Wednesday 31 July 2013

Viva la di'France

A French road and a French footpath are more or less the same thing.

One has mainly cars and the other mainly pedestrians, but that's mostly a matter of convenience and relative sizes.

After less than a week here, it's no longer a surprise when a Vespa jumps the curb beside me to overtake some jammed cars. And cars will also use the footpaths with aplomb, should the driver need to pick up some dry cleaning, or just stop for a chat about the cigar stink that clings to his jackets.

(This is true: today I watched the local dry cleaner enjoying a stogie in his doorway, smoke drifting back to hang around inside his shop.)

There are millions of zebra crossings here, but there seems to be no clear right of way. It's more like the rules of an Australian roundabout - whoever gets there first owns the space, especially if they back it up with an appropriate glare at the competition.

In a way, it actually makes great sense. The streets are shared by drivers and pedestrians, so they remain very aware of each other. That awareness, more than any formal rule, makes it a safer place to walk or drive.

I have also noticed very few obese people here. It strikes me as strange that the land of cheese, wine, and creamy sauces should be so fit and slender.

I think perhaps they have a much smarter relationship with food. They eat more salads and vegetables, snack on more fruit, enjoy really flavoursome cheese with a few crackers. Less deep frying, much less junk food.

Why would you bother with a crappy burger when the supermarket has brie and locally made salami and amazing baguettes? It's just so easy and cheap to assemble something fabulous that it's hardly worth lining up for flavourless grey meat on a sugary bun.

What I have missed here, much more than I might have expected, is grass.
Dense housing creates fantastic neighbourhoods, where it's easy to get around, buy groceries, find a restaurant. But where we are, in central Nice, there are very few houses with yards. And I've seen only one tiny park.

There are promenades and cycle-ways and gymnasiums and beaches. Plenty of people are running, cycling, swimming, and generally keeping fit. But there's basically nowhere to take off your shoes and throw a frisbee.

I have a dodgy back, which has been aggravated by the long distance flight. I also have a set of exercises for it. But there is no soft ground where I can get on my hands and knees to do those exercises.

Even the beach is no good - its made of pebbles, so its pretty bloody uncomfortable for everything.

I had to do something to get my muscles warmed and stretched, so I went to the beach-side promenade where loads of people jog and cycle. I did a round of kung fu patterns, which got my blood flowing, but also attracted enough stares that it weirded me out a little.

But I can do that in any Australian park without feeling at all strange. There will often be an old Chinese guy doing something similar, or a young mum saluting the sun. And I can find such a park within five minutes walk from just about anywhere.

There will be grass, some trees to sit under, probably a swing and a slide for my son to play on too.

I'm glad we value open green spaces at home. I'm glad we build them into our cities, even our big ones.

But until I can get back there, I'll be stretching my back on the French footpath, glaring at Vespas.

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