A porcelain virgin, a guaranteed gift and a LOT of staring

Well, 11.5km today. WELT-WATCH(tm) reports that my leg appears to be getting worse, with the wound weeping like James Blunt after stubbing his toe. Common sense would say to run less, but I laugh in the face of common sense. Wh’a ha ha! Weather was nasty, windy and raining, so rather than take the quiet back roads I thought I’d run on the main road, wearing black, at lunchtime (when most French drivers are drunk) to see if I’d get run over by an articulated lorry. Basically I’m turning the art of jogging into an EXTREME sport.

Ah, the French. As I’ve stated before I’m a British person (what is the correct term for a British person abroad? A Britishman? A Britisher? Brit I suppose…) living in rural France. Though I’ve been here for three years I can profess only to have the shallowest of understanding about the French culture and people. But I have observed some useful facts that I will relay here.

Hopefully these will help you if you ever come here on holiday or, heaven forbid, decide to live here.

Eight tips to survive life in France:

1) French people stare

In most cultures staring is rude. In Britain if you’re caught staring at someone you feel a sense of shame and avert your eyes. In France it is the norm to penetratingly stare at anyone and everyone. This is somewhat disconcerting. My girlfriend has taken to staring back and occasionally waving (which freaks the French out no end and is endlessly amusing).

2) You cannot give a gift in France without the person feeling obliged to give you a gift back

The French cannot accept a gift without feeling an enormous pressure to give you something in return. This is cultural, and common to nearly all French people. Their worst nightmare is someone turning up unannounced and handing them a gift. Without time to consider a reciprocal gift many French people panic and offer ridiculous things in return (“Thank you for this potato, would you like my car?”). You can use this to your advantage.

3) Collectible nativity scenes

The French have an odd relationship with religion. They profess to be not really bothered about the whole religion thing, but actually take it deadly seriously. Part of the festive tradition in France involves eating a type of cake that contains (embedded within it) collectible porcelain figures taken from the Nativity. You genuinely get a box with a collectible figurine chart including Baby Jesus and the (famous?) Nativity sheep amongst others.

I can’t imagine school kids desperate for swapsies (“I’ve got a Virgin Mary, have you got Balthazaar?”) I’m also not sure how knowing this will help you in France, but if you do have a deep need to collect porcelain Nativity figurines but feel embarrassed doing so, this is the place to visit.

4) French TV is terrible

It really is. You get three sorts of shows on French TV.

i) An old swarthy man with a bad moustache, paunch and greasy hair and young, slim blonde haired co-presenter discuss politics,

ii) An old swarthy man with a bad moustache, paunch and greasy hair and young, slim blonde haired co-presenter discuss the arts,

iii) An old swarthy man with a bad moustache, paunch and greasy hair and young, slim blonde haired co-presenter discuss current affairs.

You occasionally get an American import dubbed into French. Never watch House in French. You not only have the uncomfortable fact that Hugh Laurie is doing an American accent, but you get the added horror of him speaking dubbed French in an American accent.

My tip for French TV is not to watch it. Or if you’re swarthy and have a paunch, try to get a job doing it.

5) The French cannot make bread

They really can’t. French baguettes are shit. Apart from baguettes the French cannot make any other sort of bread. Eating a baguette is like eating a bag of air. They are as filling as fortune cookies.

Bring your own bread. Or make your own.

6) You can’t buy decent chocolate at a decent price

Mars bars here are about 2/3rds of the size of the UK Mars bars. If you can even find decent chocolate in a shop it’ll be 14 times the price it is the the UK. Impulse purchases next to the tills in supermarkets are limited to chewing gum, fruit sweets and cough lozenges. Terrible.

It does mean that your average French family will be overwhelmed if you give them a tin of Roses or Quality Street as a gift. To a French person this is like casually offering them a yacht or a 10 day all expenses paid holiday to Florida.

Import chocolate, and you can make friends for life.

7) Nowhere is open when you need to visit it

Shops in France shut when you need to use them. Lunchtime, Sundays, Mondays and (where we live) often on Tuesday too everything shuts down. Local Holidays, Bank Holidays and after 7pm everything shuts.

In the UK if you woke up at 3am and suddenly thought “my god, I really want to buy a toaster” you could. Somewhere within 20 minutes would be a 24 hour ASDA full to the rafters with hundreds of toasters. In France if you decided you wanted a toaster you’d need to plan the purchase weeks in advance. This is charming at first, but there are times where you just want to scream and bang a baguette against your head.

My top tip: Buy a toaster before you visit.

8) Status is everything

And finally there’s the question of class. You remember the French went nuts and beheaded all their royalty? You know the phrase Libertéégalité, fraternité (Liberty, equality, fraternity)? Utter bollocks. The French are obsessed with class. People rarely date or marry out of their class bracket. We live in a fairly poor area (which is 90 minutes from Paris, but still poor) and Parisians visiting here treat the locals like farm animals or subhuman mutants. The French are the most classist nation on the planet, and no amount of beheading convinces me otherwise.

