France Random Notes: It’s not free, it’s Free


Here are some of the things I have noticed in France: Random observations from my ten-day trip in Burgundy, Champagne and Nord-Pas-de-Calais in June 2013.

I only saw one old man in a beret.  Benoit, the 34-year-old guide from Pas-de-Calais, laughed when he said, ‘There, a Frenchman in a beret!” as we passed the old codger.  There are very, very few Americans who ever come to this northern part of France. And very few Germans, they prefer to go to the south of France, I was told.  There are huge cemeteries here for Canadian and British WW1 soldiers. Many, many Canadians come to Pas-de-Calais to see these memorials, but not many Americans do.

Louis XV1's coach at a museum in Arras.
Napoleon’s coach at a museum in Arras.

In restaurants, people queue up at the cashier to pay their bills. Everyone tells the guy behind the counter what they ordered and pay separately. In most of the restaurants nobody brings you the bill. In some city street cafes, the guy comes with a portable credit card machine. My host in La Touquet Paris-Plage said she would only leave a one euro tip in a very fancy restaurant. Maybe some spare change. But basically she never tips.

People don’t eat at the bar  here as I often do on trips in other places. There are no seats at most of the bars in brasseries or restaurants. Even food  places that look like bars don’t really have seats, and if you did sit at the bar there wouldn’t be room for any plates there. So dining alone in France isn’t as much fun as it is in the states, where you can chat up the bartender. Thankfully, both times I dined alone on this trip, the place had wifi, and remarkably, there was no password required.

Arras, France has houses rebuilt in the 1920s exactly like they looked in the 1800s, it's remarkably beautiful city.
Arras has houses rebuilt in the 1920s exactly like they looked in the 1800s, it’s remarkably beautiful city.

There is an internet company in France called Free Wifi. So when you pull up the available networks, you always get that one that says free wifi and think it’s free. But it’s not free, it’s Free. So ironically, you have to pay.

There used to be an elaborate system here called Minitel, which was a little box that connected to the phone. It was France’s own internet before the 1980s. People could order things and the photos were as big as the top of your finger. Some of the people I met remembered using them, you could use it as a phone book and even order stuff. But today the Minitels are long gone.

There are cameras on the motorways so it’s easy to get a ticket. But there are signs telling you when the cameras are coming up, so everyone slows down. Besides that, we drove at very fast speeds and it didn’t seem like my friend driving was very worried about speed traps. I never saw any cops on the interstates, and very few in the towns. In South America and Mexico there are so many different kinds of cops every where it’s a striking difference.