First Impressions of France

We have struggled with a very poor, or non-existent, internet connection for several months, but Orange finally connected fibre optic cable last weekend. It’s much faster, and we hope it will prove more reliable than the creaky old telephone network. I meant to publish this post 10 days ago, since that weekend marked 25 years since we moved into our house here. Prior to fibre, the technical difficulties were too great; post-fibre, I have been catching up.  

I have already recounted how we found our house here and our first experiences. The links are at the bottom, if you want to know more.

Today, I’m moving back well before 1997 to my first impressions of France. Like all places, it has changed enormously since then as has my perspective. I would love to know your first impressions and experiences of France, too. Please do share them with us below.

River rats

My family visited France several times during the 1960s. This was the era of les Trentes Glorieuses, from 1946 until the mid-1970s, when France enjoyed exceptional economic and industrial growth. Employment and the standard of living increased, but so did social and political unrest. Not everyone benefited from les Trentes Glorieuses.  

My father was a sun-lover, and so we usually headed for the Côte d’Azur, where he liked nothing better than to stretch out on a beach, which were emptier then. However, my first solid impressions are of Paris, but not because of the usual tourist attractions.

An older cousin and her husband, who both worked in Paris, lived on a boat moored on the Seine by le Pont Alexandre III, in the centre of the city. We visited them, but we stayed in a hotel, since the boat was too small.

We must have seen the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre and all that. But my abiding memory is of the River Seine. Centuries of use as a highway and a repository for industrial and human waste had polluted the river to the point in 1960 where it was officially declared dead. The water quality has improved significantly since then.

The Seine with le Grand Palais in the distance

Every time a tourist bateau-mouche went past, the wash violently rocked my cousin’s small boat. If you were on deck, you hung on tight for fear of falling into the polluted water.        

My cousin’s younger sister and I amused ourselves on deck by watching the flotsam sail past on the river. This included a remarkable number of dead rats. We eagerly regaled the adults, who were trying to enjoy a civilised apéritif, with vivid descriptions of the drowned rats’ appearance.

Not like England

My recollections of other parts of France have fused into a composite picture of a country that was not at all like England, even though it was only 30 miles across the Channel.

For starters, it was big. The road network was much less developed than it is today. The roads were refreshingly free of traffic, but it took a long time to get anywhere. In country areas, farm carts and ancient vans meandered along sedately. Despite economic growth, by no means every farmer had a tractor. Our friend Claude tells us his parents still ploughed with oxen into the 1960s.

You still saw a few of these around in the 1960s

The villages we drove through often looked deserted and a bit run down. The shutters were closed, and the streets were empty of people or animals, except for the occasional dog lying in the middle of the road. However, the simple explanation is that people were taking refuge indoors from the summer heat.

France sounded different. People spoke gibberish at breakneck speed with a completely different rhythm and timbre to English. (It was much later I learned that language is a barrier only if we make it so.) Background music in cafés was a mixture of accordion, plaintive Piaf or Gilbert Bécaud ballads or yé-yé pop. Even the constant refrain of police sirens in Paris played to a different key.   

France smelled different, too. Down in Provence, it was a mixture of sun-baked earth, pine resin and brine. Further North, it was the tang of woodsmoke and garlic as people’s lunch cooked. The odour of dubious drains was pervasive, as was the pungent Gauloise smoke that turned the air blue in the cafés.  

French food was one of the biggest revelations – and for me, as a picky eater then, a torment. The tiniest villages had a restaurant or a café that served food. This was long before the days of a menu enfant, so everyone ate what there was. What, no fish fingers or tomato ketchup? Underdone beef and no Yorkshire pudding and gravy? The potatoes or vegetables often came as a separate course. France must have been a vegetarian’s nightmare. Women rarely ate or drank in cafés alone, at least in rural areas.

Aligot with Toulouse sausage. Not like the sausage and mash we ate at home.

I was struck by how formal people were. Everybody shook hands. A young man stopped in front of me while I was coming back from the loo in a Loire restaurant, said something unintelligible and held out his hand. Bemused, I explained in halting French that I didn’t speak French. He grabbed my hand and shook it. I got a ticking off from my cousin’s husband for not sufficiently appreciating this friendly gesture.

Les toilettes

Speaking of loos, that abomination “à la Turque”, i.e. a hole in the ground, was still the predominant form of convenience in rural cafés. This particular form of torture has its advocates, I know, but I have always had an aversion to it.

As a Brit, I was shocked but fascinated by the frequent sight of men peeing beside their vehicles at the roadside. Before the advent of inside lavatories, everyone just went outside. This was probably the same in rural England. Jean-Claude Carrière, writer and film director, grew up in a Languedoc village in the 1930s. He recounts in his memoir, Le Vin Bourru, how his grandmother would simply wee wherever she was outside, concealed by her long skirts.      

