Getting used to the shops in France being shut on public holidays takes time, says who now relishes family time over last-minute shopping
h what lovely flowers,” I say pointedly to Ray as we stand in the supermarket queue. Lily of the valley are abundant in France at this time of year, with everyone from market sellers to independent retailers shoving sprigs of this delicate, white blossom at shoppers as they pass.
As usual, Ray doesn’t take the hint, and I remain flowerless, despite the fact that May Day – on which traditionally, husbands, mothers-in-law, friends and lovers in France buy their nearest and dearest a bunch – is just around the corner.
Seven years into our French adventure, it’s still hard to adjust to the traditions of different public holidays en France. In the UK, such holidays are synonymous with (a) Mondays and (b) large-scale sofa sales. Here, not only are the majority of public holidays on fixed dates rather than days, but you’ll be lucky to buy much more than a baguette ( boulangeries are considered an essential service) on the day itself.
In France, heaven forbid you run out of essentials such as nappies on the eve of a public holiday or – come to think of it – a Sunday afternoon. This may seem like a petty concern but when, like us, you’ve had four in nappies at one time, the thought of running out of such an essential item is enough to make you shudder.
When we first arrived in France, the different retail opening hours took a while to get used to. Accustomed to grabbing a treat from the local garage whenever a craving struck, and having developed the kind of laissez-faire attitude to the shopping list that only comes with an excess of convenience, we found ourselves sometimes forced to forego our Sunday night nibbles, or (horror!), realising we’d run out of builder’s tea.
From about midday on Sundays when even our local supermarket closes its doors, our town becomes as quiet and empty as, well, a British village circa 1990. Worse, many stores neglect to open their doors on a Monday morning, meaning shopping addicts can be left without a retail fix for over 24 hours.
However, what seemed an inconvenience on arrival, now seems (nappies permitting) a blessing in disguise. Our Sunday afternoons and public holidays are spent with family, relaxing; walking or running in the park or preparing for the week ahead. I plan our supermarket shop more carefully, meaning I save money on meals by knowing exactly what I need.
So unless a chocolate craving strikes, during times of retail shortage I tend to reflect on how reliant I used to be on the culture of convenience in the UK, and how nice it is to keep calm and stop carrying on.
And perhaps I’m getting plus âgée but I like the idea of nesting down with my nearest and dearest rather than signing a 0% credit deal or nipping to Tesco for forgotten essentials.
Moreover, rather than celebrate their May Day by leaping around a ribboned pole with bells attached to their ankles, the French place precedence on ‘Labour Day’ or the Fête du Travail – a day that celebrates workers’ rights. (As anyone who has been held up on the ferries or the roads during a strike will testify, these are extremely important this side of the Channel).
Which, as a hardworking mum of five, I fully support. In fact, perhaps I should adopt a more continental attitude when it comes to my own rights.
No flowers? Then this mum’s on strike. Gillian Harvey is a freelance writer who has lived in Limousin for seven years with husband Ray and their five young children