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Cheer Up America, You Could be In France or Switzerland

By       Message Patrick Mattimore       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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Eating, Driving and Living in France and Switzerland

    I live in France but I'm only minutes from the Swiss border so I can do a food evaluation thing for both countries- no problem. First, I'm no gourmet. I think that's important to understand because some people will swoon over the "gastronomie"- in France because they actually have sophisticated palates. That's not me. I'm not big on the creamie cheeses that have something through the middle of them and smell bad. In fact, the cheese I eat all the time here, Comte, is a step or two below an Irish or Vermont cheddar. The French, however, will predictably turn up their noses, which are already pretty turned up, if you mention the word cheddar, since they don't consider that a real fromage.

    Big problem in France is that although I actually know quite a few French words, it is entirely possible for me to go through an entire French menu and not recognize anything. I think they must have special menus in fancy French restaurants that use completely obscure French words. So I tend to stick to the Snack shop, which is a fast-food restaurant that is attached to the apartment where I live. The one thing you don't want to get there though is the Americain, which is a hamburger with French fries on top of it. I've tried to convince the woman who runs the place that she should get rid of the fries on top action, or at least change the name, but she just smiles and says "Non, Monsieur"-. And, of course, that's the big seller on the menu.

    Swiss food sucks. Period. Fondue is okay if you don't get a smelly cheese. Once a month, max, though. Chocolate is nothing special and costs twice what you would pay for the same stuff in the U.S. Actually, everything is pretty much that way. You could make a pretty good markup importing Swiss army knives from, say, New York, and selling them in Geneva.

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    I paid about $7.60 for a standard (small) pack of dental floss in a pharmacy the other day. A venti latte at Starbucks in Geneva will cost you about $7 and the accompanying scone, another $3.50, while gas is roughly double the cost of gas in the U.S.

    Then there's the infuriating French habit of closing restaurants just when you get there. Like if you go to eat around 1:40 in the afternoon even though the restaurant has an ouvert (open) sign from 12:00-2:00 the propriedad (owner) will tell you that he's vraiment desole (truly sorry) but it's too late to prepare your lunch. Of course, there is the French work tradition that everything but restaurants close from 12:00-2:00 and nothing is open on Sundays or Mondays and people usually manage to work out some other vacations in addition to the full month of August and assorted other holidays. Even when the French are working there is always the possibility someone will call for a greve (a strike) which everyone must honor. My favorite so far though was the Swiss holiday a couple of weeks ago in which everything seemed to be operating normally in Switzerland, but the bus drivers on the line from my house in France to the Swiss border decided to take une fete (holiday).  

    And speaking of driving... After you get past your initial delight at being able to drive one of those cute little Peugeots or Renaults, you will discover the joys of the French roundabouts. Roundabouts are American equivalents of four-way stop signs or traffic-signal controlled intersections, but with the original French twist of placing gardens and concrete abutments in the middle of the street and adding a certain element of unsupervised chaos to your life.

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    At each roundabout, you will see a variety of signs such as "Vous n'avez pas la priorite,"- which roughly means yield. My favorite sign is "toutes directions"-. Toutes directions means all directions and you immediately experience a dilemma because in addition to the sign ushering you in toutes directions, there are at least three other routes you can take off the roundabout. So what exactly does toutes directions mean?

    Well, at first I thought it was like American one way signs telling everyone they had to go a certain way. No, that's way too dictatorial for the French. Then I thought it was a helpful way to let you keep going through the roundabouts until you figured out where you actually were trying to get to. Still a possibility, but if you keep following the toutes directions signs you won't miraculously end up where you want to be. However,  I suppose if you follow them long enough you will get to Paris.

    My current best guess on toutes directions signs, which by the way are often inartfully placed near autres directions (other directions) signs, is that it is the French way of letting everyone know that you can never truly be lost in France. But you can go broke here.


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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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