The Minefield of French Customs

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July 29th 2019
Published: July 30th 2019
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I decide to surprise Issy with breakfast in bed, so I do that most French of all things and make my way down to the local boulangerie to buy a breadstick and some cheese. I’ve seen lots of people walking the streets here in the mornings carrying their breadsticks wrapped in paper, and I now feel like a real Frenchman. This feeling lasts for about thirty seconds until I get to the counter to pay, and I’m asked a question in French that I can’t understand.

I read an article about some slightly unusual French habits and customs. Apparently I need to be very careful with the breadstick I just bought. It is considered very bad luck to put it on a table upside down, and not just because it wobbles. It seems that putting it upside down symbolises the “evil eye” having entered the house, and the only way of getting rid of it is to draw a cross on the underside of the breadstick with a sharp knife. Just as well I bought a sharp knife this morning to cut the baguette and the cheese with. I continue reading the article aloud to Issy. It goes onto say that it is also very bad form to give someone a knife as a gift in France, because this is considered to symbolise the cutting of the relationship. Issy asks me why I bought her a knife. I thought I bought it for both of us and because it would be useful, and when I bought it I didn’t know about the cutting the relationship thing. I thought I was being thoughtful and romantic by going out and buying my beloved breakfast in bed, but now she thinks I want a divorce. This morning is not going at all to plan. It seems that French habits and customs are a real minefield. By reading this article I’m now in real trouble with my beloved, and she’s not even French. I decide to stop reading, as at least then the only people I’ll be at risk of offending won’t include anyone I’m married to. The other downside of the morning is that the cheese I bought is very smelly, and while it was very tasty, we need to get out of the room soon before we both suffocate.

I manage to convince Issy that I would really like us to stay married, and she seems to be very slowly coming around to reciprocating, so we set off for the Chateau de Chenonceau which is about 20 kms south of Amboise. The Chateau spans the entire Cher River, and is France’s second most visited Chateau after Versailles. It includes a chapel, a gallery along the entire section spanning the river, large kitchens, and seemingly endless formal living and bedrooms, most of which are decorated with fancy furniture and massive tapestries. We wander through the chateau and admire the views of it from the opposite bank, and then stroll through the formal gardens and the very extensive forest that form the remainder of the estate. It is spectacular both inside and out. We both like this Chateau, which is good because it’s taken our minds off the less than perfect start to the day. I like it mostly because of the spectacular building spanning the entire river; Issy likes it because of the forest. Issy really likes forests. She much prefers them to formal gardens, which she says are nice to look at but are a bit lacking in emotion, and buildings don’t rate with her at all. That would seem to clear up any doubts we might have had about which of us is the artist and which is the engineer.

Chenonceau was built in the early 16th century on the site of an old mill, and has changed ownership many times over the centuries. The current owner’s forebears set up a military hospital in the gallery during World War I. Prior to the German occupation of all of France from 1942, the Cher River formed the boundary between the country’s occupied and free zones, and the Chateau was often used as an escape route between the two.

We drove past the Château de Fougères-sur-Bièvre in the pouring rain with Mark and Carol a few days ago, and decided then that it was probably worth a second look in drier weather. If Chambord is a ten on the Chateau Size and Grandeur Scale, then Fougères-sur-Bièvre is probably a two, but we decide that that on its own doesn’t mean that it mightn’t be interesting. Actually it’s only me who makes this decision; Issy has fallen asleep in the car, so I leave her in peace while I go to investigate. It looks a lot older than the other Chateaus we’ve been to and I read that it was originally built in the 11th century, but then largely rebuilt in the 15th century. It looks more like a fort than a stately home, with turrets and holes for cannons to shoot through. There are no tapestries on the walls or any fancy furniture in the rooms here, and restoration works are still underway. In two of the larger rooms it looks like the only things stopping the ceilings from collapsing are some very substantial temporary supports. I decide that it might be best if I don’t linger in these rooms for too long. I think this is probably an example of a chateau that was owned by a noble family a bit further down the food chain, where the emphasis was probably a bit more on defending themselves against angry peasants than on opulent living.

We drive back to Amboise and I leave Issy to rest while I drive across the river to try to get some happy snaps of the Chateau d’Amboise as the sun is setting. The river bank is well populated with romantic young couples hidden away in amongst the trees, and I have to work hard to avoid disturbing them.

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31st July 2019
Chateau de Chenonceau


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