Life is different here. Some things are obvious: French is spoken rather than English; there are lots of castles but no pick-up trucks; snails are on the menu but not 'Hot Beef Sandwiches'; lots of McDonald's but no Burger King, Pizza Hut, the Colonel or Wendy's; in shops the customer is not 'always right', in fact, usually they are dead wrong and an irritation to boot (that is changing albeit slowly).
Some things are more subtle and speak to the divergent lifestyles of the last few hundred years: Wars are remembered clearly, as if they were fought yesterday in the back garden (as, indeed, for a lot of Europeans, they were). People remember rationing and, therefore, tend to be frugal and conserving. Jobs are, usually, for life; it's extremely difficult to fire an employee (well, actually, you can fire them easily, you just can't stop paying them…) A diet (particularly to the French) has nothing whatsoever to do with deprivation, weight-loss or calorie control – it's the regime followed to get the most benefit from the foods they love. Food is important: shops close for 1 1/2 – 2 hours midday so all the workers can have a proper lunch with friends and family.
We can acknowledge cultural differences on an intellectual level but it's when we run smack into them personally that we finally 'sit up and take notice'. When we first moved into this old house the wiring had not been updated in recent history. This means that, while there were ample outlets in the kitchen/pantry that all functioned, they would only work 'one at a time'. I could boil water (electric kettle) or wash clothes or use the oven or make toast or heat soup – no two together or the circuit blew. Have you any idea how hard it is to remember something so simple? We called EDF (electric company) to arrange for more power. No problem, they would be out in 2 weeks to discuss it. What followed was a year's worth of meetings, discussions, proposals, instructions, then another round of the same. I just wanted to boil water and wash clothes at the same time! Finally, mon mari got fed up, raised his voice a smidgen and….the new circuit was put in 2 weeks later – no more discussion. We learned 2 important lessons: The French love to discuss every expenditure to death, whether they are buying, selling, delivering or just contemplating and assume everyone else does, too. They will continue to discuss until the buyer, um, raises their voice a bit, giving the signal that discussion is over. Delivery follows swiftly.
Then there are the things that leave us scratching our heads for the opposite reason: I took our big dog to the vet last week. I had found a lump under one leg and wanted to have it checked out. The Vet checked out the lump and reassured me that it was nothing serious. There was no charge. An office visit and 15 minutes of his time and 'no charge'. He just smiled and said "But there is nothing wrong!"
It turned cold here last week and we finally turned the furnace on. We have a very old furnace pumping water through equally old radiators – except it wasn't pumping. We know that furnaces don't last forever and had been warned that ours needs replacing. Now, at the very least the pump would need repairing/replacing. We called the electrician/furnace guy first thing Monday morning. He stopped by an hour later – unexpectedly. He was on his way somewhere else and passed by our house so, here he was. He carefully inspected the furnace and pump, shook his head a few times muttering in French, gave the pump a good whack with a hammer, listened a second, smiled and nodded. 'All fixed' he said. (Isn't modern technology wonderful?) Again no charge. He was aghast at the thought: 'Charge you money for hitting your pump with a hammer?' Doubtless he reasons that next year the hammer may not fix it and we will be getting a new furnace….from him. Meanwhile, we have heat. And another piece to the puzzle that is 'Life in France' – and, as usual, it doesn't fit…yet…