Parts of rural France didn’t change much between the 1930s and the 1960s.

I was less than ten years old when we first visited, and these might sound like unpromising beginnings. Even then, though, France, for all its strangeness, exerted a kind of fascination that increased as we took holidays here in the early 1990s. Then I had a clearer appreciation of what the country has to offer. But it was not until we moved here that I discovered French literature, history and culture and learned the language properly.

So merci, France, for broadening my horizons and allowing my life to take a turn that I never expected. And merci, les Français, for accepting us with such good grace in your country.

What are your first memories of France (good and/or bad)?

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20 comments

  1. At sixteen years old I went on a school trip in the Easter holidays to a chalet campsite between Sainte Maxine and St Tropez. Port Grimaud has since been built just along from where we were. Strongest impressions were the almost black coffee served for breakfast, with a slice of baguette, butter and apricot jam. Eaten with the smell of pine trees and the sound of the Mediterranean. I fell in love with France right then!
    We went back a few years ago in September and it is hideous now by comparison. But I still love France which was part of the reason for first buying a holiday home and then retiring here. I still adore French vanilla ice cream, nothing like the UK one growing up and Orangina in a glass bottle after a walk on a hot day. Our boys sighed at yet another holiday camping in France as teenagers (we could only afford day trips when they were younger) but now love coming over to stay in our rural idyll. We’ve just spent a week in the Creuse which we only knew from passing on the A20. A beautiful area. So much to explore still… 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for sharing these memories with us. I’ve never liked strong black coffee, but I do vividly recall the scent of pine trees and sun-baked soil on the Riviera. That part of France has, unfortunately, been ruined by tourism, although parts of the littoral are still beautiful. The French ice cream was so different from our staple, Wall’s Ice Cream!

      My husband lived in Limoges in the late 1970s and visited the Creuse a few times. Things had barely changed in some villages for years, with elderly ladies still wearing black dresses and a coiffe over their hair, as in fact they did down here into the 1960s, I’m told. We know so little of France, really. As you say, so much to explore.

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  2. First impressions from a visit in 1960:

    1. The food: first evening, in what the Americans call a ‘greasy spoon’ – omelette aux champignons and pommes frites. A revelation when compared with British food as it then was.

    2. French beer: light and chilled. I never cared for British beer – warm and too heavy. I recall one of the brands – La Slavia.

    3. The blueness of the Mediterranean.

    4. The dry heat of the Cote d’Azur.

    5. A negative: With just one exception at Frejus, the auberges de jeunesse were pretty decrepit. My friend and I were often the only ones staying – little wonder.

    6. Easy to hitchhike, which was a wonderful way to meet people.

    7. Wooden seats in the third class compartments of local trains.

    8. The marvelous bread.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing this with us, Kevin. I recall some of this from the piece you sent me. France seemed so different, didn’t it? Especially in the South, but everywhere really.

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      • Also: being able to eat and drink outdoors, and without licensing laws. 2CVs. Algerie francaise posters. ‘A la Turque’ was still surviving 10 years ago in a bistrot in the 6e. However, I have not seen a pissoir in simply ages.

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        • The à la Turque is still manufactured, I understand. The old style vespasiennes, on the other hand, have virtually all disappeared, having been replaced by more modern facilities. I think there is only one left in Paris.

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  3. Thank you for your posts Vanessa. Always interesting. I first visited France in the late 50s so I was quite young. I don’t remember much but a few things stayed with me. Some you have mentioned – the horses pulling ploughs when I had only seen tractors and the awful loos. I also remember sitting in cafes watching a still picture on the television waiting for something to start. They seemed to keep to no schedule. I was also struck by storks’ nests atop many a chimney and was fascinated by a huge advert covering the whole of wall of many houses we passed: Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet.

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    • Thank you for the kind words and for sharing your impressions with us. It’s always fascinating to hear other people’s experiences. I’ve never seen the storks’ nests in our region, so I guess you must have been Northern or Eastern France. I love those old drinks adverts painted on walls. They are becoming fewer now, sadly.

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  4. Vanessa, there is still a lot we have not seen, especially in northern France. We really enjoy southern France, especially the south west, and Burgundy. When planning, it is difficult to decide whether to include more in the north or just to go where we really like. That is what we are doing next year. More in the south west, a couple of new areas in the middle and finishing in Burgundy.

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    • When we came here on holiday, we were always torn between going back to places we liked or visiting new ones. We tended to end up either in the Auvergne or in the Dordogne/Lot. We once planned to go to Alsace, but the weather was so dreadful that we continued southwards. So we still haven’t been there. What you are going to do sounds a good plan.

