Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Education

France continues to confound, amuse, occasionally delight and frequently drive me nuts. I guess you could call it boot camp, for what I'm not exactly sure. It turns every assumption about the civilized world upside down - I used to think I was kind of cynical and worldly but I look back on those days of dewy innocence with a mixture of embarrassment and wonder. Four years in this place will do that to a person.

I remember how a few French words thrown together on a sign above a sandwich shop - Au Bon Pain - could add a touch of glamour and quality to a bagel in midtown or a cup of soup at a rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike. Just by association - "hey, it's French, it must have that something extra." I never thought I'd be in France wishing I could get anything as decent as an Au Bon Pain Chicken Caesar sandwich for lunch but that is the frequent reality here.

Today I was all excited because I finally visited a Leroy Merlin store and it was a lot closer to what I'd expected of France: style, color, pizazz. The main color, in addition to the bold black and white graphics on the outside of the store, was that "Play Misty For Me" late 60's/early 70's bright green that I love. The clerks were wearing tattersal-check shirts white with green, everything looking very smart. The prices were reasonable, the kitchen and bath displays weren't completely hideous, even the colors on the rows of paint cans had the depth and intensity of the vintage French fashion magazines I flipped for back at art school in the 70s.

The place had sprung up outside of Limoges in the last few months, alongside some other mall-type stores. Driving into the complex, we'd passed something called Cafe Madeline. A cafe, one would assume. It was next to a McDonald's.

"Why don't we go over there and have a coffee?" Eric said, after we'd bought some paint. We've been fixing the house up to make it more salable as it's dawned on us we can't make a living here without traveling at least twelve hours away.

"Isn't this civilized!" I said. "I mean, I know it's a mall but at least we can get what we need, have a snack and go home, without actually having to go into Limoges." A trip there usually leaves one or both of us deeply depressed or traumatized.

It wasn't looking good as I opened the door of Cafe Madeline. Where was the coffee bar part of the cafe, the one with the espresso machine? All I could see was a mall attempt at a fine dining experience - the decor was photographic murals of people eating in restaurants.

"Can we just get some coffee?" I asked the hostess who greeted us with menus in hand.

"No, it's a restaurant - for coffee, there's the McDo (Mac-Dough)." She gestured next door.

"But it says `cafe'!" Eric said. "We're in France, and you're sending us to a McDonald's for the coffee?" She looked bewildered so we left.

Emmanuel brought oysters fresh from Bretagne over last night. That was delightful. The crisp fall weather with bright blue sky is perfect. Recording is good, and writing. As long as I stay out of the stores, restaurants, garages, insurance offices, "cafes", Limoges - I'll be fine.

Oh and the library's okay - I like the library.


the fly in the web said...

I feel a good slogan for France would be

'It's France...but not as we know it...'

Mike said...

Too strange.

amy said...

To dream Fly, I still want to dream. It's not just strangers who are disappointed around here - witness the huge demonstrations. Cutting every corner to stay afloat has much to do with the decline of food and life here .I think the mentality in France almost forbids the type of hustle it requires to keep going in this economy...not saying there's not a willingness to work because I've never seen people who work harder, cleaning and gardening from morning til night. But looking around for different ways of doing things, instead of just giving up. It is depressing the hell out of me. I should have added that we would have gladly driven to get coffee in a non-mall cafe, but the ones along the (30 km) route serve a) instant w/water heated in a microwave or b) are so miserable they will barely serve customers they aren't related to. The one up the road is nice, decent coffee but how many times a week can you go to the same cafe?

It could be a country mentality Mike, for sure things are more vibrant in and around the bigger cities.

the fly in the web said...

It certainly hasn't improved over the years I've been here.
The old codgers I knew had been through the war, would try to make things work, and hadn't been cushioned by a grant for everything that moves.
You had to be careful to avoid the cafes that did robusta and chicory masquerading as coffee, but there were plenty of good ones.
You've hit the nail on the head...the beating down of all individuality and initiative bears its unlovely fruits when times are hard and people have lost the ability to innovate.

We used to hear about 'system D' the whole time twenty years ago.
doesn't exist now, either in fact or in public consciousness.
I'm not sorry to be leaving France.

Richard said...

When I teach a short University course north of Paris, I always find the international students forming groups without any French students. The latter have a bad reputation.

amy said...

