Written by Sally Veall,
Last Modified: 10th October 2019

I have been lucky enough to live in three European countries, neighbours but all very different in several ways. What is OK in one country doesn’t necessarily go down well in the others and local habits, humour, behaviour and culture still remain firmly embedded in each, despite a so called united Europe. Here’s a lighthearted look at Spain, France and Italy.

Bureaucracy

Well, it has become a joke in Spain and in fact there is a very funny video about the attitude of some people one comes across when trying to get something done at a government agency. You don’t need to understand Spanish to get the gist.

This little film is an exaggeration of course but it used to be a bit like that in Spain. Nowadays, generally things are easier, though woe betide anyone who forgets to bring a duplicate or triplicate photocopy! You’ll be sent home and will have to make an appointment on another day.

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In Catalonia, where I live, it is comparatively easy to get applications seen to and sorted. You have to renew your driver’s licence every 5 years and this involves a visit to a medical centre where they assess your faculties. Now, this is easy for people who are well practised with games but for someone like me, trying to keep a car on the road on a video monitor when you have 2 steering wheels to cope with, is practically impossible. Last time, I crashed the car 20 times! I still got my driving licence.

I'm weighing up the pros and cons of our favourite European countries: Italy, France and Spain.

I’m weighing up the pros and cons of our favourite European countries: Italy, France and Spain.

France, in my experience, has a well organised but exacting bureaucracy. I spent several years trying to get a smile from a particular person who worked in the health department. After 12 years, I made a joke about the fact that I was leaving France and moving to Spain and that is when she smiled at me! The personnel in that office were however very efficient and helpful, less so in Trésor Public, the tax office, where I am sure their aim was to ensure people returned for more appointments as even with a folder bulging with documents, photocopies and photocopies or photocopies, I never had quite the right one. I am told it is less traumatic these days as you can do a lot on line and may not even have to visit a government office.

France, in my experience, has a well organised but exacting bureaucracy.

Without a doubt, the most bureaucratic country is Italy. I lived there many years ago and you needed a stiff drink before venturing forth to try to get a simple matter sorted. My son and his family moved to Italy 2 years’ ago and it seems that bureaucracy is still a minefield there. They had to apply for numerous things to do with residency, agriculture, driving licences, schools, health, etc and despite my daughter-in-law’s very good Italian, the process has proven never ending. The first question she is asked when applying for something is “Why?” or “Why do you want to be a resident?” It seems that the personnel in Italian agencies are incredulous that anyone would want to come and live in Italy in the first place.

Nevertheless, once the reason has been established, the Italians are pleasant and helpful even if it does mean several visits. One of the things which surprised my son was that you need to get a medical certificate of good health for children joining any club.

Children

My son used to own summer schools for foreign kids to learn English and he often had 42 different nationalities to deal with. He used to ask me “which children do you think are the noisiest?” or “which kids are the best behaved?” All children are definitely not the same.

Spanish girls and boys go to restaurants with their families from birth and are generally well behaved at the table. On the other hand, they do shout. One is often amazed at the decibels they reach. In fact, the Spanish tend to talk loudly and this, I am sure, is because they all talk at once so need to shout over everyone else. It makes for a noisy but happy atmosphere.

A Spanish family makes for a noisy but happy family

School children in Spain work hard in a traditional education system, with after school clubs open till 8 or 9 pm. Then there is homework to be done, supper to be eaten and so they rarely go to bed before 11.00 pm and teachers complain that the children are tired when they get to school the next morning. It’s hardly surprising.

France has a centralised education system which demands a lot of work too. French children on the whole are much quieter than their Spanish neighbours, especially at meal times as the family meal is a serious business. In fact, French children are really well behaved, no doubt due to the fact that they aren’t looked on as babies or toddlers but as embryonic adults.

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They have a regular night time regime which means that they sleep without much parental interference. They are given vegetables as soon as they are able to digest them, so they tend not to be fussy eaters. Good manners are part of daily life for French children and they never fail to greet someone pleasantly.

In Italy, children are more like the Spanish in that they go to bed late. You’ll often see families enjoying a pizza in a restaurant as late as 10.00 pm. Parents are very protective of their children and guard them, even in the playground. Boys are treated like mini kings which unfortunately means they grow up to be unhelpful partners, though this is changing nowadays. There is still the culture though of Mamma does everything but as young women go out to work, it will slowly disappear.

Italian kids expect pasta every day. Now, most of us love pasta but often it’s served both as a starter or as a main course for lunch and dinner. Somewhat of an overkill for non Italians. All children get lunch at school, which comprises 3 courses – pasta (what else?), a meat or fish dish and a dessert. Junk food is actually “a treat.”

Travel

Spain has an excellent system of motorways and train travel. Costs for trains are low compared to most other European countries and a trip which costs 55€ here on the very fast train, the AVE, would cost practically double in the UK. Next year, Renfe, which runs the trains in Spain will lose its monopoly and will be introducing a budget version of the AVE trains with more seats and less legroom but with the same standard of service. Trains are rarely late and there’s a compensation scheme if they are. Local transport varies region to region. Buses can be few and far between or there is a good regular service.

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Roads other than motorways are in very good condition in main urban and tourist areas but go off the beaten track and you could find yourself on pot holed and rough terrain. This also applies to some urbanisations, where the roads are private and so not maintained by the local authority. Road deaths in Spain have been severely reduced by numerous measures introduced in recent years and although there is some downright dangerous driving, generally standards have improved. One gripe and this holds true of Italy too, is the loud music blaring from cars driven by young men and another is the revving of motorbikes which every town in Spain and Italy suffers from.

