French Country Life vs. English Country Life — Part 1
My recent six-and-a-half-week sojourn in the United Kingdom counties of South Gloucestershire and Devon made we curious to see how rural life in the UK's southwest compares to life in the French countryside of Brittany. The latter is where I have a second home and have traveled extensively. Let me preface this post by saying these comparisons are my own views based solely on my somewhat limited observations as well as some recent statistics.
Farmer’s markets and food quality
I arrived in South Gloucestershire in mid-July where I’d booked a studio cottage in what was described as a small market town surrounded by beautiful countryside. I was looking forward to enjoying fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, hopefully organic or by local farmers who use a minimal amount of pesticides. On my first visit to the local farmer’s market, held twice a month, disappointment overwhelmed me. There was not one farmer selling vegetables. And the only fruit laid buried under layers of thick, flavorless dough in pies and pastries. There was no shortage of sweet and savory pasties, pies, cakes, cookies and fudge. The only other venders were a fish monger, a sausage maker and one offering samples of bland cow cheeses.
Being a fan of the Great British Baking Show, I was eager to try the baked goods. I enjoyed the cherries in the pie which wasn't overly sweet, but there was not a trace of butter in the bland crust. The chocolate cake I had was tasteless, with no hint of chocolate. They were definitely made with low-quality ingredients. They would not measure up to the pastries one can find at a French train station, let alone in a quality boulangerie or patisserie.
After finding no vegies at the market, I asked a lady in the village where I could buy fruits and vegetables, and she directed me to a vegetable market down the street. Outside were displays of sad looking tomatoes and mushy zucchinis, but the strawberries looked good. Inside I was greeted with more pies and baked goods. I asked the clerk if any of the vegetables or the strawberries were organic, or if they were minimally sprayed with pesticides. She had no idea, so she asked the owner who said she didn't know either. I was shocked that someone selling produce has no idea of how or where they are grown.
The supermarket also yielded no organic produce and almost no other organic food items. While talking with locals, I learned it simply isn't an area where people are willing to pay several times more for the organic version. Because they are more concern with the cost of items, the idea of eating locally had not caught on. I found a similar situation in the villages near Exeter in the county of Devon.
A recent article in The Guardian, states, “The UK has failed to ban 36 pesticides that are not allowed for use in the EU, as campaigners say it is becoming the ‘toxic poster child of Europe’.”
Even the smallest villages in France have a weekly farmer’s market selling locally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables. At my weekly market in Brittany, you’ll find several farmers displaying a plethora of fresh produce along with four different fromagers selling a variety of sheep, cow and goat cheeses, three or more bakers, two butchers and a coffee truck. There’s also usually someone selling crafts, homemade teas and/or soaps. And this is a small weekly market! I don’t know if all the vegetables are organic or minimally sprayed, but I can always ask the farmer who is selling them.
I also buy fruits and vegetables freshly picked from a local farmer (less than a mile away) who, although not certified organic, uses a minimal amount of spray. There are some organic fruits and vegetables in the supermarket and at the health food store. Of course, they cost more, but at least people have the option. Although some of the worst pesticides have been banned in France, there are still dangerously high levels of pesticides in use. Fortunately, organic farming is on the rise, and as of 2021 represented 13.4 percent of agriculture.
When it comes to charity shops (what we in the US call thrift shops), I have to give an A+ to the UK. There were 10 shops just in the small town where I was staying. Each one was a clean and tastefully curated boutique. Clothing and other items were nicely displayed in the windows and grouped by color throughout the store. The prices were good too, with most clothing items between seven ($8.89) and 10 pounds ($12.68).
While you’ll find charity shops throughout France in small towns and village, it’s not the same experience. Clothes and different types of items are grouped together, but seldom arranged in attractive displays. You can find great deals, but they are not the most attractive places to shop. And in some the musty odor is so strong I have to shop quickly and get out fast.
In the French countryside, whether walking or biking, 99.9 percent of people say “Bonjour” or “Bonjour Madame” when we pass each other on the street or on a river-front path. In the English countryside, only on rare occasions did I receive a “hello.” However, if I initiated a greeting, most, but not all, people reciprocated. It’s just a different culture, but I’ve come to appreciate and adore the French greeting as a way of respecting and acknowledging another human being.
I do love the way almost everyone in England called me “love” or “my love.” I found this very endearing. If a gentleman needed me to move so he could get by, it was “Sorry love.” When the barmaid handed me my pint, it was, “There you go love.” The lady in the gift shop greeted me with, “What can I do for you, my love.”
Department stores and grocery stores are air conditioned in the UK. Not that I needed it when it was only 65 degrees outside. It was like stepping into a meat locker and I always had to remember to bring a sweater.
In the US, stores and supermarkets are places to take refuge on a hot day if you don’t have AC. In France, air conditioning, for the most part, doesn’t exist. You’re lucky if there is one fan running at the supermarket. If it’s 85 outside, it’s 90 in the store. I don’t understand how people working there can handle it. After 15 minutes, the heat is melting my brain, sweat is dripping down my face, and I’m fleeing out the door to my air-conditioned car.
I found the British to be generally loud, just like Americans. They have no problem shouting at a friend across the street or talking at the top of their lungs in a restaurant. And similar to America, I found most British restaurants to be extremely noisy.
One of the things I love about the French is their ability to speak in quiet tones, especially while dining. The French keep their voices low in restaurants and I appreciate it as it keeps the overall ambient noise level to a minimum, which means the restaurant doesn’t have to crank up the music. As an American, when I get excited, I forgot about keeping my voice within a softer range. But I'm sure to be reminded by the disapproving stare from a fellow patron at the next table.
Tune in next week for part-two when I compare population density, property prices, bugs, smoking and more. See which country is the winner in my eyes.