Wouter du Toit

Living in France - The Double-Edged Sword

Wouter du Toit
Living in France - The Double-Edged Sword

What You Don’t Get in France

I’m from South Africa. I love Rooibos tea in the evenings. It’s very hard and pricey to get it in Paris, the capital of France. 

Another thing I miss, is the good old beskuit, or in English, rusks that South Africans make so damn well. How many times I’ve had tea or coffee in hand just wishing for a Anys- or Brosbeskuit. I’ve always liked the home-made stuff more than store-bought Ouma rusks. Rusks as a snack or even lunch is definitely a cultural thing. They don’t really dip anything into coffee here. Biscotti is a possibility, but it’s also not as easy to get here, and it’s also much harder to chew and doesn’t taste the same. 

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Being able to use your debit or credit card for a coffee

Here you have to spend more than 10 Euros to use a card. Coffee Shops complain when you try, saying that the fees are too high. I always counter saying people will pay for the convenience, and they still refuse. 

I suppose it’s cash, which is easier to slip by when tax season comes around, and they also often make it known that Germany is the kings of cash, which is supposed to be the ultimate goal for some. To be more like Germany. 

South Africa has a way of developing good tech in a reasonable time-frame, where the French like to check things out first to see if it works in other countries before they buy into the idea. In SA, you’ve been able to pay for goods using a QR code before Apple or Google Pay was around. Lyf Pay, France’s payment app is rather new. 

In London it’s possible to swipe a card to go through the metro boom. You must just remember to swipe out when you go out, because your fee will be based on the distance you’ve travelled. In France the tech might be coming around in 2021. 

However, I think the metros in Paris is by far much better than the Underground in London. The trains are larger, and so are the stations, so it just gives you more space to move and be. There are also a lot more stations, and in London it’s more sparse and the transits between take longer. 

Traditions

I also miss fire. It sounds primal, but I think there is something about an open fire burning that people resonate with. If you stare at one long enough it’s a form of meditation. 

It’s culture in South Africa to light a real fire and cook your meat on it. We call it “braai”. It can take the whole day where family and friends will come around for a Saturday or Sunday. We also make fire in fireplaces, outside or inside the dining room. You find fireplaces in Paris, but due to pollution it’s not very legal to light it up. If you want to use it, I think it’s possible if you have  a license or permit to do so. 

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Speaking my mother tongue

The jokes, the way you can show that you are speaking of a specific type of person based on the accent and language used, and the way you can, in a shorter way, get to the point. In France people want to learn how to speak English, which is what I provide to the business professional industry, but when doing this, you speak clearly, slowly and idioms or phrasal verbs aren’t understood, so you stop using them and therefore also lose and miss some part of your speaking character. 

The things that are better in France

A superb public health care system

The taxes are high, for sure, but it’s surely justified. It’s an incredible system, and it’s often not realised by the locals. But when you move from South Africa and you realise how much you’ve been paying for private medical aid, and how most of the public are not able to afford it, it’s a good realisation. I’ll pay the tax.

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Old people

They are not moved to old-age homes, and they are rather free to function as they want in the city, and they form part of daily interactions. People help them to climb stairs and customers also patiently wait in queues while the grandpa at the cashier gets his coins out of his pocket to buy the meringue his grand-daughter wants, and it’s a much more natural and positive community blend.

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I suppose in South Africa this is not really possible. We have malls and the town and city centres have been left derelict. I know crime is not the only reason, but the older you are, the more of a target you become so I suppose it’s just a safety measure, and I think another reason the elderly remain in the retirement villages and drive to the mall to do their shopping and meet friends. 

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The fact that you are still part of the community can only mean great things for your psychology and mental health. You don’t go to an old-age home, so there is no distinction between you and the young. 

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People, especially the men, talk a lot more than in South Africa. And although my French is not on the level to understand what is being discussed, I will often walk by two men standing outside their shop discussing serious matters, for a considerable amount of time. 

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Markets

Every Sunday you can get all your vegetables, meats, fruits and dairy at a market where the farmers have booths. It’s something not seen in the general public in South Africa. We might be closer to the farmers in South Africa and we know where our food comes from, but there is simply nothing that matches with the joy of seeing natural, fresh farm-grown goods brought into the city to feed the public.

The Arts

Every once in a while you’ll see a man waiting at a bus-stop with a harp-case. And you could find people with a violin strapped to their back. It’s just how life is here. Other than the Louvre, you have incredible museums and galleries, and the arts hold great value in France. I wish there was the same amount of value attributed to what is happening in South Africa, and that the artists get value of what they create.

The double-edged sword

Driving

I miss driving and the freedom it holds. I got my license on my 18th birthday. I was so excited to get in the car and have the freedom to go where ever I wanted to go. I could get into the city, or go visit a friend in time and during the trip I could listen to the greatest music and think about life, the lyrics and what I’m about to get up to. This liminal space was the answer to discovery, contemplation, peace and joy. I don’t have a car in France.

Therefore I have replaced this freedom with walking and getting on my bike. It’s really silly getting a car when you live in Paris. For one, parking is expensive, and secondly, the traffic is quite bad. The metros are brilliant, even with their urine smell and often dirty platforms. It works. Every single day. On a warm windless day Paris will send out warnings that pollution levels are dangerous. When my wife and I go out of Paris for a weekend it’s really easy to rent a car, and it’s much cheaper to do so than to pay off a car on a monthly basis. So it’s just better to not have a car. But I surely miss driving.

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History

South Africa is rather young, and although a lot has happened in a short couple of centuries, France has been around for longer. It has fought more battles, had more revolutions and has more stories to tell. They are super-proud of that, and with good reason.  

I can very stereotypically say that the history can however also hold one back from change or thinking about something in a different way, which I suppose is what South Africa and America are more able to do. This makes it difficult to launch a concept, or it takes a lot longer and the adoption is slower. The question “Why change if everything is good for me now?” needs to be answered, and it’s challenging.

In conclusion, I’m having the time of my life. I learn so much about the world as well as myself. It’s really a blessing to live here. Every single time I get out of the apartment and onto my bike, it’s like a dream. A very good one.