It’s Monday morning and I’m wandering through the virtually deserted streets of the French provincial town I live in looking for a post gym pain au chocolat. Practically nothing here opens until the afternoon and I had, stupidly, forgotten that this includes my favourite boulangerie. In desperation I wander into La Croissanterie. It’s a rather bland chain but frankly I’m hungry and I figure they’re not going to screw up something so basic. I make my order and the smiling server in her pale green branded polo shirt hovers over the goods. ‘Voudriez-vous un maxi?’ she asks sweetly gesturing towards an object so huge it would totally negate the hour and a half of sweat and toil I have just submitted myself to. I’m slightly taken aback at this Gallic attempt to Supersize me and dutifully reply, ‘Non merci.’ The two young women behind me have no such qualms and order a couple of full fat cokes to accompany their mid morning goûter.
As I leave the shop with what I consider to be a normal sized pain au chocolat I wonder why I was so surprised. If eight years in France have taught me anything, it’s that our romantic ideal of the French, including their attitude to food, is totally skewered. And yet books on everything from how to decorate your house in traditional French style to how to raise your children the French way fly off the shelves. The idolisation of the French woman in particular seems to have become a major sub-genre of its own in the last few years, perpetuating the myth of the permanently chic, beautifully coiffured and, of course, thin French woman. In truth, the ideas these books are peddling are about as far removed from reality as John Major’s warm beer and Sunday cricket view of England.
According to these tomes France is a land of quaint, rustically furnished cottages or chic city apartments graced with tall, elegant windows and immaculate parquet. The women , perfectly made up and elegantly attired from dawn to dusk spend their days rearing perfectly behaved children and then cooking delectable three course meals with ingredients specially selected to make sure they never pop out of their size 36 shift dresses.
I will hold my hand up to falling for this myself. Numerous holidays spent in a series of rural gîtes whose quaintly decorated interiors I imagined being furnished from items lovingly selected by their owners from local brocantes, and where some delectable morsel of local produce was invariably left in the fridge for guests to sample had convinced me that France was indeed the promised land.
It took me about two weeks of actually living here to realise that the reality was very, very different. I shall skim over the first Christmas and New Year we spent here in rented accommodation with a broken septic tank and no power. The memories are still too painful. It was when we began house hunting in earnest that the truth really hit home.
It turns out that your average French person doesn’t really appreciate rustic charm. Most of them would rather purchase a new build on a lotissement. These predominantly square box constructions are sometimes enlivened with wooden shutters to give them a little faux rustic appeal, but more often than not are fitted with the kind of utilitarian metal pull down version which come evening can give certain areas in French villages the air of a mini industrial estate. Charming they are not.
The older houses which are on the market have often had every ounce of their original character obliterated by a series of frankly hideous modernisations. I lost count of the number of drab brown kitchens and pink bathrooms suites I viewed on line. Original features such as stone walls are frequently hidden behind plaster board, often accessorised at the corners by a kind of wooden cornicing which gives the whole place the air of having been put together from a kit. There is also an unfortunately prolific habit of covering walls in the type of wooden panelling more suited to the interior of a sauna.
Outside of the larger tourist cities this style of interior decoration frequently extends to a high percentage of the local bars and cafes as well. Our town did have one remaining zinc topped bar, complete with worn marble tables and elegantly sculptured ceramic ceiling mouldings. It was run by a charmingly idiosyncratic couple who furnished the tobacco patinated interior with a collection of bizarre memorabilia. We loved it but, as I swiftly came to realise, we were the only people under 50 who did. The vast majority of the town’s population preferred to socialise in the blandly decorated bars on the main square. When the aging patrons finally decided to call it a day they held a pavement sale to raise some funds for their retirement. As soon as the last stuffed spider had been sold and the shutters came down for the final time it was gutted and turned in to a mobile phone shop. Sadly, it was infinitely busier then than it ever had been in its days as a bar.
And it’s not just rural France which is affected by this indifference to its past. Francois Thomazeau and Sylvain Ageorges in the introduction to their lovely little book on the authentic bistros of Paris bemoan the fact that they are, ‘a species facing extinction.’ It was hard for them to find fifty true examples to fill their pages when the book came out in 2004 and since then their numbers have clearly dwindled. On a number of occasions I have turned up at the address listed to find the bar replaced with a pale pastiche of the original, so hideously renovated as to lose all trace of its original character, or, as is frequently the case, simply replaced. As Thomazeau and Ageorges say, ‘when old women retire a whole world dissolves.’ It is notable that the ones that do survive tend to be in the areas populated by tourists.
