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The best things in France . . .

You don't have to part with cash to catch the culture, says Stephen Spencer.

Why strain travel budgets and nerves in search of the elusive "great day out", when there is free, educational entertainment on our doorstep - in France? At the risk of sounding like a "lazy way to millions" advertiser, I should also point out that the entertainers are polite, patient and will be flattered by your attention. Furthermore, they will serve up a huge helping of national curriculum-approved cultural awareness.

Most small towns will have their own fire station, staffed by volunteers and equipped with a range of vehicles and machinery. The firefighters will be locals, perhaps carpenters and mechanics, ready to down tools in response to a call-out to a fire or, more often, a road accident. They are held in great esteem by their neighbours, distributing calendars at Christmas and collecting gifts in return. And in addition to turning out for emergencies, training and maintenance work at their base, they also perform ceremonial duties at civic receptions and the like.

The fire chief in the Normandy village of Sourdeval seemed puzzled at my request to visit his establishment with a group of Year 78 pupils, but arranged a splendid reception. All personnel were lined up in front of their wagons for inspection, snazzy helmets were passed around, and much water was squirted about. Demonstrations of radio equipment, breathing apparatus and lifting gear were accompanied by a running commentary, difficult to interpret at times, but the longest stream of native-spoken French that pupils will hear for a long time.

The visit was so popular with pupils and staff that it was built into subsequent trips as a "last day" event including a farewell reception in the mess room, where pupils were formally presented with school-produced merit certificates by the fire chief, kissed on both cheeks and decorated with a souvenir badge - or "pin's" (sic) as they have become known in franglais.

Such visits promote cultural awareness. In looking at organisations with which they are familiar at home, pupils are able to compare the host culture with their own. Not only are such activities stipulated in the key stages 3 and 4 programme of study, they are also good fun, easy to organise once the initial contact has been established, and free.

Variations on the theme have included guided tours around the Gendarmerie, including a brief and very noisy incarceration in the cells, and the handcuffing of selected pupils. There was the chance to witness a suspect being interviewed and to inspect some very advanced communications equipment plus a vast array of weaponry. Even gendarmes are aware of the value of good public relations, producing informative posters and an English language handout about their organisation.

Local businesses will also welcome your attention. I was very pleased to discover that the famous "Table de France" cutlery originated in a factory nestling in the valley we had driven along every day. It provided another informative tour, this time with a cross-curricular link on industrial development and water power.

So far, I have managed to avoid EuroDisney. I heard a terrible rumour that it is the only place in France where you cannot have a glass of wine with your lunch. Perhaps by now they will have followed the lead of McDonald's in accepting that wine with meals is a "local custom". Now that's what I call cultural awareness.

Stephen Spencer teaches French and German at The Ramsey School, Halstead, Essex

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