The more that my French improves, the less well I speak the language.

It’s not just that it is hard to learn a new language when one is older, but I generally struggle with any language that believes that inanimate objects should be endowed with a sexual preference.

There are some basic rules in French on how to split objects into their sexual camps, but the exceptions to each rule are so many that the rules become fairly useless to those of us who didn’t grow up with a language that made the gender of the object an integral part of the word when first learning it as a child. A French child learns from the beginning that the word for table is “la table” and the gender is just part of the word. Not so easy for us who grew up believing that sexual differentiation tended to apply only to living things, and that most of the time this could be discerned by things such as the clothing that was worn, length of hair, first name, the shape that was formed by a tight sweater or if an animal, at least by the bits that were generally on display.

Author: Valerie McGlinchey; under CCAS license, via Wikimedia Commons

I have now spent over a decade trying to discover some magic formula that would enable me to come to grips with the fact that things that can’t actually have sex do have sex assigned to them, but with little success. I have now decided that actual gender allocation has nothing to do with logic, but is based more on these having been decided after a night of heavy wine-tasting by members of the “Commission Generale de Terminologie et de Neologie” who control these things in France.

For starters, in French, the fact that a chair is female (la chaise) does not seem to align with the fact that a sofa is masculine (le canapé). Nor does the fact that a wardrobe (l’armoire) is feminine but a cupboard (le placard) is masculine. At least a man (l’homme) is masculine and a woman (la femme) is feminine, but then a person (la personne) is always feminine, as is a victim (la victime) even when they are males. Totally illogically a man’s shirt is feminine (la chemise) and a woman’s blouse is masculine (le chemisier), which I am convinced was decided after a heavy night of Bordeaux reds.

Source:photography by NJGJ; under GNU Free Documentation License, via Wikimedia Commons

The good news for me in my language gender struggles was to find out that the word for fireplace (la cheminée) is feminine and that the fireplace implement, the poker (le tisonnier) is masculine, and supported by cave (la grotte) and flagpole (le mat), at least did make some sense to me based on their respective shapes. However, this brief moment of elation at some pattern recognition fell apart when I discovered that a tunnel (le tunnel) is masculine and a tower (la tour) is not, and completely disintegrated when I was told that the French word for vagina is masculine (le vagin) … figure that one out.

I now wondered whether the gender of these words may have had more to do with which sex is more interested in the object rather than its actual shape, function or connotation, further supported by the fact that the male sex organ is masculine in gender and that the French actually have over 100 different words to describe a phallus.

I was also surprised to find that most natural disasters are feminine like famine (la famine), flood (l’inondation), pestilence (la peste), eruption (l’eruption) and illness generally (la maladie). Even wars, which are generally started by men, are blamed on the fairer sex (la guerre). The question that one must ask is how long will the French keep blaming Eve and her kind for everything that is wrong with the world?

When it comes to food the same holds true, as some of the best things to eat in France are masculine including cake (le gateau), cheese (le fromage), soufflé (le soufflé), goose liver (le foiegras) and truffle (le truffe)and some of the nastier foods that exist(based on the French need to not waste any part of a pig) are feminine such as tail (la queue), spleen (la rate) and cheek (la joue).

Flowers tend to be more logical with the lily (le lis) and cactus being masculine (le cactus) and the tulip (la tulipe) and rose feminine (la rose), but when it comes to fruit and vegetables my plan to base it all on shape fell apart when I found out that the carrot (la carotte),zucchini (la courgette) and banana (la banane) are all feminine.

Author: Michelvoss (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Even countries and continents have a gender attached to them but while the USA and UK are both considered to be masculine (not necessarily so by the non-French speaking parts of the world), Australia and France are both allocated to the feminine side of the divide. I am sure that this will shock and bewilder my Australian male friends who have always seen themselves as one of the last bastions of “blokedom”. At least they are in good company as Russia, China and Turkey are all feminine, despite the fact that women are hardly considered to have equality in any of them. To make it even more confusing whilst Niagara Falls is feminine, the Grand Canyon is masculine.

