The Secret Cevennes - articles by Samantha David
We've just got back from a couple of weeks in Scotland, amazed at how different it is from France. The first thing that hits you, especially when you live in a French city, is how chatty and friendly people are in Scotland. We travelled all round the country and everywhere was the same. Even when you're just buying a newspaper or a packet of sweets you don't just get served, you get a micro-conversation about the weather, last night's tv and the secret sexual proclivities of politicians and bankers.
I revelled in it. I love banter and jokes, especially when it's for nothing. You're never going to see the guy again, he doesn't really care if you're soaked to the skin or not; it's gratuitous small-talk, just amusing each other for the sake of it.
Here in France, I've been buying bread at the same local bakery twice a week for nearly two years now and the woman still doesn't give the slightest sign that she recognises me. "Bonjour?" she intones, as a way of asking what I want. "Je vous écoute." She doesn't even look at me straight in the eye. Does she even know what a smile is?
As I said, we travelled all over the country and I can tell you, there's food everywhere in Scotland. From morning to night, the shop windows are crammed with food, the air is thick with the smell of Chinese, Indian, Thai... pizza, chips, kebabs, curry, haggis, buffet style take-aways, eat-all-you want, free chips, double portions, all-day-breakfasts... to anyone accustomed to French eating habits, it's extraordinary. There seems to be no gap between one meal and another, no point at which cafés stop serving whatever you want to order.
Prices too, are eye-popping. When did they invent the £1 sandwich? The £3.99 roast dinner? The £5 fish supper including huge portions of haddock, chips, beans, bread and butter and a pint mug of tea? Perhaps I'm forgetful, but I don't remember prices being that low in the UK. Have they gone down or am I just used to French prices? Around here a bit of naked baguette with a single slice of ham inside it commands around 3 euros and for that you don't even get a whiff of mayo let alone a gratuitous joke.
On the other hand, the Scots appear to be paying the price for this glorious food fest. After France, the people looked enormous. Not just tall and broad-shouldered but er, not to put too fine a point on it, grossly overweight. In the shops, even in fashion chains, the sizes got right up to an 18 or a 20 whereas in France chains like Pimkie stop at 12 or 14. In the supermarkets the sizes were even larger. I've never seen such immense bikinis as in the George range.
I enjoyed it though. It was refreshing and deeply flattering to be called a slip of a thing, and I was thrilled to find so many clothes on the rails that were simply too big for me. Here in France shop assistants often gaze at me as if they're wondering how to sew two t-shirts together. But in Scotland, loads of women are much taller, broader and better-padded than me. I looked like them facially too. Lots of them were pale-skinned and blonde like me, they had the same round faces, snub noses, rainwater eyes and pink cheeks.
I stand out as a foreigner a mile off in France, and in Scotland I began to realise what a strain it is to look so different to the natives.
But when I got back to France I realised that perhaps I'm more French than I thought. Yes, all right the terrible bread-woman is off-hand and stroppy, but at least here in the market there are olive stands and fat pink garlic, herbs and lemons and garlic marinades, crimson tomatoes and mange-tout. At least here there is saucisson sec and cornichons, there is water on the table, and green salad and a long gap between lunch and dinner during which no-body sells any food at all.
On the other hand, I do miss those Scottish glasses of wine containing nearly a third of a bottle...
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