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  1. Anna Williams, Specialist Registrar in Neurology
  1. Department of Clinical Neurosciences, Western General Hospital, Edinburgh EH4 2XU, UK;

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    I have just returned from a postdoctoral research post at the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière in Paris. After two years there, I am in a position to compare their neurology practice with that in the UK (or at least Edinburgh) and the French way of life with the British. I should mention now that I am a complete Francophile, so this is not unbiased opinion.

    Paris has a bad reputation among tourists for harbouring perhaps the most unhelpful and rude locals in Europe. Admittedly, Charles de Gaulle airport cannot be surpassed for lack of signs directing bemused foreigners even towards the exit, and for actively unhelpful staff—odd, bearing in mind the reverse situation in the Paris Metro. However, once in Paris itself, I have always found the story completely different. Rude Parisians exist, but most people tried to understand what I was saying, to help out, and were genuinely interested in what I was doing living there—although it clearly does help to attempt to speak French. I believe that part of the perceived problem comes from the French being as hopeless at other languages as the British, and being too embarrassed to try. They are delighted to know that the British think that the French accent is sexy, and gratifyingly it is the same in reverse. Even among French neurologists, English language competence is not very good. My own knowledge of English grammar improved as I was asked to try and explain the rules of English, which I only know by instinct. Grammar was considered passé when I was at school.

    Exams are the French way. Children compete on a daily basis with their peers to get marks for their work at school. They have to pass exams in musical instruments in “conservatoires” before the teachers will agree to continue …

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