Three days into our holiday in France, and following my previous blog, one of my sisters suggested that I get off the internet and immerse myself in the rural French way of life.
This got me thinking – what is the French way of life? It is one of those things which we can all recognise in a mysterious ephemeral sort of way but struggle to explain or put down into words. Which is, of course, part of its charm.
Far better people than I have attempted to encapsulate the French laissez-faire or joie-de-vivre, and famous artists, poets and novelists have painted its nuances in shades of grey and colour. But whilst it can be described, it refuses to be defined. It just is what it is.
So all I can do is think about it in very simple terms. This morning we woke after 9 and I ambled down through the narrow streets of St Lizier to the Boulangerie. With the aid of very sketchy O-level French and pointy fingers, I procured the obligatory French baguette, two slices of pizza and a strawberry tart for Mrs B. The young shop assistant and I managed to calculate that I had enough euroes left for a bottle of Rocbere Corbieres. So that was le dejuener pretty well covered.
See you just wouldn’t do that in England. We would have stocked up our fridge and freezer with international 3-for-2 shrink-wrapped processed food at the weekend and be living off its cold contents. Of course it would be presented as delicatessen or – not just food, Marks and Spencer food. But fresh local produce it is not.
I love French towns, because they still have all of those individual shops that we learned about 30 years ago in school – la Boulangerie, la Charcuterie, la Pharmacie, la Patisserie, la Poste, L’Epiciere. I loved that there was a different word for baker and cake chop. Yes they have the Intermarche at the edge of town, but this seems to co-exist in an equitable balance. Unlike in England where the monsters of Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury have swallowed up the village shops and eviscerated our town centres. Here I was served by a smiling human being who laughed with me at our linguistic misunderstandings. In England, I am spoken to by a machine which tells me about illegal items in my bagging area.
I think the French baguette symbolises the difference perfectly. Fresh each day, locally baked and completely unwrapped. I walked back up the hill with mine tucked under one arm, the bottle of red under the other and balancing the pizza and tart in their paper bags in my right hand. No need for bags or containers. In England we think we have made progress because we now charge for plastic carrier bags. I doubt that St Lizier contains a single one. In fact I’m not sure they bother with plastic much at all.
The French seem to embrace a little bit of so-called progress when they want to, but without any great excitement or enthusiasm. And never at the expense of what really matters. Around here they drive old noisy Citroens or Peugeots. There seems little need to get a smarter, quieter, smoother car with lots of gadgets.
I have tried to put my finger on their relaxed laissez-faire demeanour. Of course, by definition, this is an impossible task. Putting your finger on anything French seems rather like grasping the wind. But this is my attempt to summarise:-
The world is naturally messy and untidy, with bits which don’t work very well or are not as well-organised as we would like them to be. This is entropy for you – left to its own devices chaos replaces order.
The Scandinavians and Germans seem to have gone a long way towards dealing with this and reversing the trend. Their streets are clean, their service slick and their technic is vorsprung. These northern-europeans are content and apparently happy in their right-angles, clean lines and order. I spend a lot of time in Denmark, and Denmark broadly works, and does so quite efficiently.
This is not the case in England or France. Our roads are winding, our streets are scruffy and imperfect, our lives are disjointed and unpredictable. The difference between us is this. We English expend huge amounts of energy trying to fight it and fix it, or to complain about it. The French (and other countries to the south) seem happy to simply accept it and live with it. Laissez-faire. Que-sera-sera.
So we English live our stressful, full-on, frenetic lives; wrestling temporary control, ploughing through our relentless emails and to-do lists. Meanwhile the French have closed their shops and their shutters and are taking an extended siesta.
So with life, so with football. The Germans are efficient, effective and clinical, playing their football with purpose and precision. The English huff-and-puff and try really hard, and when that isn’t working (as it rarely does), we try even harder. Then we complain endlessly about our own failure.
But who can forget (if you are as old as me) the beautiful French passing game of the early 1980s. Even now the names roll of the tongue as they stroked the ball across the pitch – Giress, Fernandez, Tigana, Platini. The famous midfield quartet – the Carre Magique. They didn’t kick the ball they caressed it and seduced it. So beautiful that you didn’t want them to score, because that would lose possession and break the spell. And as the commentator whispered their names, it sounded like poetry. I am sure Giress was picked for his name as much as his footballing skill. Fr all his endeavours Kevin Keegan was never going to quite hack it.
So, viva la France – with its two speeds, slow pace and medium pace. Slow enough and relaxed enough to give beauty and art room to breathe, grow and flourish. Whilst we strangle our creativity in angst and busyness, they simply shrug their shoulders, and let the world take care of itself. Art thrives on freedom not control.
The world does not need to managed as much as we believe. It requires a light touch not a heavy hand. So it is with our children, and so it is with our lives. We over-manage and over-control at our peril. First of all it won’t work – people and life are far too complex and independent to be micro-managed. Secondly we will make ourselves and others stressed and miserable by trying.
Immersing myself in the French way of life is to take time to watch, to breathe, to free myself of the clock, to ignore tasks and deadlines. To stop and notice – to appreciate beauty.
This morning it was to wander down to the boulangerie for a French baguette, admiring the cobbled streets, nodding at a woman posting a letter a la Poste, kicking an imaginary football whilst reciting poetry in my head “Giress, Fernandez, Tigana, Platini” over and over again. I think I may just be immersing, Elise.