Never say NON to a Frenchman
– everything the Brits should ask, but the French won’t tell
I was brought up and educated in rural France and later spent ten years working in Strasbourg and running my own company for nine years in the Languedoc-Roussillon. During this time I watched as successive waves of English people swept into the country, starry-eyed and mostly without the basic language skills. Those with near-perfect French and international qualifications tended to opt for the big cities. I am concerned with those who tried to settle in the rural areas where houses seemed to be ‘cheap as chips’ until about the year 2000. After renovating their old farm or village houses, often going broke in the process, there followed a shock awakening – work, not even the most menial kind, could be found for non-French speakers – quelle surprise! ‘I can always give English lessons if I get hard up,’ most of them chirped. They deluded themselves that just because they spoke English they could also teach it. The rural population generally do not want their children to be educated by someone who can’t speak French properly, whether they teach English or any other language. They are very attached to their own culture and identity and would like their children to retain both, as far as it is possible, in this interconnected world where all things American seem to dominate youth culture.
Often the man and breadwinner, often in a desk-bound job in the UK until their move, sweated his heart out as he struggled with the rotten beams of their ‘dream house’ and failed to understand that the plumber was trying to tell him that the house was not connected to the sewage system. The mothers searched the large supermarkets for Marmite, marmelade, Bisto and Mother’s Pride – at least here they could avoid speaking French. Meanwhile their children, by making friends in village schools, had turned into consummate French children, to such an extent that after less than a year they did not want their parents to speak to them in English in front of their French school mates. Having made their houses liveable in and in the struggle to get into the French health system, many mothers were driving from one small village to another, stuffing letter boxes with publicity leaflets. The men, who’d had well-paid urban jobs in the UK ended up working on the black as builders on other people’s houses.
After all this time, and seeking the familiarity and comfort of other English people in similar circumstances, the parents still didn’t speak French. They had no idea of what French society and customs were about, couldn’t deal with French bureaucracy and many got into terrible trouble with the taxman. Soon their frustration manifested itself in the well-known, very British point of view – France is beautiful, the houses and the wine are cheap, the weather is good, – if only it wasn’t for these irritating and complicated French. I watched as a couple emerged from the Mayor’s offices, complaining that they had been spoken to in French and had signed some documents of which they could not read a single word. What has not occurred to many is that France is what it is because of the French, because of their lifestyle, their customs, their love for food, and yes, even because of their irritating characteristics. I have met many English who, after the first honeymoon period, begin to complain why things aren’t the same as in England. Needless to say, the reaction from the French is either a shrug of the shoulders or the simple remark ‘ When in Rome … or ‘no one asked you to come here,’ though they are much too polite to say this to the face of any newcomer.
This blog does not flatter the French, but it allows an insight into what goes on behind French doors and explains why the French do what they do. Anyone dreaming of living the dream in France should be aware that they are moving into a radically different culture and learn about it and embrace it before making an ill-considered move.
This insider’s account goes well beyond traditional books about France and the French. It is indispensable in decoding what the French say and more importantly, what they mean when one comes face to face with them. More importantly it explains why they do what they do.
The market is brimming with the life stories of celebrities large and small who took on French vineyards or the impossible renovation of a chateau – or an olive farm.
No one to my knowledge has given any clues about what the French actually think or do in the privacy of their own home and culture. Anyone contemplating a move to France should ask themselves what kind of culture and society they are entering. However, in many cases, if the question arises at all, it is quickly and optimistically brushed aside.
Most people on this side of the Channel, wanting to ‘live the dream in France’ focus hard on the simple act of cutting loose, of leaving all their troubles behind. They won’t allow reality to taint their dream of the paradise just a few hours away, awash with cheap property and lots of space, good food and a life style to enjoy all of these. In short, the very things which seem to have vanished in the British consumer and business-driven culture.
The English also dream of childhoods spent running in meadows, of climbing trees, of not having to worry that your children are going to be run over by the heavy traffic yards from the front door. In essence, it is a dream of a forties and fifties childhood, a kind of Famous Five existence, before a time when innocence was lost. All this and more they promise themselves from France. The simple fact that France lies so close to England reassures them. They believe that a country so close cannot be all that different. They close their eyes and pin their ears shut when one advises caution or tries to hint at the slightest problem that should be considered before a move. Some think that the simple acquisition of a French village house and an appropriate amount of wine drinking will turn them into full fledged, paid-up members of French society. ‘It’s not as if we were going to Bulgaria or Russia,’ I have been told by some. Perhaps not, when one thinks of the general standard of living, when it comes to education and indeed sanitation and medical care. But in all other respects, when it comes to entering a different culture, they may as well think of France as a distant country.
The aim of this book is not to discourage the English. Quite the opposite. I belong to the French culture, was brought up in the very rural France of the 1950s and 1960s and educated by amazing teachers. My adult life and career were spent in London working in the arts, translation of films and the printed media. I was entirely and completely integrated into English society. My very English husband, who himself worked in Europe for more than twenty years even maintains that I am the only European person who understands and loves cricket. I have a firm foot in each culture, as well as a real and deep attachment and affection for both France and England. Before I returned to the UK in 2004 I worked in France for nineteen years. This period refreshed my connections with France and it was also a time during which I witnessed the arrival of many English people.