I had to look that up Fly, system D - from what I've seen a lot of that still goes on, people finding ways around the system (if I'm understanding the concept correctly),but it seems to be an expected part of the way things work after a while - an example might be Fete de la Musique which started out as contre the system but is now a highly controlled, pre-programmed day for bars to sell more beer.

Richard I find that sad - the French people I know are charming and kind, it's the very specific language and social code that can be like a straighjacket. And a government that encourages fear of outsiders doesn't help.

the fly in the web said...

Yes, you're right...but it used to be semi official and now it's firmly under the radar

Anonymous said...

France is okay but head to Italy for divine food!

amy said...

Lovely simple ingredients and cooking methods, I agree. But from what I hear the countryside is even emptier than France - so, perfect for a holiday only. If we ever take one again, I'd love to go (spent a few days in Venice a couple years back, though the best food was in the village we stayed in outside of the city)

Katherine said...

When I look at how mean-spirited things in the U.S. have gotten, I still imagine a kinder, gentler life in Europe. Sounds like that's gone or never existed. I guess the grass is always greener...

amy said...

It's a privilege to be able to make comparisons firsthand, Katherine. I have to remember that when I get desperately homesick. I know the loonies are out in full force in the US but being in another country at a time like this is like being on a random sinking ship while you watch the one with many of the people/things you love and care about going down at a distance - which sinking ship do you want to be on? Which one would you maybe, maybe be able to contribute to in some small way - in a way that would make sense?
I don't know, just things I think about when I'm trying to find a bakery that's open...

Mark In Mayenne said...

Hi Amy, I also am disappointed by the food here. Before moving here, my experience of French food had been universally excellent, and there are certainly still some very fine restaurants around.

But flying into Southampton airport earlier this year, in the airport snack bar, I commented with another ex-pat friend, how you would never be able to find such quality and variety of food anywhere in France. And the difference was not small. Southampton as a town is perhaps 20% larger than Rennes in terms of population but Rennes airport is depressing by comparison. Southampton's is lively, bustling, commercial, enterprising. Rennes' is not.

I think it's a bit like the NHS was in the UK "The envy of the world" according to politicians, until someone actually published comparative stats on death rates from cancer, with countries like the USA and France. In France they think that French food and wine is the best in the world (which in some ways it can be) but they simply do not comprehend when I try to explain how the eating out experience in England is so much better, because there is the very best of the entire world's cuisine to be had. And that the supermarkets devote perhaps 20% of their wine section to French wines, while those of other nations take the rest of the space.

The fact that a restaurant can't serve you a morning coffee (even if they wanted to) is a product of the over-regulation that is stifling France. I first experienced exactly that problem, in a fabulous restaurant in Le Mans.

I agree with you, I do like Leroy Merlin. They understand customer service, have good shops with good stocks and their returns policy is good, and works. They were my second home when I was renovating here, and I still go there a lot for all sorts of things.

I think your analogy of which sinking ship to choose is a good one. Me, I'm just enjoying living in a peaceful quiet corner, something I'd not be able to do in England since nowhere is free of traffic noise. I enjoy what I can, and if I miss a decent curry, Chinese, Thai, or whatever, I have another thing to look forward to on the occasional trip back to England.

amy said...

Thanks for your comment Mark, and it was interesting to see what you're up to in your corner of France - I hate to sound so negative all the time because i can see it is possible to have a good quality of life (lots of space, nice clean air and countryside, no traffic) if you can navigate the bureaucracy. And are able to make a living and can entertain yourself - and can go with and adapt to the way things are done, and not expect people to change their ideas of what is possible. I love visiting the UK but could not afford to live there and when we're there we spend an awful lot of time sitting in traffic.

Where is the incentive for people to improve the quality of the food and service here in France? Just today when buying a coffee in a cafe we heard the bartender thank someone "and Sarkozy thanks you for his part". It's usually outsiders who will take a chance...the majority of people seem beaten down and won't vary from "the rules" - at first it was charming and I had to marvel at the absolute certainty of when to eat this and when to drink that but after a while...meh. Who cares? At the same time businesses are having more and more reason to be scared, with gendarmes showing up demanding to see that all paperwork etc is in order. But you knew all that already. I just liked seeing the nice photos and positive spirit on your blog!
and PS re Leroy Merlin, you're right about the return policy - we bought what was called Satin and turned out to be Brilliant paint, brought it back expecting a battle, they were really nice and made an exchange with no (okay, a few) questions. A great store, something to celebrate!