The French contradiction

Opinion by Alan Duff
The French contradiction

France is different to any other country and most of that is admirable. Their mad passion for cuisine, wine, literature, art, keeping their old buildings and traditions, a broad understanding of culture. Every region has its own cuisine and wines. There are 720 book festivals a year. A national festival of music day has every village, town and city alive with, well, rather average music but much joy.

I came back from biking the other evening and stopped in the middle of the town to listen to musicians entertaining what looked like terminally ill, elderly people. That’s Bayonne for you, and the spirit of humanity that the old folk sang along.    

The introduction to the hilltop village of Lurs in Provence is dozens of stone plinths etched with different language symbols celebrating the history of the written word. From basic bow and arrow symbols found in caves, to complex Egyptian hieroglyphics 3700 years BC and the 5 different Chinese styles of writing. Each plinth has a ceramic tile depicting the eras and regions.

This is what the French do: celebrate their own and other peoples’ cultures. The written word here, and authors with it, is revered.Duff Alan small

If you’re in Provence – tourist interest boosted by English author Peter Mayle’s series of books on living in Provence – visit this town, and I recommend the town of Moustiers St. Marie too, indeed any number of stunning villages anywhere in France.      

Politically they are not as consistent as Kiwis. One day joyously supporting president Hollande. Next he’s polling 13%. Right now the French Far Right is enjoying a rise in popularity. Not having a right to vote here makes me less interested in French politics. I anyway realised that a foreigner will never get to know them like we know our own.

Our histories are vastly different. The French are very nice, don’t get me wrong. But going on strike for the smallest reason or none at all? Or no reason perceivable to us Kiwis, where unions have long had their day. The unions in Australia can be hideously corrupt, a form of criminality with leaders stealing millions. I doubt the unions in France or New Zealand are on the take. But, boy, unions have power here and not likely to give it up.

They see employers as on the other side, and there is little feeling for the self-employed and none at all for larger businesses. Strikers in the streets are often accompanied by their children. After all, they’re striking for higher pay, better work conditions. Or just to show some muscle. Brainwashing their kids makes perfect sense.

Their views are irreconcilable with ours. And no French person will accept the inequality that exists in America. Here, if you fall through the gaps, you did it yourself. Government money is always available.

Prolific strikers and generational complainers the French might be, yet they’re incredibly polite and civilised. Forget Paris’ insulting waiters and rip-off bistro bar and restaurant owners. You’re dumb enough to expect Paris to fulfil your romantic dreams, these types are waiting for you. Outside of Paris the French can be wonderful and here in the Basque country are all of that and more.

French people are interested in the wider world, culturally, artistically, and more than any other nationality. But they do not make friends like Kiwis and Aussies do. Sure, there is a language problem, but I don’t think that’s all of it as one becomes more proficient at speaking French. They’re just conservative and stick to what and who they know.

I’m told French women are not into having female mates, or buddies, like Kiwi women. Just hubby, or boyfriend – and sometimes an illicit lover – children and family. Introducing new food here is near impossible. So is reform.

Tourists will of course hate arriving to a train or airline or air traffic controllers strike. These happen so often that commonplace is barely an exaggeration. Yet when they aren’t on strike, most trains, planes, buses, ferries, trams run on time. Like their buildings go up, highways are built, industry flourishes. The French contradiction again.

But we shouldn’t go to another country and expect, let alone demand, it be like ours. Ex-pat Kiwis who have lived here a long time still find the French something of a mystery, or if not, then inconsistent of mood and temperament. Not the end of the world, though.

Go anywhere in this country and you’ll experience why they had 84.7 million tourists last year. It has everything except the simple explanations and obvious clarity we less sophisticated Kiwis expect. You have to work to know them and even then likely won’t.

Every few years their rugby team surprises the All Blacks and shocks our nation. Their rugby is exactly like the French people are: unpredictable, passionate, creative and spontaneous. Epically tough and spectacular, or they capitulate like spoiled, sulky children.

But at the rugby World Cup we’re never sure who’ll turn up on the day, are we, New Zealand?          

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