Daily Bread & The Flow Of Life In France
Ever seen a baguette vending machine? Honestly neither had I until I moved to France.
The first one I saw took me so much by surprise that I literally screeched the car to a halt. Once I’d verified that it was real and not just some kind of roadside decoration, I went to collect dad and Paul for a proper test.
The locals must have though we were nuts the way we giggled and “ooohed” over the thing, but the experience was quite spectacular. We fed in the required one euro, waited around in tense anticipation as the machine whirred and clicked, and then all let out a “wow” in unison as the door popped open and a fresh, crusty, baguette was presented for our enjoyment. It was so exciting we bought a second one right away, just to experience the whole process again.
Of course these days baguette vending machine are par-for-the-course, and something I use regularly with an attitude of French blasé. Why aren’t they standard everywhere in the world? Such is life when things that were once novelties become everyday items.
Which of course got me thinking.
Travel is an fascinating endeavor in that you do it for the novelty and to experience things that are new, and yet you always tend to relate back to what you know. These French mountains remind me of the Tetons, or this crusty bread reminds me of San Francisco sourdough….
But if you stay in one place long enough, or revisit it often that newness eventually wears off, and what was once strange becomes part of your shared history, of the vast network of mental things that you relate back to and consider normal, and almost taken for granted. This pizza vending machine reminds me of the baguette machines we used to have back in France…
See how that works?
So I thought it would be interesting to write a bit about that. To reminisce on the things I considered strange when I first moved to France, and yet now take completely for granted. Some are positive, some are great and some are not-so-great. France is a melange, like everything and everywhere you go.
Baguette For A Euro (And Other Delights)
French bakeries are an intricate part of French life, and a symbol of their history and pride.
I’m sure many of you have read the words famously attributed to Marie Antionette before the French revolution. While the general population were starving due to shortages of grain and lack of access to affordable bread, she apparently scoffed “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“let them eat cake”), a comment that obviously showed a complete lack of understanding of their distress. As it turns out those words were never actually uttered by Marie (that’s a myth), but they became a symbol of the elite of the time, and so they stuck.
Marie’s story ended badly of course, with a chop in the guillotine, but the grain struggle carried on, which in turn led to enduring changes for bread in France. After the revolution bakeries became strictly regulated, not only when they could close or take vacations, but also how much bread could be sold for. The right to bread for all.
Things have changed quite a bit since those times. The price of bread is no longer fixed by the state (since 1986), and bakers can now vacay mostly when they want (within reason), but the modern baguette remains sacred, and for a shop to carry the name of a “boulangerie” they can only be made on-site out of 4 ingredients (the Décret Pain of 1993) and must never be frozen or contain any additives or preservatives. Over 30 million are produced every single day in France, and they remain superbly inexpensive, selling for a mere euro or less.
Bread remains a right, even today.
I’ve come to love French boulangeries, so much so that I find towns that don’t have one rather sad & depressing. Plus of course everything else they sell is delectable from cream-filled delicacies, to mini-fruit tarts that look like sculptures of art, chocolate creations that melt in your mouth, and creative combinations of sweet that delight. Our little village has three and it’s a real treat. May they forever endure.
A Slower Pace Of Life
Je vous appellerai de suite (I will call you soon)….and when exactly would that be???
The French countryside is known for its slower pace of life. People work the fields, neighbors stop to chat, things are made by hand, vegetables are eaten in season, and cooking is an art that’s deliciously slow by it’s very nature. It’s refreshing and the very reason many seek to live here, but it can also be a double-edged sword.
For example our septic tank broke this week. Or rather it stopped working. The details are murky and probably best not shared, much like its history which dates back to some unspecified time that no-one can quite recall.
It’s a simple system, just two large concrete tanks separated by a plastic bucket filled with lava rocks (our only filtration method), the output of which flows by gravity into a large drainage field. It’s also old, and very likely “non-conforme” (not to spec) with a basic manhole cover that doesn’t quite fit and a field that has probably collapsed in multiple places over the years. It’s not pretty…
Of course no-one really worries about such things in the countryside, where “simple and working” does the job no matter what a thing looks like. And if we were true country hacks we’d probably just bypass the whole thing with a pipe to a sneaky out-of-the-way outlet (I’ve seen it done). But alas we’re rule followers and Scandinavian to boot, so we feel obligated to do everything “by the book” which means we’re going though the motions to get it properly fixed.
Which is where the whole slower-pace-of-life thing can become a bit of a bother….
First there’s an organization called Service Public de l’Assainissement Non-Collectif aka SPANC who you have to contact that are responsible for all septic tank installations throughout France. Then you need a registered guy to come out and do a soil-study, then (based on those results) you can get someone else to come out and actually build a new system for you. Finally the whole thing gets approved by SPANC again.
And how long all that takes is anyone’s guess!
Folks will promise to call you de suite which could mean tomorrow, or next week. Parts will come on an ad-hoc basis, workmen may show up or decide not to, and no-one will understand if you get impatient about it all. So it could take a few weeks, or several months and that’s just the way things are.
Since we’ve been living in France I’ve learned to become patient, or rather more patient since it’s not exactly my default state of mind. The countryside has a flow and and a cadence that you simply can’t push, and if you want to live here with your sanity in-tact you just have to give into it.
I love it but darn it, it also drives me crazy sometimes.
Bureaucracy, Paperwork & Time
Fill out these 2 forms, send it in with these 5 things and then plan to wait for about a year
WHAT??? A year?
I was on some forums trying to figure out how to get our US driving licenses swapped to French ones (which is a requirement for anyone who wants to legally drive beyond a year of residence in France). Our Florida licenses were on the approved swap list, which was a massive positive (not all US state licenses can be swapped in France), but of course the process wasn’t straight-forward requiring multiple forms, appointments, and specifics that varied just slightly enough to be annoying from préfecture to préfecture.
And then that year or so of waiting….
When we first came to France we anticipated all this. After all, this is a country that loves process, and forms, and all things in duplicate. But I have to admit that the reality of it has exceeded our expectations. There is a form for everything (yes, even that little garden shed you might be thinking of erecting in your backyard), a process for everything (woe be to thee that tryeth to circumventeth the sacred process) and time to work through it all that will always take longer than you expect.
As it turns out our French licenses only took around 8 months to get, a speedy exchange. And we’ve become near-experts at all the rest.
Next week we’ll be printing off another few inches of paperwork for Paul’s CDS (Carte de Sejour, or residence card). This is his third renewal so we know exactly what to prepare, and since he’s already in the system the whole process should (fingers & paws crossed) go pretty smoothly. We may just have to kill off a few trees to get there first…
But yes, it’s all worth it in the end. Despite the paperwork, and the sometimes aggravating slowness of things, what I’ve come to love the most about country living in France is the community spirit.
We’re entering summertime now, a time that’s usually vibrant here in the Southwest with village festivals, music, get-togethers and community dinners. We volunteered at our local event last year, and would have done the same this year if COVID-19 hadn’t halted everything in it’s tracks (as of today, it looks like all festivals are cancelled until Sept). Instead we’ve received free cloth masks from the Mairie, a little delayed perhaps (that country time, ya know) but nonetheless a community touch that’s much appreciated.
Folks here care and check in on each other, and it’s something I’ve really come to value. It takes time to integrate, time to get things done and time (so much time) to figure out how it all works, but you’ve got access to baguettes 24/7, and all the time in the world to share them with your friends. That’s a compromise I can live with.
So, my dear readers my question for the week. What have you found while traveling that seemed strange at first, but is now second nature? I’d love to hear!