I am aware that getting the genders mixed up will not stop me from being understood in France, but the French do consider it important and a real test as to whether you actually do speak some French or whether you are just a “Franglais” speaker in disguise.
I could just do what author David Sidaris suggests, which is to use the plural all the time (les) (See “Me talk pretty one day”), but it is hard to get through life here when you have to buy or describe everything at least as a pair. I already have enough trouble when I write my name in French as “Les Hayman” with locals believing that I am describing the two of us.
I have therefore decided to pretend that I have a speech impediment and use the word “li” for everything … in France it is always better to be seen as being physically handicapped rather than sexually ignorant.

Author: Aaron Matthews; under CCA 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons



It’s not easy being a customer in France as the concept of customer service is not something that is deeply embedded in the French psyche (See “Vive le French Customer Service” posted November 29th, 2010). The underlying issue is that the French do not buy into the maxim that “The customer is always right”, nor the concept that the person providing the service is actually there to “serve” the person paying for the service (See “Vive le French Artist” posted January 12, 2011).

The French revolution of 1789 won the French the right for equality, and therefore the concept of being there to serve smacks of subservience, and this is not acceptable under any circumstances.

This means that visitors to France often get the impression that the French are rude, which is not the case at all, and knowing how to behave appropriately can make a visit more pleasant, so here are some tips on how to handle French service providers.

1. Cab Drivers

French “cabbies” use their cabs primarily as a newspaper and magazine reading room and therefore see potential passengers as an intrusion on them keeping up with the latest scandals of the French ruling class. They will reject your fare if you are not going anywhere they would find interesting, if you are only planning on travelling a short distance or if you are a group of four, and therefore need the front passenger seat as well, as this will mean having to rearrange their life’s detritus scattered on the front seat beside them. You will also need to load your own luggage as the driver will be suffering from a back injury, and he will disregard any requests to turn down the volume on his radio as it is his car not yours.

Survival tip: If you can afford it use a limo service or, if not, use public transport (such as the metro when in Paris), where service and civility are not given nor expected. This will also enable you to get used to being jostled and pushed around, and to learn how to live without the use of queues. If you must use a cab take your own ghetto blaster and hit him with “I come from a land down-under”.

By ℍenry Salomé; via Wikimedia Commons, under the GNU license

2. Butchers

Butchers hold a position in French society well above those of medical practitioners and they generally earn significantly more than them.
People will dress up in their Sunday best for a visit to the “Boucherie” and will allocate a whole morning to the excursion. As this is akin to meeting royalty, locals once there will take their time and discuss every item on display before ordering their one sausage, one slice of ham and their wafer thin slice of boudin.

Survival tip: Walk into the butcher shop holding two €50 notes aloft, greet everyone in the shop as though they were your wealthy maiden aunt, address the butcher as “maître” admiring his red sash of valour, and offer to buy everyone in the shop a round of foie gras.

Author: Thomas Guest; via Wikimedia Commons

3. Waiters

Waiters in the US will come over and tell you their name and the fact that they are there to look after you and to make the evening memorable enough for you to remember them in your will. French waiters will try and keep away from you for as long as possible, usually arranging and re-arranging the settings on any empty tables around you until you take it upon yourself to go and collect your own menus. After being threatened with industrial action, you will then be asked to order immediately as the kitchen is about to close in the next 3 minutes. You will need to address the waiter as “Monsieur” and not “Garcon”, as you are at best his equal, and he is doing a job which does not necessarily include being of service to those that patronise the establishment. He may ask you how you want your meat cooked, or he may just decide that he knows best based on your hair style, and will generally talk you out of your own menu selections for what he would order if he deigned to eat there, which he doesn’t as the French these days prefer McDonalds (See “Vive le French Cuisine” posted May 23, 2011).

