It’s been 2 weeks now and we are surviving France. It seems a diet of Camembert, Baguette and wine is not nearly as dangerous as I thought it might be.... it’s just buying our supplies that can be difficult.
Before we left Australia, Jo and I had a crash course in French with the Ballarat chapter of Alliance Francaise. That short intense course has armed us with enough of the language to ask for the basics of life and to read signs and have at least a general idea of what they are saying. The problem comes when someone replies.
Understanding French in a small rural village is difficult at best. They speak quickly and succinctly and often we have no idea what was just said. Thankfully if people do speak English they are happy to help once they realise we are struggling. Then it’s often it’s a combination of broken English and broken French that gets us through.
Take for example my recent trip to a dentists. He was about 60 and spoke no English, I’m in my 40’s and speak very little French. So how do you tell a medical professional that you think you have a gum infection? Thanks to Marcel Marceau the world has the universal language of Mime! From those crazy hand gestures on both sides, some key words here and there and quite a lot of pointing we worked out that I did have a gum infection, that I would need Antibiotics and anti inflammatory drugs and that I needed a mouth wash.
The next challenge was the chemist, who tried to explain in English and French how many of which tablets to take when and how. The only stumbling block was when she wanted to tell me not to swallow the mouthwash. Lots more wild gesticulations ensued, the contorting of faces and words being thrown carelessly about before I realised what she wanted. “Spit?” I asked. “Ah, oui... Speet” she said nodding like we had just answered the riddle of the Sphinx.
Language is not always a barrier though. Often we need to visit a certain family restaurant for internet access. Thankfully many young people in France have learnt some English and many are very keen to practise. While we will struggle through our order in French for something simple like a soft drink or coffee and some chips to snack on, they smile back and ask “ will that be all?” in accented but very good English. We’ve been told the French like it if you at least try and that seems to be holding true for the most part.
Our only other major challenge is timing. We like to head off for a look around at about 11 O’clock. That gives us time to get up and ready ourselves and decided what to do and where to go. The problem is that many places shut down at midday and do not open again until 2pm or 2.30. The French have this idea that stopping in the middle of the day for 2 hours for lunch in the village square is somehow an acceptable practise in this modern world.
Now I think that most of us know that if asked how you are these days you are expected to reply by telling the person how busy you are, that you are flat out and have had to cancel some form of recreation you had been looking forward to. We seem to be expected to show the world that we have no time to do the things you actually would rather be doing. We appear to have a need to show that we are constantly productive. If you are not always busy you are somehow seen to be doing something wrong, or wasting time.... or perhaps just some sort of weirdo.
Well, from my observations the French are classic time wasters for 2 hours every day. They sit and eat and chat and laugh. They rest and have a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and the world doesn’t end. Their world starts up again at 2PM when the shops re-open, the cars get back on the road and life recommences until the close of business at 7PM. It’s a very civilised way of doing things and a real way of bringing towns and villages to life for two hours a day because most people head for the Cafe’s rather than their houses.
It feels like the locals are taking a big deep breath and then letting it out slowly to get ready for the rest of what’s to come on any particular day. Unfortunately I think too many of us are addicted to the idea that we have no time for life’s pleasures anymore, too many of us have been brainwashed by the political insistence of “productivity”, to ever be able to adapt to a big pause like that in the middle of the day.
Sitting in a cafe or a small bar, having a coffee or a beer or a wine, and watching the world go by for just a little while each day is something that is almost unacceptable and something we can’t bring ourselves to do these days..... all I can say from what I’ve seen here so far it’s rather nice, and I wish we’d do it a bit more.