The Franco-British relationship is renowned for being a little turbulent at times. We like to think of them as smelly, frog-eating, arrogant xenophobes, while they enjoy mocking our inability to cook, binge drinking and of course, our weather. All this taken into consideration, one wonders why France is still the favourite holiday destination for the British and Britain, in the top three for the French. Perhaps therefore, the Franco-British relationship could be better described as a 'l'amour violent', as Chirac so poignantly put it on one of his official visits to Britain. So despite all of France's apparent faults, what is it that keeps 3 million of us spending our holidays there per year and 500,000 of us buying second homes there?
The most obvious has to be the French landscape; the stunning mountains of the Alpes of the Pyrenees, the heart-stirring gorges in Ardeche, the haggard coastline of Britanny, the valleys of the Dordogne, the Parisian architecture, the vineyards, the forests, the lakes, the list goes on. France's landscape is one of the most varied in Europe and thus offers all those active holiday makers a vast collection of sports such as white water rafting, mountain biking, caving, scuba diving, or more traditionally, cycling or walking. Cycling in the Chartreuse is definitely worth a try, as is surfing in the small town of Lacanau (just opposite Bordeaux), rock climbing in Belledonne, hiking in the Dordogne, or canoeing in the Alsace. The choice for the less active holiday makers is also far from limited: One of the 'route des vins' in Bourgogne is not to be missed, neither are the Calanque beaches just east of Marseille or Cannes during the film festival (see which stars you can spot)! For city breaks, Montpellier is excellent for its truly Mediterranean atmosphere, Reims, for the beautiful cathedral and the champagne tasting, Strasbourg, for the Christmas market, and of course Paris, what more can I say.
As for the French, there's no doubt they sometimes behave in ways we find difficult to understand. I personally have been living in France for 3 years (a year in Grenoble, a year in Reims and now I'm settled more permanently in Paris) and can honestly say that I have many times felt extremely frustrated by the French attitude and way of life. They insist on making the simplest things complicated, refuse to even try and understand a foreign accent, and laugh at any ideas that another country could possibly produce good wine! But yet there is something that keeps me here, a frustratingly strong attraction to the French and that gives the challenges of being here some sort of addictive quality.
Unlike the British, the French don't tiptoe around. They don't use phrases such as: "I was just wondering, if it would be at all possible if I could try and…" they are much more likely to simply state "I want…" and not expect anything less. Coming from an English background, this took some getting used to. Even when I felt had more or less mastered the language, people would look at me bored in shops, banks, post offices or even hairdressers when I took more than 5 seconds trying to explain what I needed. I immediately took this to heart and decided they were rude and unhelpful, with no ideas about good customer service. However, the problem generally was that they failed to understand why I stood there babbling instead of simply stating what I was after.
Another important point to remember when visiting France is their attitude to queuing. We're famous for it in Britain. We queue orderly and we all understand that if someone is waiting, we move on as quickly as possible. The French however have a slightly different take on it. If they have waited to be served, then they will take their time being served. At a cheese counter at my local market the other day, I waited approximately 15 minutes while the lady in front of me had a detailed discussion with the man behind the counter about which cheese would go perfectly with which dish. She would then stand back and think for a couple of minutes while he, instead of serving me quickly in the meantime, dutifully waited for her. I did not even receive any sort of acknowledgement that I was there. However, when she eventually made her decision, paid and left, I got exactly the same treatment; his full attention for as long as it took me to taste a variety of cheeses and decide which I preferred while we discussed which one resembled cheddar the most.
The trick with the French therefore is to not expect them to be like the British! Be confident, firm, not afraid to speak French but equally not too insulted if they reply to you in even more broken English (they are often quite keen to practice). As Chirac described, the Franco-British relationship isn't an easy one, but there's definitely a flame still burning, making our 'affair' worth fighting for.