If I were to recommend an autobiographical romp through the delights of a foreigner’s life in Provence, it would be Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and its’ sequels – especially if you have a penchant for French gastronomy and beverages. He sensually describes meal after meal and course after course, both in 4* restaurants and farmers’ kitchens, in his beloved region, the Luberon. It is warm, engaging, wonderfully witty and has the best advice I have read on finding the elusive, extravagant, truffle!
Provence has not only lured artists from the north for over a century, but has also been the dream vacation or early-retirement destination of hoards of northern Europeans. It was to this sun-soaked region that I left my clammy homeland for my first overseas vacation at the age of 11, and even then, I felt I had been transported somewhere as magical as Narnia. My memorable first sensation was the song of the cicada, which immediately tips the listener off to the climate into which they have just entered. Their happy habitat temperature (and mine too) is around 30°C (mid 80’s F) and their chorus at our typical French picnic of baguette, pâté and brie, wordlessly confirmed to me that I had crossed that invisible line and I was now in the South; that mystical place of bleached, sun-dried, parched yellow vegetation that even to my young mind indicated cloudless, sultry, hot, endless summer days, in stark, blissful contrast to my homeland. Provence has some lush river valleys and its Gorge du Verdon is a scaled-down rival to the Grand Canyon, but my early impressions were SUN in intensity and duration, which probably ensured my initial emigration fantasies. That first summer was filled with: Orangina (a foreign delight after our weekly Friday-night lemonade treat back home), hours of outdoor swimming, first stilted attempts in a foreign language to acquire the daily croissants, Carpentras (the largest market in France and from which I bought a belt that I wear to this day! Yes, was an early developer!), berry-brown skin(think I must have some southern European ancestry), Roméo et Juliette in the Roman Amphitheatre in Orange, and my first love affair with a foreign country and people.
If you have never visited France before, Nice would not be my first recommendation to you, nor would Paris, I would have to say go immerse yourself in the provincial life of Provence for a week or two, and even 35 years after my personal initial impressions, I believe you too will return with a sense of mystical wonder at a truly French experience.
Queue Jumping is a national sport in France.
In France queuing is considered a quaint, antiquated custom for people out of touch with the rush of normal daily life. After years of learning how to form an orderly queue as a child, leaving appropriate personal space for those in front and behind me, on settling in Nice my Anglo-Saxon niceties were swiftly battered by baguette-wielding little old ladies who would ruthlessly push their way past to the front of the queue. Queue jumping is practiced on a national scale, indiscriminately, uninfluenced by gender, generation or social standing. Indeed some of the worst offenders are the smartest, most elegantly dressed, d’un certain age, in town – and they are completely unapologetic, turning on their most disarming smiles and quickly turning away from me before I have chance to react.
While it still irks my Anglo-Saxon spirit, the French react either with mild indifference to queue-breakers, or occasionally with some entertaining vocal and physical counter jostling!
The supermarket offers a different version of the queue. People still push in, but they ask as they sidle past you, waving their few items in your face and asserting they are late for a Dr’s appointment/have to get back to work before the boss/are triple parked/pregnant by six days (the reasons are often pretty creative). Before you know it, six people have gathered round you, clutching their two items and gesticulating pointedly at your full trolley – thank goodness 24/7 doesn’t exist and most places shut by 19.30, otherwise late-night shopping would be your lot.
Though a somewhat heavy topic, I wanted to include this, not to offer an opinion, but simply because it is in stark contrast to the approach of many nations. A historically Catholic country, visible architecturally throughout the nation, France no longer recognizes a state religion and “ensures” the freedom to practice or not practice Catholicism and other religions in its Constitution.
Catholicism was the state religion of France until the French Revolution and French Protestants saw some truly bloody persecution under this strongly catholic state.
One of the most important concepts in understanding the evolution of religion and religious practice in France is laïcité, which is translated variously as laity or secularism, but which ultimately refers to the ideal of a society in which religion and the state operate in different spheres without influencing each other. 200+ years of secularization has not, however, eradicated a catholic morality so easily. At the same time my experience is that superstition and belief in astrology and mediums, for example, is very pervasive. I am asked my star sign here, with accompanying comments, far more often than I have ever been asked if I am Catholic, and have had several people offer to read the cards (Tarot) for me.
The secularization of France is considered by most of the French population to be a cornerstone national value. The French were among the first to separate education and religion and value strongly the non-interference of religion with state and of state with religion.
French law also makes a clear distinction between religion (such as Catholicism, Judaism or Islam) and “sects,” which include, under French law, bodies like the Church of Scientology, JWs, and even some smaller protestant groups – many of whom have come under judicial attack in France over the past 20-30 years.
You will all have read also that as of April 11th a new law took effect, specifically aimed at Muslim women, banning garments that hide the face. Women who disobey it risk a fine, special classes and a police record. To date I have not seen this law being enforced in Nice and it has provoked quite a polemic in the nation.