My two younger sisters and their husbands have been here for the last ten days, and so I have been playing tour guide for them. We have crisscrossed the central part of France very thoroughly, so this is an opportunity to talk about the things I've seen and learned.
While this is my fifth trip to France, I have mainly visited Paris or the more coastal regions on my other visits. My impression prior to this trip was that of lots of small cities (around 50,000) but I have previously traveled mainly near the Mediterranean coast. On this trip, since I am starting in central France, I have seen a lot more of the countryside. What I have found is that central France is much more ike the central part of the US than I would have imagined. There really aren't more than a dozen real cities (50,000+) in the region, Most of the central region is made up of large swaths of farm land, and hundreds (literaly!) of tiny villages of 15-25 houses. The area right around where my house is located is fairly hilly but there are large fields of wheat, corn, and some sort of seed grain that my neighbor says is used to make vegetable oil (maybe safflower?) We also have seen large fields of sunflowers which are used to make sunflower oil.
According to Wikipedia, France is the 6th largest agricultural producer in the world, and has 1/3 of the agricultural land in the EU. The main crop in the northern to central regions is wheat, with cattle in the central region, and fruits, vegetables, and wine in the central to south. They are expanding both their forestry and fishing industries. We noticed that there were very densely planted forests - obviously planted because the trees are in straight lines with lots of undergrowth. While 84% of the electricity is generated by nuclear plants, we have seen a lot of wind turbines going up as we drove through the hilly sections of the central region.
I have noticed that life is lived at a much slower pace than in the cities. In all the small towns and villages, all the stores are closed between 12:00 and 2:30. Restaurants are open, but you won't find any stores to shop in until 2:30. Everyone goes home for their main meal at noon - children as well as adults. The stores generally stay open until 6:30 or 7:00, but it is rare to find anything open after 7 except restaurants, and NOTHING is open on Sunday after 2::30. During the month of August, I would see a store that I had shopped in a few days earlier closed with a sign in the window "En Vacance" and then the dates the store would be closed. Obviously, everyone working in that store takes vacation at the same time! One day I drove into the parking lot at the grocery store where I shop, and there were NO cars in the parking lot (this was on a Monday). The store is like a super WalMart with several other small businesses located in the same building. Obviously, everyone was on vacation that day!
Also, while ther is generally a very old church in any village with more than 20 houses, almost none of them are open or have services. France is predominately Catholic, but with very few practicing members, so the village churches can't support a priest. In some cases, there will be a priest who travels from one village to another every few weeks. There is a significant shortage of priests, so that also contributes to the fact that the small churches are closed. In Nogent (the closest town to where I am), there are no Protestant churches at all, and the population is about 15,000.
I think I am actually doing the main thing I set out to do - which is live like a local. While my French is still nowhere near fluent, I am finding I don't stumble around as much looking for words. While most of the people I encounter say they don't speak English when asked, they do understand about as much English as I do French. That means I will start out in French, switch to English when I don't know a word, and use hand signs a lot! Somehow I have managed to get everything done I've needed to, but felt like I'd really accomplished something when I was able to buy batteries for my luggage scale! Each day feels like an adventure, and I'm learning something new all the time!