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  5. Our first visit to France was in 2004. We were in the UK for our eldest son’ s wedding. They were heading off to Europe to drive around for a few weeks and persuaded us to go with them for four days before we flew home to Australia. We stayed in a holiday rental in Dinan in Brittany and were were just amazed at how old everything was compared to home, the buildings were different, the food was familiar but different enough to be exciting. We watched workmen laying slate tiles on the roof opposite. No slate tiles here.

    I remember on the first day venturing into a boulangerie and asking for pain au raisin in schoolgirl French and actually being understood!!! This short stay was all it took for us to be charmed by France. On the flight home we looked at each other and decided we would return, which we did eighteen months later in 2006. We have now spent fifty six weeks in France with only one in Paris and the rest in country France, and another ten weeks planned for next year. we always thank our son and his wife for encouraging us to go with them. I do not know whether we would have done it otherwise.

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    • Thank you for telling us about your first experience of France. It’s often the small things one remembers, isn’t it? In your case the workmen laying slate tiles and your successfully ordering in the boulangerie. They keep the places alive in the memory. Although I’ve never been to Australia, I can imagine that France must have seemed like another planet. You were obviously bitten by the France bug. There’s so much to see and do outside Paris, but many people’s experience is only of the capital. Is there any part of France you haven’t visited in your 56 weeks? Ten weeks next year will be terrific.

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  6. Bonjour Vanessa, at last we can come to our favourite region in France. During La Crise Sanitaire we were confined to a 2 km radius from our home in Ireland! It’s market day in Villefranche de Rouergue tomorrow and we will be looking out for any closures of the small shops around the square, hopefully small shops have survived.
    I first went to France aged 15 on an exchange visit with a pen friend called Françoise who lived near Lille. I remember the toilet being outside in a shed. My enquiry as to where was the light switch was greeted with a Gallic shrug – il n’y a pas une lumière!! My second visit was to my godfather who was something big in the foreign office and lived in a very ‘up market’ arrondissement in Paris. My room had a view of the Tour Eiffel and I had my own bathroom! Godfather had a country retreat in the Loire Valley and I learned more French from a neighbour’s small boy than I did at school. My honeymoon , years later was spent in Paris. While we lived in The Netherlands it was very easy to drive into France and we spent most school holidays exploring the East side of France. I love French food and the countryside. I admire the French attitude to all things cultural and historic. I like to speak French. Coming from Ireland, I find it strange not to greet people one meets in the country although over the years this is getting better. French love of bureaucracy would drive one to more Pastis than is good for one, as our son has experienced. He lives in Rouen. The lack of chargers for electric cars in and around rural France is a problem for us; the App tells us there is one in a certain location and we go there only to find it is so hidden we drive around for ages getting more and more frustrated. Mais, j’adore le France en dépit de ces petites choses!

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    • I’m pleased for you that you’ve been able to get back here at last. September is a good time, since the tourist hordes have largely gone, but lots of things are still open. I think you’ll notice some changes in Villefranche. How long are you staying?

      Thank you for sharing your first experiences of France with us. Staying with French people must be the best way to learn about the country, even if the loo is outside! And how lucky you were to have a Paris-based godfather.

      Many villages do have electric car chargers now but maybe not the smaller ones.

      Enjoy your stay.

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      • We are staying 2 weeks here in The Aveyron region then going back to Dunkirk via Rouen. There is a new ferry going to Rosslaire in Ireland from Dunkirk which is very comfortable. It takes 24 hrs but cabins are included in the price as are all meals. We treat it like a mini cruise. We loved seeing the market again this morning. The second hand book shop on Rue de Senechal is still trading, always a joy to browse there. The new fish shop on Rue de la Republic looks very interesting. Glad to see the lovely craft shop that used to be on this street has moved to a bigger and better premises. Had lunch in Bach at Auberge Lou Bourdie. Wonderful country food and so reasonably priced.

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        • Have a lovely time. Some of the shops have managed to hang on, including the fish shop, which opened about 3 years ago. The auberge in Bach is great, although Monique Valette herself has retired now. It has retained its authenticity.

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  7. Always fascinating. We didn’t visit France until early this century and we mostly enjoyed the rural south and east. Walking in the hills and mountains, blessed by weather we could only dream of in Shropshire, drew us back most years until we moved full time in 2010. The overwhelming recollection from our entire time must be the tranquility, the lack of traffic, the fauna & flora, the stunning scenery and the architectural delights of the villages.

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    • France gets under your skin somehow when you come on holiday here, although, as we know, living here is a bit different. All those things you mention are the things we love about our region. When I was much younger, I had little appreciation of them. Much too young then, I guess.

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