Survival tip: Do whatever he says even if you don’t speak French and never send any food back to be re-heated or cooked some more, as you will regret it. If you have sent your meal back for any change at all and it comes back with any added bean sprouts, drop €200 on the table and rush out of the restaurant. Also remember that the term “Fast Food” in France has nothing to do with how quickly it will be served to you, only how quickly you are meant to eat it.

4. Phone companies

Employees who work for phone companies are not there to help customers, only to sell multi-year usage contracts. They are very knowledgeable about these contracts, particularly how much commission they make on each one, but know absolutely nothing about any of the plethora of phones that they have available for sale, think that the internet is a fishing supplies subsidiary of the supermarket chain“intermarche” and that broadband is what fat people wear to keep their culottes from falling down.

Survival tip: Buy your i-Phone from Apple, preferably in another country, and just buy a pay-as-you-use sim card for when you are in France.

5. Pharmacists

Author: Treehill (own work); via Wikimedia Commons under the GNU license

The literal translation of “pharmacien” in French is “person who could not get in to medical school and carries a hatred of the world to their grave”. On top of this the French medical system has a tendency to over prescribe for any and all ailments meaning that every customer in a pharmacy will leave with a full pallet of medications covering every possible condition known to man at that time. Elderly people in France have the highest incidence of curvature of the spine created by the weight of medications that they have to take home after every visit to a pharmacy.

Survival tip: Do not park your fork-lift in the disabled parking spots by the front door in the mistaken belief that it will only take a few minutes to get a packet of pain killers. Studies have shown that no one has ever made any purchase in a French pharmacy in under 90 minutes, and you will leave having also been convinced to buy a year’s supply of Preparation-H, “proven” weight loss pills and support-hose for the whole family for the flight home. Remember that the French prefer to take medication via suppositories, so no matter how bad is your headache, you should wait till you are back in the car to administer.

You will also need to get used to French bluntness. In the US a shop assistant will tell a size 22 that she looks fabulous with a bare midriff. In France I once asked a shop assistant whether the trousers I had tried on looked good on me. She told me that my arse was too big and that I should lose some weight first and then try again.

I prefer the French approach.


I believe that France must have one of the lowest levels of disposable rubbish per capita, as very little must actually ever get discarded, a belief supported by what one sees for sale at the French institution of the Vide Grenier (VG). Whilst this correctly translates to “Empty Attic”, I am sure that the majority of stuff just moves from attic to attic until after about 2-3 generations it will end up back in the hands of the family who started the cycle in the first place.

I know that the UK has “Car Boot sales” and Australia has “Flea Markets”, but I feel that in France we have raised this art-form to new heights.

The belief is that these were originally created in France to enable people to pass some wealth on down the generations by allowing grandchildren to clear out their grandparents’ attics to make some money. In those early days it may have been possible to find some treasures, but unfortunately those days are long gone. Today it is more about clearing out ones grandparents’ homes so that they don’t run the danger of setting fire to the old newspapers and magazines that block their hallways, or to ease the weight bearing down on century old ceilings.

Every village in France gets a chance to hold their own VG at least once every 2 years, which ensures that some of the local unwanted rubbish gets moved away to other villages thereby allowing the cycle to start again.

We have used the weekend VGs as a way of seeing different villages around our region and, to ensure that we also have a serious reason to attend, have accumulated quite a collection of old fly sprays that adorn part of a wall in our kitchen, and I am sure are still wafting hints of DDT into our airspace.

There are also added benefits in that there is always a beer tent and a sausage sizzle that I would imagine are greater attractions than the 100 or so trestle stands trying to sell old copies of “Madame” magazine which originally came free with the weekend edition of the Figaro newspaper, or old green screen computer monitors that must have been rescued from a local rubbish dump (dechetterie).

There is also generally in evidence a core of professional retailers who tend to sell wares like glassware, copper items, old tools and other bits that one would normally find in the cheaper stores, and who travel from VG to VG as a weekend second job, and who I salute for diligence in a country where most people work only the required 35 hours per week, and for whom weekends are a time to be religiously guarded for some serious television watching.

