Sunday, 2 December 2007

A corner of a foreign field

I just do not recognise the France I read about in the British press. (I do not recognise the fearful, timid, supposedly slithering down-the-pan Britain described either, but that is another story).

So what? Well, it is OK for me. I do not have much choice about living in France if I wish to remain married to the Frenchman, which I do. But for once this is not about me. I have just heard about friends of friends who decamped to France a few years ago and who have decided to return to Britain. They are disillusioned, disappointed and out of pocket. UK property prices have rocketed in their absence so they now face having to take out a loan in order to buy a much pokier home back home. If the predicted house-price crash happens they may be among a select few who cheer, but it is a sorry tale all round. As you can imagine, they have many gripes about France and the French, among them that French bureaucracy was worse than they imagined, that it was harder to set up a business than they imagined, that they felt more isolated than they imagined largely because their plans to learn French did not advance as quickly as they imagined. You get the key word here. I did not want to be too unkind but could not help asking my friends: "Did these friends of yours research anything before they came to France or did they just do a lot of imagining?"

I read that hundreds of thousands of Britons are going abroad for good, many of them to France. I am repeatedly dumbfounded by the number of people who set off on an ill-considered foreign adventure without the faintest idea what they are getting themselves into. Scores of otherwise intelligent, even cautious people appear to be sedating their common sense with newspaper and magazine articles depicting the French rural arcadia; leave the British rat race behind and go raise sheep and goats on a converted farm in Normandy, or run gites in a converted chateau in the Dordogne or weave vines in Provence (Peter Mayle has a lot to answer for)and you will be happy beyond your wildest dreams, they say. Of course these writers are going to make it sound a hoot, even when it is hell on earth and they would rather be sitting in a broken-down car in a rainstorm on the hard-shoulder of the M25 during rush hour with no battery bars on the mobile. That is what these writers are paid for. Believe me, there is no way they going to admit they do not want to see another goat, guest or grape ever, or say "Give me the North Circular over Place de la Mairie any day", even if it were true. One English language magazine about France told me it was looking exclusively for "inspirational' material, because it was not in the business of shattering its readers' illusions with reality.

So the Brits arrive and are surprised to find that:
a) France is a foreign country inhabited mainly by French people.
b) The French speak French.
c) El Dorado does not exist (and if it did it would be in South America)

Oh and French rues are not littered with gold and the sun does not shine all the time. This is pretty basic, but I have the distinct impression a considerable number of expatriates somehow overlook the obvious. And not just small, inconsequential obvious things, but life and death stuff. One former colleague, who had been living in France for five years, phoned me from hospital after an unfortunate accident and asked if I could talk to the French surgeon about to operate on her. "It's impossible. I've been trying to tell him I've just had a course of chemotherapy but I don't think he understands a word I'm saying," she wailed. "What doesn't he understand?" I asked. "My English of course," she replied. Another British couple bought a house at the end of a long and narrow mud lane in the isolated Normandy village where my mother-in-law lived. The woman was seriously diabetic and in need of regular medical treatment but they had moved to the most remote spot in the most remote hamlet that had no shop, no doctor, no pharmacy and no bus or train services and that was at least a 40-minute drive from the nearest town and hospital. Neither of them spoke a word of French. "What are they going to do if one of them is sick?" asked my mother-in-law, their nearest neighbour, who is a saintly woman but whose command of English stretches to "The Cat is Very Beautiful" a bizarre sentence she was taught in school 65 years ago. "I don't think I'd be of any help," she fretted. I told her not to worry: "If they have a cat I'm sure they'd appreciate the compliment."

Then there is the endless whinge in the readers' letters pages of expat publications "Why doesn't France Telecom (or the gas board/electricity company/doctors/plumbers/bank/boulanger) have anyone who speaks English?" I wonder if these people have tried speaking French to anyone at BT. (It is difficult enough for native English speakers.) I can guess what my wonderful Geordie builder would say if expected to speak French and it would not be repeatable in any language. As for the plumber; you could call a Polish one wherever you are. They seem so keen to work I imagine they would learn a smattering of Swahili if necessary.

And that neatly brings me to a somewhat distatesful aspect of this emigration wave: the hypocrisy. Happily for most who move to France it does not end in tears usually because those people have a) done their homework or b) learned French or c) not expected France to be an outpost of the UK or d) just landed on their feet. Back in Britain I hear and read about people moving to France, retiring to France, buying a holiday place in France. Some of them will, in other exchanges; letters to newspapers; unguarded conversations, complain about "immigrants" and "foreigners" and even about "rich Londoners" buying up beach huts and holiday homes in windy villages on the East Anglian coastline or shacks on sheep-dotted hills in deepest darkest Wales. They moan about Polish plumbers and Romanian builders and African nurses coming to Britain for a better life, or even 'incomers' from another part of the UK. Similarly, on the French side, it is rare for drinks or dinner featuring British expats or second-home owners to pass without someone complaining that Britiain is being "overrun by foreigners". Each time I check the irony meter and look for tongues in cheeks. There are never any.


Jeff said...


Here is a story of mine that has come about in part through reading your post on ex-pats:

Regards, J.

Parisgirl said...


Thank you for doing me the honour.