TRAVEL NOTES

Brexit: Should I stay or should I go?

VIEWS FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE CHANNEL

Montolieu

‘Brexitttt!’ exclaimed one of my former Paris colleagues. He grated on the ‘r’ as only a French throat can do, ‘sounds like a break dancer’s spinal injury. But seriously, we’re feeling quite hurt by what has happened.’ I know from my French school childhood, the French are not great at being rejected but I am surprised how many describe the referendum result as something that ‘hurts’. Others feel a sort of grief, like a member of the family who is deserting them, taking the best furniture, because the grass on the other side seems greener. So what do the two side of the Channel really feel?

Living the dream

Ever imagined yourself, sitting on a terrace in France with a glass of wine? Many Brits who had that dream and realised it with varying degrees of success are asking themselves the questions after the Brexit vote in their home country – Should I stay or should I go? So, imagine …

Sunset – somewhere in France, British expats are sitting on their terrace with that proverbial glass of wine. The smoke of Toulouse sausages wafts over from the barbecue going full throttle where John, Bill and Bob, sunburnt to the colour of lobsters, are turning the sausages and boudin bought along with the baguettes and ripe, heavenly-flavoured tomatoes that morning in the market in the nearest village square. The grandchildren are running wild at the bottom of the endless garden bordering the rolling vineyards. Since mum Helen and dad John retired, bought and renovated an old French farmhouse a short drive away from a picturesque village, daughter Diane, her husband and grandchildren spend all their holidays here. Mum makes a great baby sitter, not to mention cleaner and cook. After all, daughter and son-in-law need a well-earned rest from their pressurised jobs in the UK and taxiing their children to and from school and after school activities. With all that going on it’s surprising they find the energy to push the ready-meals into the microwave in the evenings. Because in the UK children no longer go anywhere unchaperoned. Here in France no such rules apply. Within a day computer games, Grand Theft Auto and the obsessive posting of selfies on facebook have lost their attraction for the teens – bike rides on dusty country lanes among the sunflower fields, up and down the vineyards and tree climbing in the nearby wood takes them out of sight and out of reach of their parents who no longer insist that they carry their mobiles at all times. No one seems to worry where they are and what they are up to as long as they turn up for meals. In both children and parents the fear that there is a child abuser lurking behind every bush has evaporated.

But on the 24th June 2016 the idyll took on a different hue. As the adults gaze out from their terrace a black cloud now hovers somewhere on the North-West horizon and it has a name – Brexit.

In the Languedoc, my own region, it was the start of the Ryan Air flights in the mid-1990s that brought an influx of British people with money to buy up rural houses that the French had inherited but could not afford to renovate. For most of British buyers it was a retirement project. They chose houses outside the villages. ‘We’ll pick up the language as we go,’ was the usual perky reply to my question how they would manage to communicate with the local builders, plumbers and electricians, let alone the inevitable formalities. ‘We really want to integrate,’ was another optimistic plan. The friendly smiles in the village boulangerie were taken as proof of it, but for the French population integration means language. The British employed British builders, many of whom had exercised very different, often desk-bound professions back in the UK, spoke only enough French to shop for materials in the local DIY stores and also lacked insurance for such eventualities as falling off a ladder or worse, the roof, at which point all worked stopped while the ‘builder’ returned to the UK to have the broken bones mended by the NHS.

Most house owners had kept a foothold in the UK and returned ‘home’ for dental treatment, a new pair of glasses or for their long delayed operations.

The day after the referendum I called Thierry and Christine, my closest friends in Paris. As everyone knows, Paris is not France, just as London is not Great Britain and I wanted to know how they felt about the shock result. They were dismayed, not to say distraught. ‘Why is everyone talking about it as if it was finite. A referendum is no more than testing the population’s pulse, it’s not a law, certainly not something that could put the whole of Europe into peril.’ Thierry works for France Telecom, his wife Christine, the daughter of a German diplomat, for an international publicity agency.

‘It feels as if a member of the family has suddenly decamped, taking all the advantage they benefitted from and are now saying ‘I’m off.’ Christine, being of German origin whose father was posted to embassies in Aden, Cairo, Kenya, Athens and Paris, always taking the family with him, is especially worried. Christine’s father, as I do myself, remembers Europe and France and Germany in particular, before the EU. ‘Of course the EU is not perfect,’ Christine says, ‘but overall, if you look at the big picture, the coming together of these two countries has been productive and moreover has meant peace. If in 1955 the people of France and Germany had been asked ‘do you want to become friends’, the answer would have been a resounding NON! / NEIN!. Now they have understood that it’s better to be imperfect friends than perfect enemies.’

Christine, as other friends in the French capital with a keen interest in current affairs, feel that ‘the people’ are not always right, so a referendum should come with very specific questions, not a simple Yes or No, as well as with a setting of a reasonable percentage with a minimum of 60%. ‘What did your Prime Minister Cameron think he was doing?’ everyone is asking me.

Christine and Thierry’s sons are now young men, one has completed his masters degree in International business, the other is spending his gap year in Berlin. As so many French, German, Polish and Italian young people, they are bi-lingual which opens the door to careers in several countries.

Another Paris friend, a scientist and journalist has other fears. ‘For European research and science, Brexit is a disaster, and especially for the UK.’ He too is sad. He feels the referendum result springs from a population who simply did not make the effort of finding out and understanding what could happen.  ‘One cannot vote to leave the EU and keep the keys to the front door,’ was a frequent comment from my contacts in both France and Germany.

