After nearly twenty two years of living in France, there are still some cultural differences which, well, make a difference. One or two things irritate the hell out of me, but that's just me being a Brit. We aren't exactly lacking in bizarre behavioural quirks ourselves. We sometimes describe people as being 'too clever by half,' for example, a notion which is incomprehensible to the rest of the world.
Here, one is subject to absurd and stifling bureaucracy. Every day, we empty the post box and find letters addressed to Mme.DOLAN Camille and M.FUKE Robert. Once in the system, you become an alphabetically arranged statistic, which goes against the grain of Brit sensibilities: 'I am not a statistic, I'm a free man.
I once worked for a couple of years at the University of Montpellier. When I started, the administration asked for a copy of my degree. I rummaged about at home and then called my parents, who didn't have it either. Finally, I called the old alma mater, who faxed it to Montpellier in twenty minutes. To do the same in the other direction would require passport, birth certificate and probably the blood group and favourite colour of at least two grandparents.
I must interrupt myself, as I just had a call from someone trying to sell me something: 'M.FUKE Robert?' 'Non, Madame, je suis ROBERT Fuke.' Childish, I know, but it makes me feel better.
Here, one is asked to produce proof of identity in the most unlikely situations. The plastic casing on my car key wore out so that the button for opening the door wouldn't work. I went into a dealership to buy a replacement. I didn't want the key or the chip inside, just the plastic shell. The guy asked me for some form of identity. I rarely carry ID, despite it being obligatory, mainly on principal, but also because I don't need it. I know who I am.
There is an obsessive national desire to impose order on every aspect of existence. The numerous Plane Trees around the village are pollarded every year, as though nature isn't quite playing the game. Order must be imposed. It's a deeply ingrained worldview which is baffling to the rest of us. Just look at the gardens of Le Notre, such as Versailles and Kew, compared to those of Capability Brown. Nurture in the broad sense versus idealised nature.
The problem is that such innate control-freakery has its price. To get something done can take weeks of form filling. Successive governments have tried to reduce this inefficiency, but it is very difficult to change when such a large proportion of the population have a vested interest in keeping it the same. There were stories in the Eighties in Britain of print workers getting paid for non-existent jobs. Here, the civil service are still pulling the same scam.
It never seems to occur to people that in the time it takes to fill in a lot of unnecessary forms, workers in Asia and elsewhere have thrown together several dozen cars or a few thousand smartphones.
As I said at the beginning, we take our own national idiosyncrasies as being set in stone. Well, it stands to reason, doesn't it? For the same reason, if you try to argue with someone French about things which seem strange to us, they will look at you pityingly, as though you are out of touch with reality.
This begs the question: which things do we take for granted which to the rest of the world have no grounding in reality? I'd like to hear your comments, but if you are from Britain, you'll be just as unaware of these quirks as myself.
Good God, we might have to listen to the advice of foreigners.