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Walking the Dog in SW France

Just Walkin’ the Dog in France isn’t as popular as you might think.  Walking the dog in SW France may surprise you.

When you’re a child, going for a walk seems a totally pointless thing to do – why expend that energy on something so boring with the risk of getting muddy and wet into the bargain? When you become an adult, the benefits of getting fresh air and exercise finally sink in – especially when you’re living in a city, and perhaps working in an office – you start to actually need walks just to stay more or less in good health.  Exercise increases 10-fold when you have a dog.  Dogs actually need walks, otherwise they become unhappy and fat.  So it was with this mindset I arrived in France, assuming everyone was on the same page….they’re not.

I first noticed the culture difference when I was walking the dog in the local village …….I was the only one.  Some dogs are chained up, some are just left to wander, but it’s very rare to see a French person walking a dog in the countryside.  In fact it’s rare to see a French person going for a walk, unless it’s in an organised group following an official footpath.

Taking the dog for a walk ... alone

The whole walking thing sunk in when my husband and I would be attending some local event at the village’s medieval tower, about a five minute walk from our house.  Picture it: a beautiful evening, the birds are singing, the sun is going down, the temperature is perfect and we decide to stroll down the country lanes for the evening event.

We soon realised we are the only people actually walking, all our neighbours and other villagers drive down in their cars.  One even stops to ask if we want a lift, taking it for granted that our car is in the garage for repairs or something.  Somewhat bemused, we kindly decline their offer.  There was no doubt about it: we were the freaks.

It made me think….why are French people so attached to their cars?  The truth is, it’s a rural thing.  If you’ve  been working in the fields all day, why would you want to ‘go for a walk’?  Similarly, the idea of gardening at the weekend, probably seems like a ridiculous idea – your garden is something to be managed, not lovingly cherished.  Life used to be really hard in the countryside.

When I asked my old neighbour about this, he told me that until the fifties everybody got around on foot or on bicycles. Walking to the local village on market day was a four-hour round trip. France is a big place so having a car transformed people’s lives. Not surprisingly they are now seriously adverse to walking or cycling as a means of transport.

Les grandes surfaces on the edge of town

The ubiquitous car park

However, I do see large groups of people walking together occasionally, just as I see groups of cyclists and various educational tours, which got me thinking….perhaps it’s not simply a case of not wanting to do exercise in the countryside, but there is a desire to do things collectively.  French people enjoy doing things in groups, and often like an educational element to whatever they’re doing.   Walking groups exist, usually with an element of learning attached.  British people tend to shy away from group activities, enjoying the solitude which comes with living in the countryside.  Perhaps this is linked again to a more ancient memory of living in the countryside – it’s quite an isolating experience, so French people tend to look at the benefits of group activities, rather than simply enjoying nature on their own.  This doesn’t address their relationship with pets/animals, but that’s a different blog.

Strangely enough, whilst writing this blog, a story came up on the television news about obesity in the countryside, and it basically being linked to lack of exercise.  In a city, even if you’re not going to a gym, you are walking, getting the bus, train or tube.  I can’t help thinking that it would take a big social leap to go from the current situation to a more active lifestyle.  Added to this, supermarkets and les grandes surfaces outside towns and villages in France, have been greeted with open arms.  French people, particularly in rural communities seem to love the convenience of these places, and there doesn’t seem to be much resistance.

So, I still go for walks, it’s hardwired in me.  I wonder whether things will change here in the future.  Still, if there were no differences I’d have nothing to write about….