Even the traditional bistro menu, beautifully handwritten in baroque script is gradually dying out. French schools stopped teaching the style in 2002 when education minister, Jack Lang decided it was ‘time France had a clearer more businesslike handwriting for the 21st century.’ Today’s twenty and thirty somethings now predominantly use the same charmless round hand as their British counterparts. When the last old school taught waiter retires the traditionally hand-written menu will disappear for good.
I won’t deny that the food on offer in the bistros, even the renovated ones, is often exceptionally good but we tend to assume that the French eat this way all the time and that, frankly, is laughable. Visit any major supermarket and you will find turkey creations that would make Bernard Matthews blush with shame, aisles stacked with frozen pizza and an abundance of frankly hideous looking ready meals. Of course there is also a fabulous array of fresh goods and local produce is always prominently displayed, but a glance at the trolleys surrounding me in the check out queue prove that many are happy to ignore them.
The supermarket is also the perfect place to observe the average French woman. Perhaps unsurprisingly she bears little, or no, resemblance to the ‘typical’ French woman depicted by a never ending stream of Anglophone writers who rarely seem to venture out of their exclusive Parisian arondissements. Yes, there are some very elegant women, but an equal number who clearly don’t give a fig whether or not they apply lipstick simply to pop out for the weekly shop.
And yet, we still buy it. Judging by the book sales and disappointingly eulogistic comments on the book covers there are scores of, otherwise rational English women, who think that French women’s attitude to life and style is the holy grail. I was disappointed to read the witty and intelligent Jenny Colgan saying that she had no choice but to go ‘frenchy thin’ on moving over here as if you went beyond a size 12 you had to shop in plus size shops. This is simply utter tosh. Comptoir des Cotonniers, Cotelac and American Vintage all go up to a size 16. And there are plenty of women buying, and looking damn fine in, those larger sizes. True, a ‘medium’ In Maje, Sandro or Zadig et Voltaire is a size 10, rather than the 12 it would be in the UK, but these stores are the exception rather than the rule. The sizes in ba&sh are so generous I’ve even found myself having to buy a size 0.
These books are bad enough when written by English or American women, who can at least be excused, to a certain extent, for looking at things through rose tinted glasses. When they’re written by a Frenchwoman they’re unforgivable. Mireille Guiliano’s French women don’t get facelifts, supposedly a guide to aging gracefully, did at least unleash something of a backlash with several reviewers pointing out what utter rubbish it was. In the spirit of research I did attempt to read it but was so unbelievably irritated by her inane witterings that I had to strongly resist the urge to hurl it across the room. The only thing stopping me being the realisation that this would then prevent me from taking it back to the bookshop and exchanging it for something actually worth reading.
Mireille’s tips include such innovative ideas as using a cleanser instead of soap and following this with a ‘dab of moisturiser.’ Climbing stairs is apparently a perfectly adequate form of exercise, which is fortunate as most French women, whatever their age, don’t like gyms. ‘It’s cultural.’ This can only suggest that the women I see pounding the treadmill everyday are atypical, but as according to Mireille French women are notorious for not washing their hair or brushing their teeth enough I’m sure they’d be perfectly happy to be considered so.
The reviews on Amazon France are telling. Those in French say they have never met a woman like this, those in English – mostly taken from Amazon.com – are written by women whose sense of self loathing and food issues are, sadly, unlikely to be helped by a move to Paris.
So, yes we’ve got it wrong. Why then, do I still choose to live here? Well, there’s a health system so awesomely good it makes me want to cry with gratitude. I have a GP who can generally see me the day I phone to make an appointment and who always has time to talk to his patients. Train travel is a joy – clean, prompt and rarely over crowded. For the price of a single ticket from London to Norwich I can travel the comparable distance to Paris return. Property prices are generally reasonable enough to be within the reach of the majority and the rental sector is very much in the tenants favour. This makes dinner parties mercifully free of the house chat which can be so tediously ubiquitous across the channel.
And then there are the little things. The fact that coffee is almost always good and never served in a vessel the size of a bucket. Likewise wine. Order a couple of glasses in a bar and no one is going to tell you that for a few euros more you could have the whole bottle. The standard size of a glass over here is 125ml rather than the 175ml in the UK. It’s about enjoyment, not just getting plastered as swiftly as possible on cheap Chardonnay. It also appears to be enshrined in the French constitution that even the most mediocre of French towns has to have at least one, completely sublime, patisserie.
Life here may not resemble our overly romantic view of it but as long as there is one remaining zinc topped bar in Paris it looks as if I’ll be staying.