What is it like to live in Brittany in France?
It’s obviously wonderful to live in Brittany and there are a huge amount of benefits, but there are many differences in the lifestyle between the British and the Bretons.
I am a big believer in the concept of ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’
So these cultural differences are not complaints about the Breton or French culture, just observations that are intended to help any visitors to Brittany or France.
Driving in Brittany
The first thing that you notice as you enter Brittany is the comparative lack of motor traffic. The N12 which is the main thoroughfare running between Rennes and Brest even at its busiest time, is still the equivalent of the English M25 at 4am on a Sunday morning! This makes driving in Brittany a sheer pleasure. The attitudes of other drivers in France vary, just like England, but on the whole Breton drivers seem calmer, and sometimes somewhat indifferent to any drama.
Their attitude towards their own vehicles seems strange sometimes, a French friend of ours noticed that he had a hubcap missing. Instead of fitting a new one he removed the remaining three hubcaps so that all of his wheels looked the same. I don’t think he is the only one, me having witnessed plenty of hubcap-free vehicles roaming around.
British people hate food getting cold, but our Breton cousins don’t seem to care! Just recently we were in a restaurant having dinner when a party of eight arrived, having booked the table next to us. They sat down and chatted, and when their meals arrived, which comprised of mainly steak and chips, they carried on their conversation, letting the food sit there neglected.
When they did start eating, it was in fits and starts, with plenty more talking than eating. I have since been told that this habit is not limited to just the French, but other parts of Europe including Italy being guilty of this as well.
It did occur that there seems to be less overweight people in France than Britain, so perhaps this is their secret weapon against obesity!
Drinking habits in Brittany V Britain
Both the British and the good people of Brittany enjoy a good alcoholic drink, but whilst the Brits will normally start at a ‘respectable time’ some of the Bretons will happily start their day with a glass of wine.
You’ll see men, at nine in the morning, have a couple of glasses of Kir and then toddle off to work. Kir, (pronounced ‘Keer’) is a mixture of white wine mixed with blackcurrant flavoured crème de cassis, although other flavours are often used such as peach. This drink is served in glass flutes and costs just a couple of euros.
At lunchtime, there are restaurants and cafes that operate an ‘all-in’ policy where the customer gets to choose from a selection of starters, main courses, desserts, cheeses and coffee, and a carafe of red or white wine or water. Most people will choose the wine.
However in the evenings, when the Britts are thinking of popping out for a quick-one, many Bretons are home for the night. In fact many bars are closed early by British standards.
Over the last decade or more, we Brits have got used to clearing up after our pooch has done its business, and we are pretty geared up for this unpleasant routine, with free dispensations of plastic bags to handle the task. Not so in France. Dogs are allowed by their owners to go as they please and this results in high amounts of dog waste in Brittany and France as a country.
Is it against the law? Surely it must contravene EU legislation or at least a local public area cleanliness act, because in Paris there have been well documented attempts to rid the streets of poo, cigarettes and human urine, by imposing fines on offenders.
Dogs are adored in Brittany, and are pretty much welcomed at all restaurants and bars, and apart from the poo aspect, the french tend to be more strict with their animals and are more inclined to make their dogs behave in public.
I once spent a train journey opposite an elderly couple, and when train arrived at their destination and they stood up to leave, to my amazement there was a dog burrowed in their hold-all who had been so quiet I hadn’t realised he was there! I did wonder if the dog had left anything at the bottom of the bag…
Public toilets in France
Having mentioned the toilet habits of our canine chums, it’s only fair to apply any differences in toilet culture to the human owners.
You may notice as you drive along the roads in France is that you’ll see men having a pee on the side of the road. Not behind a tree or a fence, but in full view of everyone. It’s as if as soon as they feel the urge, the brake goes on, and then they wee wherever they are. Just saying!
Public toilets can be interesting. There are still the old fashioned toilets in parts of Brittany and France, where the toilet is a hole with an on-floor indication where your feet must go. Using your leg muscles to balance, you then do your business hopefully without toppling over. It’s an unpleasant experience, but these loo’s are being phased out.
Possibly more shocking, especially for ladies, is the urinal in the hand washing area of the unisex toilets.
Imagine, a lady comes out of the toilet cubicle ready to wash her hands, and there, right next to the sink that she wishes to use, is a man having a pee.
For the french it’s normal, but for the rest of us it takes a bit of getting used to.
There are positive differences. In England you’ll find that many toilet facilities close mid-evening or just don’t open, whereas in Brittany there are public lavatories where you don’t expect. And they are open!
Please don’t forget that these are our experiences thus far in Brittany, so feel free to comment if your experience is different.
Dancing and music
The Bretons love their music and dancing, and almost any type of organised event is well attended.
There used to be a small cafe bar near our house in Brittany that hosted occasional music nights. One evening as I entered the bar there was some very Celtic music being played, with a flute, guitar and drum. It sounded Folky and Irish to my ears and as I ordered a drink, a group of people stood up, held hands, and like a long human snake slowly moved onto the dance floor.
There then began a gentle shuffle, with linked hands moving back and forward in time to each other, and a sideways step motion, which seemed comical at first, possibly because of the seriousness of the dancers faces, but then I could see that there was an underlying skill to this routine, which was quite complex, and also enjoyable to watch.
Breton style dancing is immensely popular in Brittany, with many Breton dance classes around. You’ll find anyone dancing Breton style at almost any live music event, of which there are plenty.
I recently attended a Sardine Festival in Locquémeau in the Côtes-d’Armor, and on the stage were a variety of different music performances ranging from Breton to traditional, and whenever possible, you could observe people linking hands and enjoying some Breton style dancing. Adults and children. Even in the food queue there were people who were miming the Breton dance moves quite happily, even though they were on their own.
Shop and business opening times
A cultural difference that nearly caught us out when we first visited Brittany were the shop and business opening and closing times.
It was May and we’d arrived late on Sunday evening expecting to be able to make grocery purchases the next day. To our horror the shops were shut! On a Monday!
We quickly learned that Sundays and Mondays are the normal closing days for most businesses with half-day Wednesdays being thrown in for good measure, with rare but annoying Tuesday and Friday closures also.
I don’t know about the rest of France, but the Bretons seem to put family and family enjoyment way before money or profit. Perhaps they are right to do so, but there are extremes. For example, bearing in mind that August is a prime busy month for coastal Brittany, with thousands of Parisian holiday makers descending on Brittany I have seen many hotels and restaurants put a sign on their window, stating that they are ‘en vacance’ for the whole of August. Unbelievable! Or are they the sane ones?
Whilst many Breton businesses are closed on Sundays and Mondays, there are supermarkets such as Intermarche, Super U and many others, who are open all day Monday and sometimes Sunday mornings.
More differences coming soon!
Tea and coffee
Property prices/cost of living