France's TGV system is excellent. Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

France’s TGV system is excellent. Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

France is a country with a brilliant road system and excellent train services. The TGV, which is the AVE’s equivalent, is renowned as a first class service. Of course, there is also Eurostar which runs between the UK, France and Belgium. Prices are higher than in Spain but less than in the UK and trains usually run on time.

Apart from motorways, road surfaces are pretty good throughout the country, except perhaps in isolated country areas. French drivers generally observe the rules, though they can drive rather too fast on motorways. Movable speed traps have to some extent solved this problem. I go a lot to the Perpignan area which is just 1 hour 20 minutes’ from my home and I find the drivers there quite courteous in the towns and villages, perhaps less so on major roads. You can wait quite a long time at pedestrian crossings for a car to stop and let you go whereas in Spain, it is almost compulsory to stop for a pedestrian.

It was Mussolini who built the first motorway in Italy so that he could move his troops easily, rather like the Romans and the Via Appia Antica and it was also a good route for trade. Today Italy has a network of motorways where the road surfaces are well maintained, due to the application of tolls. I travel a lot in Italy these days, in all areas such as Veneto in the north, Tuscany in the centre and Puglia in the south. In the north, the roads are pretty good overall but in Tuscany, certainly in the southern part, the roads are in pretty bad condition and in Puglia even worse. Lack of money, years of austerity are the cause but something really needs to be done as some surfaces are quite perilous.

Trains in Italy are one of the best ways to travel at a reasonable cost.

Trains in Italy run on time, again thanks to Mussolini. The Frecciarossa (red arrow) is Italy’s version of a high speed train and runs a very good service. In fact, trains in Italy are one of the best ways to travel at a reasonable cost. It’s certainly advisable to take trains between major towns rather than negotiating the trunk roads which are full of traffic and some crazy drivers. A word of caution when driving in Italy: he who hesitates is lost! Italian drivers are confident, if a bit mad and are completely thrown by a driver who is being overly cautious. They will try to overtake, even on a bend and this causes accidents.

Bus services in towns and tourist spots are fairly frequent but services in outlying country areas can be poor. Prices are low and affordable as there may be 2 or more companies vying for custom.

Food

 This is where the cultural identity of each country becomes obvious. In fact, I believe it to be true all over the world. With a global economy, you can buy the same Zara dress in Spain and in China but when it comes to gastronomy, each country has and maintains its traditions.

Good Spanish cuisine is up there with the world’s best. As if proof were needed, there are 199 restaurants with one Michelin star or more in Spain. Regional dishes here, as in both France and Italy are the backbone of Spanish food and though the same ingredients are used almost everywhere, the method of cooking and the subtle differences in seasoning and use of herbs and spices, make for very different flavours.

One of the problems in Spain is that “tourist” food is really basic, often not properly thawed and of low quality. This is certainly true in some of Spain’s tapas bar chains. By the way, for people who love good Spanish cooking, follow JamesBlick on Twitter or Spain Revealed. He has some wonderful tips on where and where not to enjoy Spanish cuisine.

The Spaniards eat later than probably any other country. They have 2 “breakfasts”, one quickly devoured at home before work and then a second somewhere between 10.30 and 11.30 when they all go to the local bar for a coffee and “mini”, which is a small sandwich in a baguette type of bread. Lunch is usually between 2.00 and 4.00 pm and then there is “tapas” time, from 6.30 to 8.30 when people head for their local tapas bar to wind down after work. Dinner is between 9.00 and 11.00 pm but is usually a lighter meal than at lunchtime.

For the French, cuisine is an art. In some cases it’s almost a religion. I have eaten several times in restaurants where there is hardly a sound as the customers are revering the food! You feel you can’t have happy banter with your partner or friends, such is the seriousness. However, France has some of the best cuisine in the world and you don’t have to go to one of the many 3 star Michelin restaurants to enjoy it. On a recent trip to Gers in the south west, I had an absolutely superb “magret de canard” (duck breast), salad and wine in a local restaurant overlooking the Lomagne Valley for just 25€.

Unfortunately, as in Spain, certain tourist spots offer below par food where even the locals eat, probably due to lack of choice. This is a problem in France away from the big conurbations, distances between towns are long and the choice is limited. Often these places attract tourists because of their beauty but are somewhat isolated and offer little culinary choice.

Italy still retains much of its traditions when it comes to food. My advice is to walk the back streets, look for somewhere which doesn’t look particularly nice and if the tables are almost full, go in and enjoy the best meal you can possibly imagine!

Many people say that Italian food is their favourite. I suppose it has a lot to do with pasta and pizza but really, Italian cuisine is superb when you eat in Italian homes or really local restaurants which serve a “casalinga” (home cooked) style of meal. Traditionally, la Mamma, together with other ladies of the family, would spend all morning preparing lunch for everyone, including workers. These dishes, slowly assembled and gently cooked are some Italy’s classic recipes and stand up to any foreign competition.

Happily, Italy still retains much of its traditions when it comes to food. My advice is to walk the back streets, look for somewhere which doesn’t look particularly nice and if the tables are almost full, go in and enjoy the best meal you can possibly imagine! There may be no menu as such and you will be told what the meal is today… go with it and discover the best of Italian food.

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