Little offers a more direct window into what someone else's culture really values than their adverts and television shows. A few years back, I managed to see four different national renditions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire within a few months. The questions, the manners, the dress and demeanour of the compère were all telling in their own way. Similarly Big Brother, which originated in The Netherlands, before conquering the rest of Europe.
In France it's impossible to ignore the preponderance of advertising for food and the emphasis is on taste, regional character and quality – quite unlike the health and nostalgia themes that dominate food marketing here.
In Russia, Masterchef and cookery programmes in general have a huge following – quite a change, given that 20 years ago shops were empty and the first task would have been to hunt down some ingredients. As for the French version of Masterchef, well, this is the TV cookery genre taken to a whole new level. An episode I watched a couple of weeks ago featured a run-off requiring the competitors not just to prepare the "perfect coquille St Jacques", a fiddly challenge at the best of times, but to do it against the clock. Another dish, presented by a quaking female aspirant, met with the response that it had all the taste of a "salt-free zone" – which, by the way, was not meant as a compliment.
And this reminded me that I'd spent a week in provincial France without either seeing or hearing any of the warnings about the perils of salt consumption which nag us here; that there had always been salt cellars and pepper pots on – admittedly quite ordinary – restaurant tables, and that only once, with unusually bland moules marinières at a chain hotel, had I been tempted to reach for extra salt at all. So are the French storing up for themselves an epidemic of high blood pressure and heart disease in the future? Will there come a time when the average Briton is prancing around in the peak of low-salt health, while French hospitals are stuffed with stroke patients? Or could it be that, rather than obsessing about salt consumption, Britain's health guardians would be better employed encouraging us to scale back consumption of those fast foods that once owed their taste to salt, but, thanks to the vigilant salt police, no longer taste of much at all, and trying to raise the quality of food generally.
Driving out of London towards the M20, I faced the dreaded sign: Underpass Closed. Avoid Area. As usual, the board appeared far too late to make any detour possible. I resigned myself to a long wait. But what was this? There was no jam and the road turned out to be open. A few days later, a taxi driver made my day, refusing all payment on the grounds that it had been a terrible journey, half the roads had been closed and he'd taken all the wrong routes. So dramatically do such small and random pieces of good fortune lighten the mood, that I wonder whether it would not be possible to incorporate them somehow into official policy, to make us feel a bit better in these otherwise grim times.
How about more warnings of roads that are not, in fact, blocked? Or taxi drivers agreeing to waive one fare a week? Or utility companies routinely admitting a small error in our favour and dispatching an annual refund (it would be like having an inadvertent savings account).
Or transport companies overestimating the arrival time for buses, so that the wait was always shorter than stated? There must be dozens more ways in which those with the power to make our lives a misery could, once in a while, give us a pleasant surprise.