A year ago I was in Paris for the first time. It was a trip I’d dreamed of going on for years, and when the opportunity presented itself I didn’t hesitate to take it. I love to travel, and although I like lying on a sandy beach with a strawberry margarita as much as the next girl, my idea of a great holiday is a couple of weeks touring any of Europe’s great cities. I love museum hopping, wandering through art galleries, and sitting at a sidewalk cafe people-watching. I love to sample the local cuisine and wander aimlessly through the city streets, trying to soak up the energy of the place so I can always remember how it felt to be there.
I had some niggling doubts about Paris before I went. I was visiting a friend but during the week I would be on my own a lot while he was at work. I didn’t speak a lick of French, although I’m Canadian and we’re required to study it in school. I always found the pronunciation impossible, the grammar and spelling arduous. I studied Italian in university. I really liked Italian. Unlike French, it’s a phonetic language; once you learn the alphabet you can pretty much read it and write it.
The fact that I didn’t speak French wouldn’t have bothered me as much had I not heard that French people are rude to you if you don’t. Actually, every person I knew who had been to Paris told me that they were rude no matter what you did. There’s a saying I’ve heard repeated ad naseum. Something like, “Wonderful country France…pity about the French.”
Granted, I didn’t spend a long time in Paris–eight days–but I didn’t find French people rude at all. They weren’t friendly in the same way North Americans are, which people from other cultures sometimes find superficial. But in my experience, they weren’t rude. I think that a bright smile and a friendly attitude can serve you well no matter where you go. I’d like to think that my positive spirit was reflected back to me.
So in that same positive spirit, today I’ve decided to reflect on a few of the reasons I love France–and the French. I’m happy in my city and when I get right down to it, I wouldn’t really want to live anywhere else. But there are some things that I appreciate about France so much that I wish they were bigger part of North American culture…
1. For me, and perhaps many of you since you read food blogs, what I love most about France is the food. It’s a food lover’s paradise. Every other storefront is a bakery or cheese shop. You can go into any Monoprix or basic supermarket and for a couple of euros come out with the type of quality Camembert you would pay at least twelve bucks for in North America. The French take food and eating very seriously. There are stringent laws that protect the quality of their breads and cheeses and their chickens. There are even laws that limit the number of big box type of supermarkets that are allowed to go up. Sure, bad food can be found everywhere–even in France. But as far as I’m concerned, the less there is of it, the better.
2. The markets. Farmer’s markets have grown more and more popular in North America but we need a lot more of them. One of the reasons I think the French eat so well is that it’s easy for them to drop by their neighborhood market and pick up whatever they’re going to make for dinner. The food is fresh and they don’t waste money hauling bags of vegetables home from the supermarket only to throw them away a week later because they couldn’t get around to eating them all.
This past weekend I went to the Granville Island Market , our most popular market here in Vancouver, where you can get fresh produce, artisan cheeses and a variety of gourmet foodstuffs all under one roof. Although I went there shortly after opening, it was so packed that I had difficulty finding parking. I think that people are more concerned about what they eat and how it affects the environment. They want to shop like this. What they don’t want is to have to get into their car and drive to five different shops for their meat, bread, and vegetables. The French way is more convenient, with markets peppered throughout small towns and every city neighborhood.
3. Bakeries. OK, so this is also related to food … but is there anything better than a freshly baked French baguette from a Paris bakery? I think non. I am one of those people who could live on bread alone and am always on the search for the perfect ciabbatta or the flakiest croissant. One of the best meals I had in Paris was my first–a few slices of baguette smeared with Camembert cheese, eaten with a tomato and endive salad and chunks of sausage. I couldn’t believe the bread. It was crispy on the outside, chewy and unctuous on the inside. I would never dream of eating pastries for breakfast at home, but in France I started every morning off with an almond croissant or pain au chocolat without a scrap of guilt. They were just too good to pass up. Now I understand why people line up so patiently outside of French bakeries.
4. Cafe Culture. I saw one Starbucks when I was in Paris–at the Louvre museum. There is nothing more quintessentially French than a deep, dark espresso taken at a corner zinc bar or a cafe creme imbibed at a crowded sidewalk cafe. The French hold their traditions dear, and there is a lot of cultural resistance to the proliferation of companies like Starbucks, with its throwaway coffee cups and huge bakery sweets. Starbucks may have found a little niche in France, catering to tourists and French university students, but with the high costs of doing business over there, it’s not making a profit.
I’m not bashing Starbucks. I do my fair share of hanging out there. But the European-style combination of the cafe/bar is what I like the most. It’s nice to get together with friends and have coffee when you don’t feel like drinking, or have a beer or an aperitif while they have coffee, if that’s what you feel like. I’m not much of a drinker but I like to go to bars for a leisurely glass of wine with a friend. To me there is nothing more annoying than a waitress coming around every five minutes asking me if I want another drink or requesting my beverage order in a restaurant before I’ve even opened the menu. That doesn’t happen in France.
5. French people read. And we’re not talking cheesy romance novels on the Metro. We’re talking Sartre. Camus. Alexandre Dumas. I first noticed this on the plane from Frankfurt to Paris. Every other French person had their nose in a book. On the transcontinental flight to Europe I hadn’t noticed one person reading anything but a magazine. The Metro is full of people reading novels on their way to work. If the publishing industry is in decline and people are buying less books, its not happening in France.
Books have always been a big passion of mine. It’s nice to see that in this age of technology that books are still important to a lot of people. Being intellectual is highly prized in France, unlike in Anglo-Saxon culture, where its seems quirky or pretentious. Out of all the little things I noticed about the French and their ways, this impressed me the most.
These are some of the things that I really liked about my stay in Paris. What about you? Have you been to France? What did you like about French culture?
Note: The top two photos of Paris shown here come from Microsoft Office clipart, as my own pictures of Paris were lost in a hard drive malfunction.