Notes from the South of France

Dear Readers,

I spent the month of March in a charming little town in the South of France: Gémenos. It was a work trip, a training that my company arranged. Quite honestly, I was looking forward to a month of relaxation and self-discovery. Exploring quaint French towns with a pain au chocolat in one hand and a piece of Brie in another, sun-kissed by the warm Spring Sun. But along the way, I started writing down my personal observations of things around me: the sights, the culture, the people – just about anything I found interesting. To confirm or correct my theories, I discussed them with local colleagues, expats, strangers I met on trains and even fellow visitors.

And then I compiled all my thoughts into this one article. So here it goes.

Greetings

You can’t beat the French when it comes to courtesy and etiquette. Acquaintances encountered in offices, gyms, markets, restaurants and so on are given a customary bisous, a kiss on both cheeks. This might come as a surprise to some, since most cultures don’t go farther than a handshake. But it is only their way of expressing love and respect. In fact, it is not uncommon to find complete strangers greeting each other with a bonjour or polite nod every now and then. Courtesy is innate to their culture. Of course, not everyone does it and you don’t have to get bisoused if you are not comfortable with it.

Warm, Friendly and Helpful People

I had heard and read about the French being uptight to people who didn’t speak their language or came from a different background. But what I experienced was quite the opposite! Most locals go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome, despite any barriers like culture or language. The day I landed, a colleague turned up at my hotel with her daughter. They drove me around town, and afterwards her daughter offered to take me to Marseille the following Saturday. Another day, a lady I just met offered to drive me home. They didn’t have to do any of this. But they did, because it’s normal for them to offer help when they can. As they would say, c’est pas de problème!

The following pictures will help re-iterate my point.

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With a colleague’s daughter Claire, who offered to show me around Marseille only after our first meeting. Which one am I? The prominently Indian-looking girl (extreme left)
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With my wonderful colleagues who took me to Cassis for lunch one Thursday. It is well-known for its cliffs and sheltered inlets, known as Calanques. 
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One weekend I was invited over and hosted excellently by Sylvie (my colleague), Richard (her husband) and Latetitia and Mareva (her teenage daughters) to their mesmerizing home overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Sylvie prepared the 5-course meal herself, complete with a vin de Pastis and the authentic fromage d’Epoisses
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Generously gifted a whole bunch of goodies as a parting gift on my last day of work.

Breathtaking sights

In general, Europe offers a perfect mix of medieval architecture set against a backdrop of resplendent natural beauty. The South of France is a compelling testimony to this. Whether it is the French Riviera that includes Nice and Monaco, the Roman Colosseum in Arles, the lively 17th-century Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence, the VieuxPort of Marseille, or the resplendent view of the Mediterranean Sea along Route des Crêtes; the sheer variety can be overwhelming.

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Vieux-Port, Marseille
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Amphitheatre, Arles
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Cassis
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Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence

About the 35-hour work week 

France has been in the news frequently for its 35-hour workweek regulation. However, this does not hold true for everyone. The regulation was created for workers on hourly wage and not white collar professionals. Speaking of my profession – engineering – most employees work 8-9 hours a day including lunch. In general, how long you work depends on the industry you work in, the nature of your role, and quite simply how much work you have.

Work culture

You’ll find a lot of people in France who have worked in the same function, same industry or even same company for many years. While the rest of the world talks about switching jobs every 2-3 years, the French stay in the same job for 10, 15, 20 years. Sometimes, even their whole life. Curious about the reason behind this, I asked two of my colleagues who have been working in our company for 20+ years now. They have this to say, “In France, the unemployment rate is extremely high (~10%).  It is very difficult to get a job. The best way to get a job is if you know someone. So when you get a job, you keep it. So it is crucial that students graduating high school choose the right specialization. “

To me, people seemed accepting and uncomplaining of the situation. With generous social security schemes, family life and hobbies to keep them occupied, they appeared content in general.

Language

I was born and brought up in India, where you’re unofficially expected to prioritize English as your first language, as opposed to Hindi or your mother tongue. English isn’t just another language, but a social status symbol. France on the other hand, tells a different story. In an effort to retain and distinguish her identity, France has always emphasized the importance of the French language. Anyone who is French speaks the language excellently and un-apologetically. And it becomes imperative for any outsider wanting to fully blend in.

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Diet

One of the first things that I observed in France was the lack of obesity. I couldn’t understand it, seeing how traditional French food practically consists of patisserie, boulangerie, cheese and processed meat. But the truth is that the French are extremely conscious of what they eat. They gorge on the fresh vegetables and fruits that are commonly available in farmers’ markets. Yogurts accompany almost every meal. The French food that we know of is reserved for treats and occasions, and even then the portions are controlled. Of course, in some cases it’s plain genetics.

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Exercise

During my time there, I attended a RPM (HIIT bike) class at the local gym with some colleagues. There was this lady on the bike in front of me, with a tiny waist and a firm butt. And she was biking vigorously. I thought to myself, there’s a motivated teenager. Turns out she was no teenager after all. In fact, she was 70 years old.

Exercise for most people in France is an indispensable habit. Like brushing teeth or bathing. Regardless of age, profession or socio-economic background, everyone is into something or the other: running, biking, intensive workouts in the gym, swimming, dance, windsurfing and so on.

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Claire convinced me to attend her Zumba class on my second day in Gemenos. It was her second workout session that day.

Honey, I like Sunny

The Sun is an important decision maker in France. It can control people’s state of mind. The day it comes out, people are so happy you can almost see them dancing. And the day it decides to stay in, the smiles dim a little. But I believe this is true for most European countries. As the winters are terribly cold and windy, and the warm embrace of the Sun feels like that of a reassuring friend.

Well, with that we come to an end. I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and views. If you have anything to add, or feel differently about any of the points I mentioned, feel free to comment below or email me!

Lots of Love,

Swarnima

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Author: Swarnima Korde

Engineer. Story-teller. Listener. Writer.

10 thoughts on “Notes from the South of France”

  1. Supurb write up.
    You made me experience your trip the same way you enjoyed your France trip.
    I appreciate your observations and writing skills to translate the same into repeat experience.

    Like

  2. Your write up is like a true French patisserie, boulangerie treat, with well chosen yet very simple words. Gr8 going, keep it up… and more is needed from this delightful experience…:)

    Like

  3. Swarnima as usual well worded article. You really enjoy everything that you do, so your observations are heart felt. Keep travelling like this and take us on a trip through your experiences .

    Like

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