The French are generally a very pessimistic nation but the vendors at VGs exhibit overpowering unbridled optimism, based on the belief that what they have gathered is actually saleable. I am sure that the majority pack up their wares at the end of the day having sold little, if any, of their hard scavenged goodies, and just move them back into their homes in readiness for the next return trip to a nearby event, cursing the lack of taste of this day’s buyers, but content in the knowledge that someday someone with discerning taste and an eye for a true bargain will see the value and beauty in what they have to offer.

The reality is that these are more an opportunity for people to mingle in their community than an attempt at any real commerce, and hopeful vendors spend more time talking to each other and sharing a picnic lunch with neighbours than actively trying to peddle their wares. They do have a lively country fair exuberance to them that is rare in a country of controlled emotion and decorum.

While most of the junk on sale would not interest us even if it was free, we have become addicted to the whole theatre that is the true VG, and will go to 2-3 per month just as an excuse to visit somewhere we haven’t been before and to participate in the scene that these play in French rural life. We are subscribers to the monthly magazine “Aladin” that lists all the Vide Grenier and Brocante (generally a bit of a more upmarket version) markets in France, and avidly calendarise those that are planned for the Gironde and departments bordering.

Some VG/Brocantes have been going for decades and attract people from all over France like the ones in Rauzan and Pau which cover multiple days and attract thousands of people from all over France who come mainly to be able to walk around and sneer at the what is on offer rather than to actually buy anything.

We love them all, as they all have their unique elements, some snaking along river banks like the one in Branne or those that mill around the Mairie and village square like the mini one in Tabanac that was really more of a local produce and plant market than a true VG (got some great savoury scones).

They have become an integral part of our life in countryside France, and I love standing at the counter eating a sausage and onion baguette washed down with a cold beer, whilst talking to some locals about whether the rains will effect this weeks planned corn harvest or whether the Bordeaux-Begles Rugby team have any chance this coming season having been elevated to the premier league (we are supporters and subscribers and their NZ captain Matt Clarkin is a friend).

Vide Greniers may not change the world, but they have definitely enriched ours.


I actually hate most European airlines but I hate Air France most of all, because they always frustrate and disappoint me.

Author: user Wikinator; GNU Free Documentation License via Wikimedia Commons

Living near Bordeaux I am pretty much a captured client for Air France as the Bordeaux airport authority has managed to drive most other airlines into relocating to Toulouse through greed and overconfidence about their own importance. We have recently lost Alitalia and Lufthansa to Toulouse making Bordeaux flights to Italy and Germany necessitate a connection through Paris Charles De Gaulle (Paris-CDG) airport.

Paris-CDG was designed by a team of French Engineers who not only hate people who travel, but who to amuse themselves, have ensured that even when you don’t need to change airlines, you still need to move from one end of this massive multi-terminal complex to the furthest possible corner for any connecting flight. As well as this challenge of distance, and despite the fact that you have just disembarked from a flight, you will now need to go through the delay, and strip, of security scanning at least one more time to get to your connecting gate. This process design took significant help from some of the best mathematical modelling minds in the country to ensure that this complexity would apply to the vast majority of travellers at any time, making the airport look like a jogging track for a horde of fully dressed, sweating, confused and harassed suitcase testers.

It is therefore little wonder to me that Air France, my most frustrating Airline, should be based at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, considered to be the worst airport in the world, regularly beating out London’s Heathrow for the #1 slot in annual traveller surveys.

