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A Guide to
France for Beginners
(Original Text dated 1993)
Perhaps I should warn you at the start, especially if you've just been wandering the Web, reading other travel articles, that there's a good chance this item might not be quite as serious as the others.
The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author and should not be taken the slightest bit seriously.
Indeed, the author can accept no responsibility whatsoever for your imprisonment in a French gaol if you accept any of the advice here.
First, the preparation for your trip across, or below, the water. If you're to take the car, there are a number of things you need in advance. Two car stickers are obligatory when travelling across the channel, one with the letters "GB" on it, which you affix as close to the number plate as possible; and one saying "I Love English Beef" which goes in the rear window.
These stickers will ensure you are popular with all the natives.
Also in the car you'll need a set of spare bulbs for the lights and three luminous red sticks which ought to make up into a triangle, but never quite stay together long enough to prop up on the road.
As for documents, you need a passport and something called a green card, which is actually a green piece of paper. You get the latter from your insurance company.
Assuming you want the shortest possible ferry crossing you go from Dover to Calais. On arrival at the terminal you will be directed to completely the wrong car park for the next crossing. Don't worry, this is completely normal, and a little man will come and find you five minutes before your departure time, so you're the last one on the ferry and your car gets crammed in at the back.
On arrival sur le continent the man on the boat will tell you to go to Passport Control before leaving the terminal. Don't worry about this as there doesn't appear to be a Passport Control in this part of Calais. Just follow the rest of the cars straight out of the terminal and onto the A26.
By the way, little point here, remember they all drive on the wrong side of the road as you leave the terminal.
The next problem you will encounter is road signs. The speed limit ones are easy. If it says "80", you do 80 miles an hour; "40" means 40 miles an hour, and so on. Remember at all times that the French drive very fast, so it's advisable to keep as close to the speed limit as possible and not hang about.
Where the speed limit ends, or is repealed, they conveniently put a "Rappel" sign so you can speed up.
Roundabouts are fun if you're not used to them. First rule is to go round them anti-clockwise and in any lane you fancy at the time. The second rule is that although they now have signs as you join them saying "Cedez la Passage" these are only for foreigners and the French give way to nobody. They actually seem to give way to nobody much faster if it's an English number plate they're not giving way to, so be prepared to take evasive action.
As you make your way down the Autoroute towards Paris, you'll have to stop and take a funny parking ticket thing out of a machine at the side of the road. At this point it's advisable to have a passenger to take the ticket, as the silly fools have put all the ticket machines on the wrong side of the road for the driver.
Hang on to this ticket, as it becomes important later in the story! As you near Paris you'll have to stop again at some Toll Booths. Again, these are on the wrong side, so get your passenger to deal with the man. He asks for your ticket and then spills out a load of French which is a request for some money. Luckily the amount required also comes up on a display on the side of the booth.
The French love to give change, so be sure to pay with the highest value note you have in your wallet.
You'll eventually get a bit peckish, so now's the time for some basic French food ordering. You don't need much of the foreign tongue to master this, you can get by quite successfully for a fortnight on "Deux Big Macs, deux grande frites et deux grande cafe au lait s'il vous plait".
It's only if you're extra thirsty that you have a problem, and the problem is with the lemonade.
I trust my lady readers will forgive me when I explain that if you want lemonade, you have to say "Pschitt s'il vous plait".
No, it's all right, they won't direct you to the toilette, it's just a rather unfortunate brand name for their best selling lemonade. I was so amazed by the name that I had to bring a bottle back with me to give to a friend as a present.
Talking of presents brings us to shopping. I never realised until I visited France how successful the little man from 'Allo 'Allo had become after the series had finished filming. It doesn't matter where you go in France, you'll see the signs for Monsieur Leclerc's little supermarkets everywhere.
They're well worth a visit as they sell all sorts of unusual things.
There's red wine, white wine, wine in green bottles, wine in blue bottles and even wine in black bottles. If you look carefully you'll also find a space over in the corner where they sell other stuff such as food.
The French seem totally preoccupied with their wine. It took me ages to find the fitment with the whisky on, and then most of it turned out to be Japanese.
I suppose I really ought to provide some advice on hotels before we go too much further. The first thing to know about the French in general, and hoteliers in particular is that they absolutely hate to hear a foreigner making a mess of their language; so under NO circumstances try to speak in French. The best opening line is always "Wotcha mate, do you speak any English". Attempting to ask for a room in their language will get you nowhere.
Asking in English will always ensure that they give you their best room in the hotel, which they keep reserved for their most valued clients.
The next bit of hotel advice is not to try to eat the pillow. I know it looks like a sausage, but it isn't. I gather it took hundreds of Frenchmen hundreds of years to design a contraption as uncomfortable to sleep on as those things are.
Hotel breakfasts are fun. If you're expecting bacon, eggs, fried bread and the works, forget it. You get a funny bun thing, some bread, butter and a weird form of marmalade that they were too stingy to put any bits of peel in.
Hotel stops in France are very good, with excellent food in the evenings. I only found one that didn't take a Visa card in payment.
That was a wonderful morning. Having had to pay cash for the hotel I was left with only a handful of centimes in my pocket so set off in search of a bank to cash some Travellers Cheques.
Having arrived at the bank at five past twelve, I had to extract 100 francs out of the Visa machine to afford coffee while we sat in a cafe and awaited the lazy French to finish their lunch and reopen at one thirty.
The French seem to have a very odd attitude to opening their businesses. Everywhere except the cafes seem to close at lunchtimes; except on Sundays and Mondays when they don't need to close, as they never opened in the first place.