This book is intended to help anyone wishing to visit or settle in France to understand and read the subtext of French behaviour and customs. The reader of this book can be a fly on the wall of French homes, listen to what the French say behind closed doors and understand why they do the things they do.
The French stuborn ‘amour propre’ (pride/self-love)
Unless you are overcome by an inexplicable urge to sport a nose in the shape of a large marrow and impersonate Charles de Gaulle, NEVER say NON to a Frenchman.
Ever since the Revolution, when farm labourers were freed from surfdom, given a field and three cows and told that from then on it would all be ‘Egalité, Liberté, Fraternité’, they have taken matters literally. They believe themselves to be equal to all and sundry. Their pride individuelle swells their breast as they give their opinion on everything under the sun, whether it is asked for or not. They are, in short excessively sensitive, not to say intolerant, when faced with refusal or criticism.
The French take great offence at the cool honesty which is the common place in countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian countries. On occasion, when they openly say NON, it is accompanied by a theatrical prologue, a development of the reasons for their refusal in all the philosophical, ethical and moral hues known to man, followed, of course, by an interminable epilogue.
Not much can be said by the average French individual which does not include ce n’est pas de ma faute, it’s not my fault. As a foreigner one could almost think that one has landed in a society of immaculés, in which everyone is an innocent lamb. If he or she has just shot out from a country path onto the main road, smashed your car and landed you in hospital, they will wave an angry fist at you and try and shout you down in order to protect their insurance bonus (most only have third party insurance). If their children have decimated your flower beds by playing football next to your garden, it is your fault for growing flowers within reach of a football. In any case ‘they are only children, Madame. They need to spend their energy’. Yes, you’ve guessed it – the untouchable child, just like in the UK, is alive and well in la belle France too.
In Holland it is acceptable, both socially as well as in the work place to say to someone:’ I don’t like you,’ or ‘I have nothing in common with you, what would we talk about?’ without causing your work colleague to throw him or herself to the floor, hammer the ground with angry fists and howl ‘why does no one love me’ – or run to the top of the building and leap into the void.
Most French individuals would seethe with anger at such open rejection. Rejection is taken very personally, whether it concerns work, food or anything else for that matter. It is perceived as an open affront to personal pride, dignity and most of all, emotive self-love. He or she would therefore, and till the end of their days, harbour a burning ‘rancune’ in his breast. ‘La vengeance’ must be had, so he or she will plot and intrigue against you in order to effect your downfall. All the while, you may continue to be plied with smiles and good humor – a talent which of course was the making of ‘la diplomatie francaise’ over the centuries.
The pre- and post-Ryanair era
Cheap flights have totally transformed the French housing market in the last few years. Gone are the days when only the rich, the famous or the eccentrics migrated to France. In the last few years a different kind of bifteks (the Brits) have been ‘buying up’ France. That’s what it feels like when one sees them arriving. Encouraged by euphoric Sunday supplements articles and TV programmes, these new arrivals seem oblivious to the fact that British and French cultures are diametrically opposed. On a recent phone-in programme on Radio 4, the all important umbilical cord for the majority of English people in Europe, one typical well-spoken middle-class lady complained about the chasm between herself and the very rural population of her French village. Her main complaint was that after many years of life in the French community, the villagers were not socialising, in other words inviting strangers to their family table and that there was altogether too much family life and not enough of the British style girl friend culture for her British taste. Her expectation of dinner parties and glasses of wine on the terrace with sophisticated French socialites had obviously not been come true. Had she asked for advice from anyone who is either French or who knows France well before moving to France, she would have saved herself a great deal of disappointment, perhaps even the price of the house.
Since about the years 2000 the trend has been for younger Brits transplant their young children to rural France. They buy houses at vastly inflated prices in the areas around the ‘Ryanair-ports’. We saw them arrive in Carcassonne airport in shorts, tee-shirts and flip-flops in mid-January. In the Western Mediterranean regions houses need to be heat for a good four to five months
Far too many English are in France for the cheap property. For a large proportion of these, if they have to communicate with the French, it seems an almost irritating aside for which they have done precious little preparation. ‘We’ll pick it up when we get there,’ is the general attitude, as if a language and French social etiquette, even rural social etiquette, could be bought in the supermarket along with the toilet paper. Is this the result of ignorance or arrogance? I have often asked myself this question. Most of us spend half a lifetime acquiring the necessary vocabulary to be able to get along with neighbours, workmates and people we meet for the first time. What would it feel like to suddenly reduce one’s vocabulary to that of a six year old and try and communicate with people one knows nothing about, all the while wanting them to understand and welcome us into their community and family life? The idea that all human relationships, including the dealing with the schools, the health service and formalities depend on a minimum of understanding between two parties doesn’t seem to dawn on the newcomers to France until they emerge from a shop or the local Mayor’s offices, complaining that ‘everything was in French!’
And what do the French think about this? Do these British invaders care what the French think? The early Francophiles who moved to France up to the early seventies certainly did. They came from a British culture where no one wanted to make a fuss or complain.
Before the big move everyone talks about wanting to integrate, about how friendly everyone in France seems to be. Wouldn’t you be if you had just sold your old aunt’s ruin in the form of four thick, but crumbling stone walls with a leaking roof, broken pipes and wiring, held together by bits of string and sticky tape for twice the price of child friendly, pretty villa plein pied (new build, centrally heated bungalow with garden), which most young rural French families aspire to? (see The French and their houses).