Air France TV advertising consists of an attractive young couple in swimsuits sitting on some comfortable lounger chairs by an infinity pool, which turns out to be positioned as being synonymous with seats 8A and 8B on some mythical Air France flight. I have sat in both seats at different times and they are unlike any lounger chair that I have ever sat in. If you are in 8A, the basketball player in 9A will have his knees pressed through the brightly coloured unpadded burlap which is the back of your seat, the rugby player in 7A will have managed to break the angle control mechanism on his seat and is now lying on your lap in the only position that enables him to squeeze into an amount of leg-room meant for Japanese schoolgirls, and the traveller to the obesity clinic in 8B (never an attractive young woman in a swimsuit) will have lifted the armrests to enable him to squeeze into a seat width designed for an anorexic pygmy. At this point, to be able to fit into your seat at all,your bottom is halfway up the side wall and your left buttock is perched on the aircraft window. As a result the cabin crew will now come and admonish you that you must be properly seated for take-off, and that the luggage handlers will not approach the aircraft to load the bags for fear that your buttocks could break through and shower them with glass.

The announcements and safety demonstrations will now cover information on the procedure for “landing on water”, more properly termed crashing, as the word “landing” by definition involves land, and instructions on how to use the seat belt in the belief that the flying public have never been in a car before and all got to the airport unharnessed in bullock carts. There will also be an announcement that the cabin crew who are wearing red badges saying “Safety and Security” are there for that purpose and not for trying to date, as was the case in my younger days. All Air France cabin crew now wear these badges as they have replaced name tags as standard wear meaning that we have no ability to report a particular individual for rudeness over and above their call of duty,for example. (See “Managing your Career” posted July 14, 2010).

The problem is that Air France tends to see us as passengers rather than customers.

I have no problem with Easyjet and Ryanair considering me a passenger as they are really running buses with wings. Their image is that the flight will be uncomfortable, you will have to fight others for a seat, you will have to pay for anything extra such as food, drink and luggage (and the loo if Ryanair get their way), but that they will get you their safely and inexpensively, and they generally deliver on these commitments.

Author: Ruthann; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, Air France tries to convince you that you will be treated as a valued client which is not the case at all. Apart from the allocated seats (done to help identify crash victims) and the free instant coffee andsynthetic snacks (which will confirm your suspicions about what happens in France with recycled matter), Air France is only different to the low cost airlines in their pricing.

If I was a valued customer I would be welcomed on board by name (it’s on my boarding pass and they check every one as we board), I would get seating that matches what I have input into my profile rather than at the whim of their booking system, I would not have to share my seat with the anchor man for the Hawaiian Tug-of-War team, I would have a seat that had some pitch rather than the new Air France short haul planes that have seats that are locked in the upright setting, I would have enough leg-room to not have my knees in my nostrils, the crew would not treat me like a naughty schoolboy, my seat would not cause back pain, andI would have a hook for my jacket. There would also be enough overhead luggage space for all passengers, and not just for the first 20 pushy ones who have boarded quickly to capture all available slots for themultiple bagsthey have sneaked on as cabin baggage, in the often valid fear that anychecked bags that pass through Paris-CDG could end up somewhere totally different than they will, thus sending Uncle Jacque’s ashes and urn to Buenos Ares, even though he had previously never ventured further than Nantes.

I am looking forward to the day when teleportation becomes a reality or someone with a better service attitude, like Ariana Afghan Airlines, decides to fly out of Bordeaux.
Until then I will have to continue flying with the world’s most disappointing airline.

Author: Courtney Walker; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; via Wikimedia Commons


We have a 500 year old wall that goes all the way around our 6 hectare property that goes from 2-3 metres high on the road sides to about 5 metres high on the vineyard side. It is the original wall in the same way that George Washington’s hatchet remained original despite having had 3 new heads and 6 new handles replaced over the last 200 years.

Our wall has been patched and re-patched so many times over the last half-millennium that it is a mix of stones, sand and cement styles, shapes, colours and age. It needs constant attention and care as when it was first built it wasn’t built with a foundation. In the old days they just flattened the earth and started laying the stones.

Sadly, we had two parts of it collapse last December on the same day, about 100 metres apart, after 5 weeks of almost continuous heavy rain. The insurance company refused to accept that this was caused by unusual circumstances and therefore would not accept responsibility for payment of reconstruction.

