What’s not to like about France? Well...

Helen Mead

Helen Mead

First published in Columnists by

THE wine, the cheese, the fashion, the language – what’s not to like about France? Well, the cheese, for a start. I hate the stuff. But after a week in the capital city I’d certainly give the country’s other attributes a thumbs-up.

So many people have written books about French life that its best bits are legendary. There is no disputing that the French are more stylish.

“Oh look at her dress”, “Isn’t her skirt gorgeous?”, were among the phrases tripping off my teenage daughters’ tongues as we ambled along the boulevards on holiday last week. I had to agree – they really know how to dress. The effortless elegance is something that we British – despite all our efforts – cannot emulate.

And the language is beautiful, almost hypnotic. It renders even the most unattractive man a sex god. It is the one language I would love to be able to speak fluently.

All schools should teach it from an early age, to enable us to reach a level that allows us to interact with the French to some extent and not be left floundering, able only to utter a handful of useless phrases centred around opening a window, closing a door or observing a dog in the road.

French bakeries are so much more atmospheric than ours, their bread so much tastier. I love the way people walk around clutching long baguettes and find it fascinating that, for a population that eats so much bread there are few overweight people – at least that’s how it seems, compared with the UK.

But not everything across the Channel is rosy. Finding a public toilet is like looking for the Holy Grail. I never thought I would ever say “Thank goodness for McDonald’s”, but if it hadn’t been for their toilets I don’t know what I’d have done.

Paris has so many beggars, and not just people sitting in the street gesturing with paper cups, but men and women with chained animals – dogs, cats, even rabbits – perched on the pavements. Women with infants beg for money, and you can’t enter an underground train without an accordion being thrust towards your face. It’s on an altogether more alarming level than begging in the UK.

You STILL can’t get a decent cup of tea. The last time I visited France, in the mid-1990s, it was more like pond water. Nothing has changed. On menus the drink still appears as an also-ran, a lonely item in a sea of different coffees. Thankfully, I had the foresight to take a pack of my tried and trusted Tetley.

Some things are a mirror image of life in the UK – there’s loads of litter, there are rude people who never say thank you or excuse me, and they also have rain (we didn’t see much of it, but when it came, it really poured).

The French know how to relax and have a laid-back approach to everything. Best of all, they actively encourage dogs and cats in restaurants and cafes – how wonderful is that?

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