It is also a deeply sexist country. When I took out some car insurance in my partner’s name (with both of us on the policy – her as the lead driver) the company sent ME all the insurance documentation for both of us, clearly thinking that I’d only trouble my “little lady” if I felt she could cope with it. Breathtaking. If that happened in the UK it would be on the front cover of the Daily Mail. Here it’s normal.

The benefit for foreigners is that the French find it very hard to identify the class of incomers. So they use national stereotypes. What they think of the British would fill a library, but by and large they think most British people are landed gentry and probably rich. Of course while this means you always get ripped off, it does mean that most French people are desperate to be chums with you as there’s a certain cachet to being mates with a Brit.

I’m not sure what any of that has to do with running, but hopefully its been of some use.

If it hasn’t, then I can only apologise for wasting your time, and I’m going to stare at you until you go away.

Start Time
Jan 5, 2012 11:26 AM
11.51 km
Avg Speed
5:34 min/km
Max Speed
4:59 min/km
1068 kcal
142 m / 172 m
20 m ↑ / 30 m ↓


10 thoughts on “A porcelain virgin, a guaranteed gift and a LOT of staring

  1. abradypus says:

    Owwwww! After three days of core stability exercises, laughing has turned into an extreme sport. Memo to self: do not read this blog until ab muscles recover!

  2. Absolutely brilliant! I’ve cackled like an idiot at this, but am now fancying some toast.

  3. Kooky Girl says:

    Oh this is very funny. Having just returned from France on Monday I can totally relate to this. I loved doing some running in those French hills even if the hills did nearly kill me. I also have a little ‘feve’ collection, and no broken teeth. Too funny. I have done one marathon too in Oct 2011, and am about to sign up for another… do you plan to do another?
    All the best, Kg.

    • runningthomas says:

      When I finished the first marathon I thought “never again” and I’d decided to do 10ks and halves this year…. but I don’t know…. maybe. The t-shirt I got for finishing it was a bit rubbish (a bit Village People), and my medal had a bright pink ribbon which was well out of order so I wouldn’t mind doing another one just for some better loot at the end.

      We should compare our religious figure collections and do swapsies – I’m looking for a couple of shepherds and a Melchior…

  4. Great blog – I have spent a few holidays in the Limousin and all you have said is so very true. The nativity thing in the cake is brilliant – I seem to remember that you will have a good year if you get a King! I did take my running kit last year but got too scared by all the huge tractors thundering around – they became known as F***KS because that was the cry that came out as they came towards us! Hope the scab returns – sounds horrid

    • runningthomas says:

      You can, if you’re an uncultured swine, get the cakes with branded Disney or other film franchise figures in them. We went to a party last year and someone had an Avatar cake with little porcelain Na’vi in it. I never thought anything could make a porcelain Baby Jesus classy, but then I saw that…

      I actually own a tractor! I’m not allowed to take it on the road though. 😦 You have to have an orange flashing light, number plates and be prepared to kill cyclists and runners, and I just can’t get an orange light anywhere.

  5. Very funny. I lived in Lens for a year when I was at uni. It’s practically Belgium which means that the whole of France is able to look down on it. Never had Christmas cake there though.

    • runningthomas says:

      We have a lot of volunteers that work on our farm through the year, and a lot come from Belgium. One of them thought the phrase “lucky bastard” (in English) wasn’t particularly rude so he kept saying it in front of our kids. Our 5 year old then started saying it, so we had to tell him what the Belgians actually said was “lucky lobsters”. He seemed OK with that, so then we convinced the Belgian to say that too. Now we just tell any Belgian that turns up to use lucky lobsters as a general swear word so everyone is happy.

  6. Kenny Scott says:

    I recently visited my brother-in-law, who lives in France with his wife and various children. You’re 100% right about opening hours of shops, it’s just mental. Attempting to locate any kind of take-away establishment that my various brood of daughters would find acceptable was also next to impossible. Apparently, Pizza Hut type places don’t exist over there. Maybe that’s a good thing.

    Alas, my brain got confused when you said there were seven tips, and then you listed eight, so I’ve fallen off my chair and my legs no longer work. This _might instead_ have something to do with the 10 mile run I’ve just done in freezing Scotland, mind you. But I’m blaming you and your counting folly, which only seems fair.

    • runningthomas says:

      It was a deliberate mistake. You win a porcelain Joseph for spotting it. (I’ll amend)

      Yes, takeaways here are brilliant. You can’t phone our local Chinese takeaway until 7.30pm. It then takes them 40 minutes to get the order ready, and they’re a 20 minute drive from our house. It’s not even that good. Add all of that together and quite often we pull the takeaway menu out, glance at it for 5 seconds, sigh, then make our own tea.

      I used to live in Scotland, just North of Edinburgh, and there’s a lot of things I miss, but the weather isn’t one of them.

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