Front Wall Before

Back wall Before

I went out for quotes from local French stone masons, and the three that I received ranged from €10,000 to €20,000. As these are significant amounts, and seemed rather inordinately large, I decided to widen my search. I eventually, through a friend, found an English stonemason who had recently moved to France who quoted me about €2,000, has already finished rebuilding the first hole, and is doing a great job.

Front wall after

Back Wall After

This is not the first time that I have come across the local custom of the “Prix Anglais”… a special price for foreigners, particularly English speakers.

The local view of many tradesmen and service providers seems to be that if you are a foreigner and you come to France and buy a chateau you must be rich, and as your French is no better than their 8 year old son’s, you must also be stupid so, as there is no way that you would have any understanding of the value of anything, they may as well load their quote to the highest levels, in case you are rich enough and stupid enough to accept an inflated quote.

This is such a short term view of how to conduct oneself that it just doesn’t make any business sense at all.
Our English stonemason took one look at all the old stonework on our property and realised that there was enough work there to keep him busy on a regular basis for the rest of his working life, and that if he was reasonable (not necessarily cheap), I would be glad to continue using him. He was right as I have already asked him whether he could spend 2-3 days every month doing general upkeep, at a time to suit him.

Contrast this with the “Prix Anglais” attitude which is to try and make as much as you can out of this foreign git on the one job,as you never know whether he will want you to ever come back.

The first time I hit this was when we wanted to have the locks changed on our current house when we took possession in 2001. The first quote we had was €2000, the reasoning being that the locks could not just have the tumblers adjusted as they were too old and would therefore need total replacement. One of our neighbours gave us the name of a locksmith mate of his who came in and adjusted the tumblers and gave us 4 sets each of new keys for all doors and charged us €160.

The next time involved the collapse of a retaining wall in our back garden, when the initial quote of €20,000 came down to francs (about 1/7th) when the contractor realised that I was somewhat more fiscally savvy than my French accent would have suggested to him. I did not use his services then or ever again.

I have found this short term thinking to be so prevalent among many French trades and service people I have met that it is a refreshing surprise to find local tradespeople who understand that successful business relationships are built by securing and retaining clients that use you automatically without having to fight competitively for every piece of business. That what most people look for is honesty and trust rather than just being cheap. The attitude that every foreigner is there to be fleeced as quickly as possible, even if you can only get away with it once, is not the way to build a long-term successful business reputation amongst the foreigners living in France, who are an increasingly larger part of the demand for services. When I have challenged trades people about this “Prix Anglais” they will often openly admit to it, and generally find it terribly amusing rather than being embarrassed at being caught out.

Over the last 15 years we have found and use a builder, plumber and electrician whom we call automatically whenever we need their services without worrying about whether we should get competitive quotes to ensure that they are being realistic. To this list we can now add a stonemason.

The success of any business is not based on how many customers you can “screw” the one time, but how many of the same customers you can service well and fairly forever.


I am starting to believe strongly that the days when France could lay claim to the greatest cuisine in the world may have passed away. I am sure that it was mostly true 30 years ago when we first started coming to France but sadly things seem to have changed. I accept that the French Michelin star restaurants are still amongst the best in the world, but even there France is slipping, as in 2010 Paris with 64 Michelin stars in total actually had fewer than Tokyo (266), Kyoto (243) and Hong Kong (69).

By: Trou; via Wikimedia Commons

Our first trip together to Europe from Australia in 1981 started in London, and I have to say that the food generally was absolutely appalling, whether it was in an expensive restaurant, a pub or an ethnic eatery. We were there for a week and did not have a single memorable meal.
We flew over to Paris, picked up a rental car at Charles De Gaulle airport and headed for Brittany where we had rented a Gite for 2 weeks in the small village of Landudec, not far from the delightful Breton town of Quimper. We stopped for fuel at a service station on a main road heading west, and hunger drove us into the café attached. The food was wonderful. Fresh baguette with homemade preserves, yoghurts, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, spectacular cheeses served with good wine, the sort of fresh, uncomplicated food that it was obvious the British had never heard of.

