Anglo-French history goes back a long way, but even though the two countries are geographically separated only by the English Channel, their cultural differences are many.
Our guest author, Danny Newman, from Coddiwomp, elaborates.
For a thousand years, the British and the French have been embedded in a nuanced and tumultuous relationship. It’s been a millennia-old, TV-worthy drama of war, conflict, peace, marriage and monarchy.
And over that time something of a rivalry has formed between the two countries.
We call them frogs, they call us roast beef. We like our monarchy, they didn’t like theirs. We beat them in rugby, they beat us in football. They have awesome weather, we…don’t.
I’m joking, of course…sort of.
Though it’s true that there is an ongoing joke between the two nations, and an evident friendly rivalry at times (usually on sporting occasions), generally speaking it is only a half-baked relic of a bygone era.
And I should know! My girlfriend is French. We met a few years ago in New Zealand on our respective gap years and with the help of modern technology and cheap airlines, we’ve kept it going to this day.
It doesn’t, of course, matter that I’m from England and she’s from France. In fact, the supposed rivalry that’s meant to exist between us is nothing more than a slightly amusing point of banter that crops up occasionally in conversation.
For me, what’s been far more evident, and interesting, are the many differences that exist between the countries. Honestly, for places so close together geographically, at times they have felt a world apart culturally.
It is fascinating to travel a few short hours and find yourself somewhere so remarkably different; amazing and discombobulating in equal measure.
Having now spent a reasonable amount of time getting to know France that little bit better, here are five reflections I have on France’s language, food and culture that have stood out to me over the last few years.
1) The French language is beautiful, melodic, sonorous…and really difficult to learn.
I love hearing people speak French. It is just such a lovely language to listen to: poetic, melodic, rhythmic and descriptive. But, despite learning French at school for a few years, I have found it insanely difficult to pick up as a second language!
Words seem to blend in conversation, conjugations are complex and numerous, there’s a gender to every noun and more tenses than you can imagine. Then there is the dreaded ‘r’ sound that is so ridiculously hard to pronounce- like trying to clear some obstruction from that back of your throat. Learning the language hasn’t been easy for this linguistically challenged English person!
Some things don’t translate very well either. For instance, in English we say we’re excited all the time, right? Well, in France to say you’re excited apparently has a distinct, sexual connotation.
Unfortunately it took me a long time to realize this.
I dread to think what my girlfriend’s Dad thought of me when I first met him- it was my first time in the South of France for years…I was excited all the damn time.
2) Liberty, Fraternity and Equality run deep.
These are the three pillars of the French culture and they seem deeply embedded in their mindset. In France, social action, demonstrations and strikes are far more common than they are in England and I wonder how much this has to do with these three foundations of their society.
Of course, there’s a longstanding precedent here that stretches back to the French revolution: an abhorrence of unfair societal rules and regulations seems to exist that causes people to stand up and shout out whenever hands are felt to be unfairly forced by those in authority.
People rise up and make their voices heard in France in a way that we don’t seem to in England.
3) The French seem to have their work life balance the right way around.
Everything shuts in France. Like, all the time. Shops, bakeries, small businesses…you name it, wander around town in the early afternoon and it feels like not a single place is open for your custom. Every afternoon people shut up shop for their daily ‘sieste’, or post-lunch nap.
The first time I came across this I was amazed- how do they make any money?! In England nothing shuts, ever. Wander around London at 1pm and everything is absolutely heaving with life and activity. At the same time in France, they’re taking a break from the day. There’s also far more public holidays and school kids go home on Wednesday afternoons.
It’s awesome, really. I think there’s even a law that restricts the amount of time you can work each week. When it comes to work-life balance, where would you rather be?! In my humble opinion France has it the right way round.
4) Food is a big thing in France. Cheese is an even bigger thing.
This one can’t be overstated enough: food is a big deal for French people. It is a statistical fact that nine conversations out of ten refer in some way to food.
So that was a lie. But it can definitely feel that way.
Food seems to be a point of real pride and people come together around it. Apparently every place in France is known for its own dish. Meals are critiqued around the dinner table as standard practice. Discerning palates are developed from an early age- what’s missing, what’s needed, what flavours are working well, what ingredients were used?
And to be fair to the French, the food is awesome. From the bread and pastries, to the fresh, local produce, everything seems to taste that bit better there.
And the cheese, well that’s another story altogether. Cheese of all shapes, sizes, textures and smells are absolutely everywhere in France. My girlfriend and her friend once named 50 different varieties as part of a mealtime conversation. Apparently there are far more as well…I can name about four.
People don’t just know the names of the cheeses, they know the names of the types of cow that make the cheese; they know the region of France from where it comes from and have particular recipes that explicitly require certain types.
Fromage and France simply go hand in hand.
5) France is far more than Paris.
Call me an ignorant Englishman, but before I met my girlfriend I used to think France was pretty much Paris and nothing else (apart from the Alps, maybe, at a push).
It turns out that France is really quite big.
There’s a huge amount of diversity there, not just in terms of people, but landscapes too and it is absolutely beautiful all around the country. Everywhere is known for something unique: there are oceans, mountains, hills and valleys, as well as busy, built up metropolitan city life. There’s surfing, vineyards, wide open expanses of space and tiny towns of classic, continental architecture.
There’s history and intrigue around every corner, not to mention the most outstanding areas of natural beauty.
It has been exceptionally fun and enlightening to explore more of France and get a better idea of what it is really all about.
To conclude, France is one almightily awesome country. It is proud, historic, passionate and downright beautiful. As an Englishman getting to know it, I have loved testing my assumptions, challenging the French stereotypes I’ve been brought up on, learning about its culture and exploring all it has to offer.
France is undeniably and altogether different to England. And it is fantastic for it.
For a related piece, check out my post on how much it costs to travel around Europe.
Danny Newman is a travel enthusiast with a passion for writing and inspiring others to live fully. He runs a travel blog called Coddiwomp, which is dedicated to helping aspiring travellers travel for the first time. For Danny, the essence of travel is found in the feeling it elicits. He wants to inspire and support as many people as possible to experience this ‘travel feeling’. You can find him on Facebook @coddiwomp and Instagram @coddi_womp.