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It’s easy to recite what I miss the most about France when I’m not there. But do you ever wonder what the French miss when they live elsewhere?
Rarely shy, generally verbal and usually even articulate, the French crave things like this when they’re not at home.
Number one on the list is bread. But not any bread. A crusty baguette with a light coating of butter is one the first things people say they have trouble finding elsewhere. They also miss flakey fresh croissants—still warm if you go early in the morning at the nearby bakery—which, if you live in Paris, is on the corner or the next corner. It’s rare that small villages in La France profonde don’t have at least one boulangerie, if not two. Consumers tend to be faithful to theirs unless it’s closed, in which case people will patronize the nearest one open and return to their favorite the following day because a day without bread is incomplete. It’s not unusual to hear people debating about which bakery is the best and rarely is there consensus.
Waiting in line for their daily bread. Photo ©malias
Bakeries also are dessert central; and pastries and cakes tend to be an art form. Most ordinary bakeries can turn out extraordinary pastry, but the French don’t skimp on special occasions and head to Gérard Mulot or any of the dozens of other designer pâtisseries that showcase and sell edible creations admired (often at great length) before being eaten. Considering the price tags on some, you’re buying an aesthetic experience in addition to something that will make you think you’ve died and gone to gastronomic heaven.
You’d think France is all about food. Well, it kind of is. The French, almost as if they were a Greek chorus, chant about meals enjoyed with friends and family that last for hours and hours. Not every dinner, to be sure, because working people usually take abbreviated ones during the week and pack it in at lunchtime, especially if they have un chèque resto to subsidize the meal. But, lunches and dinners, however ample, are not heavy—unlike the U.S. where, some French friends said after touring a few of the Southern states, “Beginning at noon, America smells like grease.” For the French, meals are a pivotal part of their lives, worth taking the time, and many will tell you that cheese and wonderful moderately priced wines are two of the things they miss the most when not in France.
They also miss the conversations, the friendships, the joie de vivre and the time and trouble people take to make tables look inviting. You’ll rarely go to someone’s house for dinner without finding they’ve made an effort to set an inviting tables. Flowers and candles are the norm and even if the meal isn’t fancy, forget its being served in a baking dish straight from the oven. That would be considered very bad form. Ditto for paper napkins unless it’s a crowd… and even then.
Louvre seen from Tuileries. Photo ©specklet
Everyone appears to miss the Louvre and the ubiquitous museums found in France, which may be a reason museum attendance was up 5% in 2011. The French were born being exposed to culture and history and it’s an intrinsic part of their upbringing and not something that was forced on them in Art 101.
French men miss French women and how they dress. Jean-Paul said that in his Chicago office, it’s as if women are afraid to show their femininity. French women say that they lose some of their sense of style when living elsewhere and are amazed that women wear the same clothes to work and then out to a (non-business) dinner. Marie said, “We’d never do that in France since it shows a lack of caring and respect for the host and hostess.” That may be a bit extreme but everyone’s entitled to an opinion.
Another gripe the French have is about the lack of politesse in places outside of France. No “Bonjour, madame” or “Merci, madame” when patronizing stores. It’s as if people don’t have time to be civilized to one another (or simply acknowledge the existence of others) and they treat sales help as if they’re not people.
Window shopping in Paris. Photo ©linda6769
Other gripes: a dearth of flower stores, the rarity of small pharmacies where the pharmacist knows your medical history and what ails you and who actually takes an interest in your health, and the apparent scarcity of podiatrists office which can be found in store-fronts about one to the block in Paris.
Many French head to les grands magasins (department stores) but the ones who are boutique addicts miss their boutiques because they prefer not to be anonymous. They’ll make exceptions during sale periods and if you’re in Bloomingdales, don’t be surprised if you hear French be spoken by shoppers on a mission to save big bucks because of the ongoing sales, which isn’t the norm in France.
But what many French miss the most is the architecture that’s found at home, the country’s infrastructure of high-speed trains and network of well-maintained highways that link neighboring countries as well as places in France. Even smaller roads are constantly being upgraded. Parisian native Jean Jacques remarked that on his overseas assignments he misses the landscapes, the mountains and the diversity found in France plus how quickly he can get to other places. In the U.S. and Asia, Jean Jacques says it’s an effort to get to totally new environments in just an hour.
It seems to come down to the art of living and Francophiles, no matter their nationality, seem to agree. Do you?
Karen Fawcett is the publisher of BonjourParis in year 20-something of her love affair with France. If there’s another online publisher who has devoted decades to sharing information about France, we’ve yet to find them. To read any of her hundreds of columns, just click on her name.
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