The food that we found in our two weeks in Brittany was so good that we still talk about it today 30 years later. Fresh caught langoustines served with aioli, fresh bread and a crisp white wine were considered a standard lunch and the abundant lobster and seafood of all descriptions were fresh, never overcooked, plentiful and inexpensive. The odds worked in our favour wherever we went, even when back in Paris on the way home. If you found a restaurant that was full of locals, particularly workers or families, the chances were that the food would be excellent, and the menu of the day cheap and interesting.

Unfortunately things have changed.

We now live permanently in France and while you can still get good food at reasonable prices, (see Vive le French Cheap and Cheerful posted on September 9, 2010) you really have to know where to go, as the odds are stacked against you. Many eateries (I hesitate to use the word restaurants) don’t employ a chef and don’t even bother any more with actually doing any cooking, preferring instead to buy pre-prepared food from supermarkets like Carrefour and just warming it up with indiscriminate micro-waving.
The sad thing is that it appears that the French really don’t seem to care, young people being happy to grab a McDonalds on the run, and the French generally turning away from the culinary habits that made them the envy of foodies around the world.
Even the culture of home-cooking has suffered, as has how the French treat their time “a table” which has dropped from about 90 minutes per meal 25 years ago to about 40 minutes today. Unfortunate too is the fact that the French have actually embraced McDonalds with a fervour rarely seen anywhere else in the world, and once reserved only for French delicacies such as foiegras, boudin noir and escargot.

The news gets worse.

From about 200,000 cafes nationally in the early 1960s, today that number is closer to 40,000, and dropping annually, many blaming this on the cost of over-unionised, expensive staff and mind numbing, micromanaging bureaucracy as much as on the diminishing patronage from locals. The number of Brasseries and Bistros are declining in the same way. The French wine industry is struggling as locals drink less, and the French Village markets are dwindling as the French, like the Americans, now buy most of their food in Supermarkets (75% in 2010).

Bistro 1900, Paris, France; By Croquant (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

The amazing thing is that England is now a better bet for good food, and I believe that you have a significantly better chance of spontaneously stumbling across a memorable meal in London today than you do in Paris.The English seem to have been discovering the joys of the culinary world with passion and imagination, as quickly as the French are losing them. Cooking shows on TV in England have the highest of viewing audiences and cooking schools like Leiths in London have no problems filling their classes mainly with locals, whereas most of the attendees at French cooking schools are foreigners. Ethnic restaurants in London serve authentic dishes rather than bastardising them for local tastes, as for example do Indian restaurants in Paris, which add so much cream to, and remove so much spice from their dishes, as to make them unrecognisable. English Pubs serve interesting and well-cooked food with a decent selection of wine, and there is a strong re-emergence of “Cuisine Anglaise”, driven by restaurants such as St. Johns in Smithfield and Hereford Road in Notting Hill in London.

Roast bone marrow as served at Fergus Henderson's St John restaurant, London; Author: Simon Doggett; via Wikimedia Commons

The Borough Market in Southwark Street has the sort of produce, meats, food, restaurants and cafes that the declining numbers of French market goers can only dream about, and the growing number of farm shops and farmers’ markets around the English countryside (such as Daylesford) are a delight to visit.

Borough Market taken by C Ford (GFDL); via Wikimedia Commons

The world is being turned on its head when it comes to the love of good food, and the old joke of Hell having English chefs is starting to sound decidedly heavenly.


For visitors to France it can be quite exciting to visit a French supermarket, not because you will find anything different on the shelves than you would find in East Cheam or Footscray for example, but because everything will be in a foreign language, in a different and confusing layout and because shopping behaviour varies wherever you go.

