Thursday, July 01, 2010

Artichokes and attitudes

Market, Mayenne, Monday
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I suppose the notion of a bustling, sunny market brimming with vegetables and redolent of cheese springs most readily to mind of the average non-French person if they think about France. And the atmosphere was certainly present when we attended the Monday market in Mayenne, in pays de la Loire, last week (was it only last week?). The sun was hot, our friend Claudine had shopping to do, and I bought a pair of trousers - something I would have been reluctant to embark on without a pal. The stalls were piled high with glistening tomatoes, artichokes (always a snare and a delusion, IMO) and onions, and the cheeses were immense. Men in a variety of headgear sat around in caf├ęs as their wives shopped - they were, apparently, obviously in from the surrounding countryside. The hats gave them away.

Maybe that last piece of information is the key to what feels so different. I actually feel much more at home among French language and French food than I used to; it doesn't feel nearly as foreign as I remember from that first visit to Paris almost exactly half a century ago. But this familiarity is, I think, deceptive. Visiting small towns, where any foreign tourist might be considered well and truly lost, gives me the sense of the real difference. Everyone is charming - so polite with their greetings when you enter the bakery, so delighted because this obvious foreigner can understand them and speak back (mistakes and all) - but conversation reveals the kind of attitudes I'd associate with the Outer Hebrides of the '50s, the serious take on what constitutes a decent life, the prejudice against attitudes that most of us in my own environment take for granted.

I'm the last person to be happy at the rise in public drunken-ness and the debauchery of youthful attitudes, but I think I'd rather have the relaxation of censure and the open-mindedness that comes with it than the instant condemnation of the unco guid. (My French friends and relations are not, I hasten to add, unco guid at all. Whew!)

Funny thing is - decline in public morality is often linked to the decline in religious belief, but contemporary France as I experience it has to feel one of the least religious societies I have encountered. Maybe I don't mix with the right people ...


  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Christine, I have never really gained a proficiency in the language which allows the type of discussion that reveals the kind of attitudes you are speaking of. Having said that, I love the whole ambiance of France, especially the south. Oh for the street markets in Argyll.

  2. Freda, I have to confess that one of our hosts speaks excellent Scottish! However, with a French daughter-in-law and bilingual grand-daughter as well as many French friends, my one-time stilted first-year-at-Uni French has become a great deal more useful.

  3. Excellent Scottish, noooooooo!!! just a wee bit!!!

  4. Excellent Scottish? Noooooooooo!!! Just a wee bit.