virtually all cereals contain chocolate. When I told my friend Anne that I found it odd for anyone other than children to have chocolate at breakfast she looked at my like I'd said something utterly baffling. I have taken to ordering hot chocolate at my morning French language meetings, and I'm not the only one doing so.

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