As Doug mentioned in his post about Quebec, we start nearly every interaction in France with the same two sentences: We don’t speak French. Do you speak English? We receive far more “no” responses than we expected. Everyone tries to help and fortunately we are usually able to communicate our basic needs like finding a grocery store, water, or a safe place to put our tent, but full conversations are very rare. This was a bit of a surprise, but not the only one that we have encountered during our three week tour of northern France (and counting).
After experiencing the boulangeries (bakeries) in Paris, we can’t help but stop at one nearly every morning. We can fill up on fresh pastries for a few euros, instead of snacking on our usual processed granola bars. There is at least one and usually more boulangeries in every little town. It seems to be part of the local routine to stop for fresh pastries and baguettes every morning. We’ve also seen quite a few outdoor markets, even in October, where people seem to be doing their weekly shopping for fresh meats, seafood, fruits, and vegetables. It isn’t a local produce market like in the US, but rather a collection of local importers creating a fresh food market for the town. Grocery stores are much smaller than we are accustomed to in the US and only found in bigger towns. Processed food is much less common, artificial sweeteners are nowhere to be found, and fast food is not the bargain that we are used to. For example, McDonalds is at least twice as expensive in France as compared to the US. This emphasis on affordable fresh food within each town is quite a pleasant surprise and may help to explain the smaller waistlines around France despite all of the wonderfully rich and buttery food, which we will truly miss.
Doug mentioned in his last post that conversations about bicycle touring often degrade to bathroom stories. So in continuing the tradition, bathrooms in France are a bit different with some unexpected surprises that we will not miss. In people’s homes and hotels, the toilet, sink, and shower are often split between two rooms, but not as you might expect. The toilet is in a room by itself and the sink and shower are in a room right next door. Why? I have no idea. It doesn’t seem to make sense, nor does having a shower hose nozzle with no wall mount. Many showers simply have the shower hose nozzle connected to the tub faucet and you have to hold the nozzle to shower. This requires either turning off the water (perhaps part of the reasoning) or positioning the hose carefully pointed down so as to not spray water all over the bathroom while washing. This is especially important when staying with WarmShowers hosts. Campground bathrooms have their quirks too. Some seem to have a B.Y.O.T.P. policy. Fortunately, we always carry a small travel roll, but now we always look before we sit. None of these are a big deal, they just make life more interesting and are a little inconvenient compared to what we are used to. We’re sure it will get even more “interesting” as we head further east.
We are also not accustomed to being in a place with stores closed on Sundays and not opening on weekdays until at least 9:30 a.m., including cafes. We are easily able to work around this with a bit of planning. However, we still find it a bit odd that on the few occasions where we have been in a town, even Paris, before 9:00 a.m. that the streets are still quite deserted. This did work to our advantage when we rode out of Paris on a Friday morning. We rolled away from the hotel around 8:15 a.m., not too early, and the traffic didn’t seem to really pick up until 9:00 a.m. when we were nearly out of the city. Great!
We will be crossing into Spain in a few days after spending about three weeks cycling across northern and western France. While we have only seen a small portion of this large country, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have been able to count our time in weeks, not days. We were able to experience the non-tourist aspects of a country in the way we hoped bicycling would provide, as well as making time to see a few of the major attractions, including a Champagne cellar (Taittinger), Versailles, Normandy, and Mont Saint-Michel. Au revoir France.
Special Thanks: We want to extend a special thanks to Loic of La Maison Periot for incredible generosity making our first stay in a gite one we will always remember. We also want to especially thank our WarmShowers hosts, Francoise and Yves for taking a chance on hosting a non-French speaking couple. We had a wonderful evening, including dinner cooked nearly exclusively with vegetables grown in their garden.