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Ten things I wish I'd known before I moved to rural France

The Local France
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Ten things I wish I'd known before I moved to rural France
People walk on February 5, 2020 near the city hall of Signes, a small village in France (Photo by CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU / AFP)

Jonathan Miller, a journalist in south western France, lays out the ten things he wishes he had been told before he took a one-way trip to rural France.


1. How to speak "local" French

It would have been useful to have been able to communicate with the locals. Assume that whatever you learned in school will be useless when you encounter the local argot. In the intimacy of a village, humiliation is an effective learning aid.

Me, at the boulangerie shortly after arriving: 'Un baguette, s'il vous plait.' Bread shop lady, witheringly: 'Une baguette.' I didn't get that wrong again. Fortunately, learning French is not impossible; it's just that the first ten years are the hardest. 

2. How to do a French greeting

Politesse is crucial in a French village. One is expected to meet and greet people appropriately, which means looking them in the eye and saying bonjour as if you mean it, at a minimum. Then as you get to know people, shaking hands and kissing three times, according to the local code [Ed's note: Miller lives in southern France's Languedoc]. It's weird, I know. Just deal with it.

3. Knowing your saints

Who are all these saints? It's almost impossible to recognise the supposed saints nobody has ever heard of who have given their names to the most obscure places in the most obscure corners of France. Saint Privat! Who he? Saint Pons? Sainte Thibéry? Give me a break.


4. The importance of cement 

The French love breeze blocks, and nowhere is this love affair more intense than in rural France. In one of the most regulated countries on earth, with a gigantic bureaucracy of state and local officials, they seem completely incapable of enforcing building codes. In villages, carbuncles of concrete blocks don’t even get a spray-on coat of render. French people plead poverty when you ask about this while installing swimming pools behind their Berlin-style walls. 

5. Forget about French 'style'

Not much of it here in the boondocks where the tailors are not rich. The French reputation for elegance does not survive an encounter with the locals. Obviously, there are some who make an effort, but the costume hereabouts is more bleu de travail than rue du Faubourg Sainte-Honoré. 

6. The food's not always amazing

The weekly village markets have wonderful things to eat, provided that you cook them yourself, and there are some great restaurants around... but terrible food is also a feature of the French boondocks. Supermarkets are average, pizza and McDonald's are hugely popular, and the beef is tough, flavourless, and not hung properly.

A decent cup of tea? Forget it. Why can nobody explain why, with the finest cows and magnificent cheeses, French milk is boiled at ultra high temperature and sold in cardboard cartons?  You can get fresh milk of a kind in supermarkets, if you can bear visiting them, but not in most villages.


7.  Everything is always shut

Basic services don’t exist. Clever artisans won’t hire staff to help them because the tax and social laws are so loopy. Taxis to the airport are twice as expensive as in the UK. Inadequate commerce generally. Napoleon said the British were a nation of shopkeepers but maybe he was jealous.

8. People have dreadful teeth

Many of your neighbours will have them. Perhaps Paris is better but here in the sticks, French healthcare isn’t quite as good as some people make it out to be. An evident failure is dental health.

9. You need a pharmacy for headache tablets

Not especially a rural problem but true everywhere in France: You can’t buy a flipping aspirin except at a pharmacy. Pharmacies, at least around here, it must be noted, have all thoughtfully installed an exterior condom dispenser to serve customers' urges out of opening hours. Stock up with pills at Boots in Gatwick. 

10. Villages have dark and terrible secrets  

After you have moved to your village in France, got the hang of the language and made friends, you will hear some amazing and sometimes terrible stories. A couple of years ago I suggested to our local mayor that we hold a conference in the village hall, to talk about the liberation of the village in 1944. ‘Too sensitive,' he replied. My curiosity was piqued. He was right.

Jonathan Miller and a journalist and author of France:  A Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2015). This article was first published in 2018.



Comments (5)

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Anonymous 2020/05/30 11:51
Are not the Brits' renowned for their ironic wit?<br /><br />I sense Mr Miller is most content with his lot; as are the locals of his domain - having elected him to their council.<br /><br />Befriend the locals, feed the village cats, be generous of spirit and be helpful. In other words - assimilate.<br /><br />If you make the effort you will find yourself - on the all-important local scale of hierarchy - at least one level above 'the Parisian'! (apologies to parisians.)<br /><br />Oh; and if you happen to mention in the local bar that you're having a BBQ - don't be surprised when they all turn up... .
Anonymous 2020/05/30 08:37
Observe: the photo shows "kissing" as a full wet smacker on the cheek. Wrong!! <br />You are supposed to brush cheeks, i.e the side of your face. The French do not plant saliva laden smackers on each other. You will be detested if you do that....
Anonymous 2020/05/29 19:29
If you are so negative about living in France, why don't you go back?!<br /><br />
Anonymous 2020/05/29 17:45
This article is outdated, and not only with regard to Covid 19.
Anonymous 2019/06/05 07:28
Totally agree with everything - after thirteen years in rural western France..... isn't it wonderful?<br />Our village secret has two suicides connected to illicit affairs, and someone throwing themselves onto the coffin at the funeral- and that's not to mention the four dead Germans buried in a cave under our house.... Palmers Green was never like this! We wave at all living creatures, both two legs and four, and accept that the postman may arrive late, reeking strongly of pastis....

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