Miles Kington: The French do things better than we do, I am told

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The Independent Online

"They do these things much better in France then we do," said my friend Bob Hill the other day, thus unconsciously echoing Laurence Sterne, famed author of the unreadable classic Tristram Shandy. What was it Sterne said at the start of his "Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy"? "They order, I said, this matter better in France..."? Something like that.

I can't remember what Sterne was on about, but I can tell you the subject of Bob's grumbling (and admiration). He had just been on a sailing holiday in his friend Rob's yacht, starting at La Rochelle, wandering up the Atlantic coast, rounding the rocky outline of Brittany and finally crossing over to Falmouth.

"The way the French look after their little ports and harbours is streets ahead of what we have got to offer," said Bob. "It's beautifully organised. There's always space for everyone. When you arrive, you are made welcome. As like as not, a young kid will sail out in a small boat and show you exactly where to go, because that's his job. French youngsters who live round the coast usually get involved in sailing training courses early on, because some far-sighted French government once decided that sea training was a boost for morale. From what I saw of them, their teaching methods are way ahead of ours. Arriving in Falmouth was quite a different experience. Admittedly we go there quite late, but there was nobody around at all. The boat we had to moor up against had not put out any fenders. The man who owned it turned out to be a money man, not a sailing man, and didn't know the form..."

As both Bob and Rob used to be career officers in the Royal Navy, I think they know what they are talking about, and what I find interesting is to realise how often I have heard other people in Britain say nice things about the French recently.

Do I detect a straw in the wind?

The sailing culture one was new to me, but I am sure we have all met people who have come back with glowing accounts of camping holidays in France, telling us how much better their camp sites are than ours, and how much better equipped. Not being a camper myself, I have no first-hand experience, but after this year I can vouch personally for the French railway experience. We travelled almost all the way to our destination in south-west France by train (Ashford to Paris Gare du Nord, Paris Montparnasse to Bordeaux by TGV) and the trip was spotless, there and back.

(Because the price difference was not that great, we also travelled first class, and it was interesting to realise that going first class in France is not a posh, or corporate, option as it is here; it was chosen by a great many ordinary travelling families.)

So, what else might the French do better than us? Apart from wine and food, of course. And the graphic novel, or bande dessinée. And bicycling. And films. And nuclear power. And playing rugby and football. And village markets...

Well, also traffic, perhaps.

Not driving, naturally. All the world agrees that the French are the most reckless drivers in the world (except maybe the Italians, or Spanish). But the French have some good ideas about traffic, as even the Americans have to admit.

Last month there was a piece in The New York Times headed "I love Paris on a Bus, a Bike, a Train, or in anything but a Car" in which Paris resident Serge Schmemann poured praise on the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, for improving public transport and heavily restricting private cars. It was the Mayor who recently introduced the cheap bike-for-hire scheme in Paris which has proved such a great success, except in the eyes of Parisian taxi drivers, but if taxi drivers don't like it, that probably shows what a good idea it was.

Anyway, in the interest of balance I will soon do a column on all those things that we do better than the French.

If I can think of any.