In rural France the feeling is also one of deep disappointment. Country folk articulate their views in a more emotional way. The further South one goes the more resentment there seems to be. ‘We’ve had a British invasion here,’ says a wine grower neighbour of my brother’s in the Toulouse area, ‘they’ve come here and wanted us to learn their language. They wanted things to be done the English way. When a house has been bought by an English person they can spend so much money on it that never again a French person will be able to buy it back.’ However, talking to my brother, a farmer spied the silver lining of the dark Brexit cloud. ‘Perhaps the British will all want to sell up, but I can’t see many new British wanting to buy. Maybe then the house prices will fall and fall and maybe my sons will be able to buy my grandfather’s house back.’

My brother, living and working in the country half way between Toulouse and Bordeaux, anticipates that many English house owners will worry that soon they will have to become integrated into the French health system, explain their ailments to a hospital and to pay the 90 or so Euros per month and that they will be expected to cope with paperwork in French. Few have had the chance to see the advantages of the French health system, as Eric Johnson did. He retired early. He and his wife bought an old farmhouse just outside the village where I had my own business. Trying to convert two outbuildings into gîtes his bad shoulder gave way. He had no option but to pay a visit to our village doctor. ‘This has to be operated,’ was the diagnosis. ‘I have a date for an operation in two years time back in England,’ Eric said. ‘No, this needs to be done now’ the doctor insisted, ‘when do you want to check into the hospital in Carcassonne?’ The doctor picked up the phone and made the appointment. Turning to Eric he asked, ‘what sort of room do you want?’ Eric was speechless.

But things can be very different. Mrs Barber was around seventy years old when we met her and in great need of help. She and her husband had bought a farm house in the foothills of the Pyrenees with a wood attached, so large and dense that we barely found her house. Her husband had renovated the house and outbuildings almost single handedly. In exchange for help with the renovation they had given a temporary home to a young British man who occupied one of their small gîtes. With the work at an end and both gîtes ready to be let for a much needed income now that all the Barber’s money had been spent, the young man proved difficult to move on. The situation became fraught and old Mr Barber suffered a heart attack but recovered. The bad tempered young man grudgingly packed his rucksack and left. Then, not long after, the house caught fire in the middle of the night. After the pompiers had extinguished the flames the house had suffered severe damage – and Mr Barber had his final, fatal heart attack, leaving his wife with an unsaleable, charred house in a large wood. ‘I’m too frightened to drive,’ she confessed, ‘I’ve never driven on the right. We’ve been here five years but Brian always did the driving.’ She was also left without a word of French.

After the Brexit vote many British fear that they will drown in paper work in order to remain in their French homes. They may no longer be able to declare their British home as their first residence for tax purposes. ‘What will happen to our property if we die and our children don’t want to live here? They can’t speak French, how can they cope with the formalities?’ was one anxious question from my brother’s British neighbour. The inheritance laws in France too pose a problem, especially for couples in a second marriage with children on all sides.

The English newcomers’ optimism of ‘picking up’ the language has always baffled me. In the village where I worked a new family arrived. Unusually, Laura and Jeff were in their 30s with two primary school children. I met them as they emerged from the offices of our village mayor. ‘I’m not sure what went on in there or what we’ve signed,’ Laura said, looking very disappointed,’ he talked in French the whole time.’ The next day I met the mayor with whom I had been very friendly for years and asked him about ‘les nouveaux’. He shrugged his shoulders. ‘What the English don’t understand is that as mayor I represent the Republique, the government. A mayor here has all the power, not like English mayors with their gold chains around the neck opening community centres or shops. I have to address people in the official French language which is used for laws and regulations. That’s my job. I can’t suddenly speak as if to a five year-old.’

What English pensioners in France now worry about is how their pensions will be affected. My own income is split 50/50 in Sterling and Euros and within a couple of weeks I felt the impact of the Brexit vote. Not long ago expat pensioners complained that they were not getting their £100 heating allowance each winter, nor are they getting the yearly, though miserly, increase of pension. By moving to France they believed that they were going to be living very cheaply in permanent sunshine, but in the villages just half an hour from the Narbonne beaches, houses need heating throughout the winter for at least 3-4 months and the nearer to the Pyrenees one gets the colder it is in the winter.

At the moment it is impossible to say how and when the Brexit vote will change the lives of all of us, on either side of the Channel. Some in France believe that it will be so difficult to extricate Britain from Europe that in the end, probably at the next general elections, it will be the predominant question and those who voted Leave to rebel against Cameron, the EU bureaucrats, the free movement of labour, those who thought the slogan Leave meant that all ‘brown’ people would be sent back home, or even those who said they want to see less European football on the tele, will realise that when we all muddled along together, things weren’t all that bad, imperfect and irritating though they could be at times.

Christine’s father and I have not forgotten the state of Europe before the union and the conflicts and wars between neighbouring countries. Many Europeans feel that the British nation has thrown a hissy-fit against everything they dislike – the government, the job competition from immigrants who are prepared to work harder for less money than British workers. As one French grocer put it to me, ‘The English always think they have it hard. They would be surprised how modestly most people outside the cities in France live.’ To voice one’s opposition against the establishment is often healthy, but to be against everything, without thinking of the consequences when you throw the baby out with the bathwater, borders on brinkmanship. As my mother once said before even meeting my English husband, ‘The English, they’re not quite European, floating on that little island, always thinking they’re special.’ Let’s hope that if Brexit comes true, that little island does not float off too far from Europe and that my English husband will not need to apply for a visa to visit my family.

A.Burchardt, author of The Fool’s House and Simple Poison 

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