By Le grand Cricri (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Globalisation has ensured that we can buy the same can of peeled tomatoes in every supermarket in the world and the difference between “tomato” and “tomate” would only fool the most dim-witted of travellers. What is different in every country is the etiquette involved once you are inside, as this does vary considerably as you cross national boundaries, and France has some unique elements of supermarket etiquette that are worth knowing. Here are some that I have found critical to understand.

1. In villages in the French countryside, the correct dress for a supermarket visit is shapeless smocks for women and bright blue overalls for men.
Berets are not mandatory but appreciated. It also helps if the smocks and overalls have never been washed since purchased a decade earlier, and carry evidence of all meals in that time.

2. Never brush your teeth or wear deodorant when going to the supermarket, but ensure that you stop a lot of people and ask directions to the cheese counter.
The French love visitors who have immersed themselves in the local culture and statistics show that the average French villager uses only one tube of toothpaste and two bars of soap annually.

3. Disregard signs that say that the special checkout lane is only for people with less than 10 articles, as this is just intended to keep out foreigners who believe what is written on signs.
There is no limit for locals, particularly those who are buying the monthly supplies for their entire village, and can’t actually see over the top of their laden trolley.

© Copyright Keith Evans (; licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

4. Always cut out all the discount vouchers in the junk mail in letterboxes that you have come across in your travels, and present all these to the checkout clerk even if they have no relevance to what you have purchased or the store that you are in at the time.
It will be easier for the checkout clerk to sort through them and hand back those that are not to her liking. Keep these for future visits.

5. Never accept that your discount vouchers are out of date.
The dates are just there to test your resolve, so you should dispute all that are rejected for being past their use by date. You should use the argument that they keep selling things that are past their use by date so why should they not accept discount vouchers that are past theirs.

6. Supermarkets prefer payment is small coins rather than notes, credit cards or cheques.
The French Government has decided that this will increase numeracy skills as you stand at the checkout and count out all your small coins. If you lose count, don’t feel bad about the queue which has built up behind you, just shrug your shoulders in the French way and start again. You will find that people behind you will offer advice in loud voices but this is just the locals encouraging you to keep improving your counting skills, so take your time and get it right.

By Olybrius (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

7. Make sure that you sign up for all supermarket loyalty cards (Carte de Fidelite) as these ensure great benefits for regular customers, and you will be given a diverse choice of rewards as thanks for your purchases.
These can include a 1 kilometre credit on any SNCF French rail trip for every € 1000 spent, or inclusion in a nationwide weekly raffle draw for a set of 6 steak knives with a serrated edge that will never need sharpening (even with French steak).

8. The speed limit in French supermarket car parks is 100 kilometres per hour and, as this is strictly policed, this limit should be observed at all times, and should only be exceeded when in active competition for the same car space with another serious contender. You may also disregard all the one way direction arrows painted on the ground.

9. The way to shop and check-out in France is changing.
The traditional method of collecting all your goods and proceeding to the checkout counter in one movement has been dying out. The new method in this electronic age is to collect half your required items and proceed to the checkout counter. Once the checkout clerk starts scanning your purchases, you are now free to make numerous forays back into the shelves for the other half of the items on your shopping list. This method is called multi-tasking and you will be admired by other customers for your modern ways.

10. There are many small supermarkets in the French countryside called “8 a huit”.
This name would suggest that they are open from 8.00 am-8.00 pm providing 12 hours of continuous daily service to the public. The reality is that the name has actually nothing at all to do with opening times, but is a reference to 7.52 pm when the owner will go to bed. Deducting lunch times, coffee breaks, closure for phone calls, running out of stock, family visits and the need to watch all interesting TV programmes they will be open roughly 12 hours in any week, but when and for how long is always at the discretion of the owner.

By Gordito1869 (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

You should also remember that the person in front of you at the check-out counter will have all the delicacies that you couldn’t find and those that you didn’t even know that the supermarket carried. Offer to help them unload their trolley, and just surreptitiously slip anything that looks good into your own.