One piece of advice is not to have a near empty petrol tank on a Saturday evening, or you'll be stranded where you are till Tuesday, unless you've got enough of a dribble left to get to a service area on an Autoroute.
The night life can be exciting. At three o'clock one morning I was awoken by the local youths gutting a car in the car park opposite and then rolling it over on its side. Although all the French were also on their balconies watching the entertainment, it took over an hour for the local Gendarmerie to arrive, and then they only seemed to tick them off and send them home. I'm glad it wasn't my car they picked on for their sport.
Just for completeness, I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that the ferry staff at Calais are just as good at directing you to the wrong car park on the way back.
I was told to go to Car Park 3, which seemed to be the one for the wrong boat. On checking it did turn out to be correct, but the French just had the wrong labels on the car park.
One of the most lasting memories of my trip has got to be the loos.
They're incredibly weird contraptions in France, and nearly always with the flush lever in the middle of the top. A very odd design and no mistake.
I must say, however, that I reckon there's a northern design and a southern design; with probably a huge behind-the-scenes battle going on as to the supremacy of the two different types.
You see, some of them you push; and some of them you pull. Very confusing for the tourist who's moving from hotel to hotel every day.
Whether you do end up pushing or pulling, the tremendous cascade of water is a shock to the poor Englishman who's more used to the gentle swirling swish of a proper English toilet.
Mind you, if you closely inspect the rest of the plumbing, you'll be ready for the high pressure descent of the water from the tank into the bowl.
I don't know whether there's a shortage of copper in France or what, but all their pipes seem to be of a much smaller bore than those over here. The average pipe to the toilet cistern is about a third the diameter of its English counterpart.
In order to fill the tank in a reasonable time the pressure of the incoming water must be phenomenally high.
Indeed, this pressure is witnessed by the fact that after you've pushed or pulled and the thing's flushed, there's only about thirty seconds of extremely noisy refilling, followed by a loud clunk as the valve closes, then silence.
It makes it a total impossibility to creep off to the loo in the middle of the night without waking up your partner; and the rest of the hotel.
Now, I really must apologise to all those of you who've taken a great deal of trouble to come to this page for glorious tales of the beautiful French countryside, the mountains, the sea and the wonderful French food.
You must be just a teeny weeny bit disappointed that all I've really got to talk about so far is the wonders of the French water closet and the like.
You see, what started it all was a rather lengthy search for the Gents.
Before I left, I took the trouble to check up on a bit of the language I was about to encounter on my trip. According to all the books I could lay my hands on, this strange French language relies on the assumption that everything is either masculine or feminine. Okay, if that's how they want it, so be it.
It does, however, make one or two things just a little bit difficult.
Everywhere we went we kept coming across signs for La Toilette. On checking my notes about French grammar I discovered that if the definite article is a La, then the noun which follows is feminine. Okay, so I've found the Ladies, now where's the flaming Gents is what I needed to know!
I'm sure you'll realise that after all this hunting for somewhere to go, the subject had become one of great interest by the time I found the object of my search. Hence the great deal of time spent on gaining a greater knowledge of the little room when I finally got there.
And, hence the large amount of space dedicated to it here, at the expense of the rest of France.
So, dear readers, I suppose I'd better move on to something else before you all rush off in in your droves to read other fascinating things.
What about the extra toy traffic lights, halfway down the poles in France then? I assume they're there for the riders of pedal cycles with the stabilisers still on!
Actually, I'm thinking of making the provision of bulbs for French traffic lights number three in my series of wonderful schemes to make me a millionaire.
The French seem to have caught the British habit of installing mini-roundabouts everywhere, but got it a bit wrong and put in traffic lights instead. I've never seen so many sets of lights in my life before.
If you drive through a tiny village which, if it was in England, might have one mini-roundabout if you were unlucky; you'll find the French have installed six pedestrian crossings and four sets of traffic lights.
And, as I've said, every set of lights has another toy set half way down the supporting post. The contract for replacing the bulbs must be worth a mint.
The toy set of lights still puzzle me though. I didn't particularly notice that all the French are only three foot nine tall, but I suppose they must be to make any use of this extra facility from the French government.
One special thing to look out for in France is the slightly mis-positioned pavement art.
I don't know if it's because their roads are quieter than ours and you don't get knocked down whilst doing the painting, but the French seem to have moved all their pavement artists into the middle of the road to display the best examples of their craft.
Coming back to this side of the channel, the roads seemed quite boring with just the odd white line, slow sign and arrow to get you back on the right side of the road.
Over there, there are wonderful examples of lines; not just in white, but also yellow, blue, red and even green. And the pictures are wonderful! There are loads of pictures painted on the roads.
The only thing I'd say about the pictures however, is the limited number of subjects these artists paint. The favourite subject is a triangular picture of a man walking across a pedestrian crossing; but there are also examples of children carrying their satchels, obviously on the way to school.
All the pictures are in wonderful Technicolor!
It certainly makes driving a lot more interesting. Trouble is, the French get a bit annoyed when you stop the car just before one of the exhibits so you can take your time admiring it.
I mean, if the authorities allow the artists to put the pictures there, you really would think they'd allow the tourists to stop to admire them wouldn't you?
By the end of my holiday I was just beginning to wonder if the French really like having tourists in their country at all.
It could be a plot to deter visitors you see. No Gents toilets to be found anywhere; and the gendarmes getting stroppy with you, blowing their whistles and waving their arms about, if you dare to stop to look at the work of the street artists.
I think, on reflection, I'm quite glad to be home. At least in the peace of England I can quietly sit down and write these words of wisdom to help YOU when you cross the Channel.
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