My LANGUEDOC TRILOGY novels (mystery, murder and mayhem) set in a similar village. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A PART-TIME BOOKSELLER
After my years of working as magazine art director, art editor and lecturer at London art school, and with my husband’s illustration work for major European publishers, we left Strasbourg, our home for twelve years on a sudden impulse and went to live and work in the medieval Languedoc book village of Montolieu. I followed my passion to create handmade books with fine hand-made papers bought in a 17th century paper mill, teaching at the local book and print museum. We set up The English Bookshop which quickly became known as the best second-hand modern literature bookshop outside Paris.
Until 1967 the sleepy, isolated village of Montolieu in an idyllic location, had been left with earth streets and unconnected to main sewage. Like most Southern French villages it contained no more than old people. If a black-clad old lady or a dog crossed the street it was an event. Butcher, baker, grocer and pharmacy were breathing their last breaths. The school had just 8 pupils and was going to be closed. Many houses were uninhabited or ran to ruin until it became a book village in 1989. Courageous book enthusiasts bought the wrecked houses, opened small bookshops. A post office moved to the village, the school reopened, before long butcher, baker and grocer were doing well. A doctor’s surgery and excellent pharmacy serving Montolieu as well as the surrounding villages was working full-time. By the time we got to the village book lovers from around the world were arriving to browse in the second-hand bookshops huddling in the narrow streets and alleys between 12th century wall in the shadow of an 8th century church.
Before we could start work though we first had to wreck a 12th century house directly by the church and convert it into two small shops, or boutiques. It was a labour of love but infinitely worth it as we ended up with a view from our sun-drenched terrace all the way to the famed snow-covered Pyrenean peaks which divide France from Spain at the Meditarrenean end.
Below some of the fun, absurd and down-right unbelievable silly bits we experienced, equally divided between British and American expats, as well as some eccentricities of the French bookseller and our village neighbours.
PRINCE CHARLES’ POSTCODE
‘I’m looking for ‘Behind Palace Doors,’ piped an artificially plummy voice in a woolly hat and prim scarf, ‘I used to work at the palace, behind the scenes,’ she added. Her husband fiddled with his tie and flicked some non-existent dust from his jacket .
‘Yes, we have it,’ I said as I walked into the history corner. I knew the book. It was written by the Queen Mother’s former equerry. On the cover HRH stood in the shadow of Windsor Castle, next to a rose bush, shoes sinking into the grass, in a pastel coat with stitched on pockets, more like an overall, head slightly inclined to the side, still with the ubiquitous hat, looking like a confused woman in an old people’s home who insists she is the real Queen Mum.
My customer stood close behind me but said loudly, making sure everyone could hear her, ‘I’m only buying it because in the book the author calls me Candida.’
I took the hardback to the desk.
‘I simply couldn’t bear to carry it around all afternoon,’ she sighed, ’ indicating her shiny handbag dangling on her arm, just like the Queen Mum, though given the scorching heat outside, she was not wearing elbow-length gloves. ‘You can post it to me,’ she said with an imperious wave of the hand, ‘my postcode is … err, the same as Prince Charles.’
She hadn’t really come in the actually buy the book, she’d come in the broadcast her royal connections.
‘I’m sorry, Madam, we don’t post books. From France the postage is sooo expensive.’
She pursed her lips. ‘I’ll just have to wait to buy the book until we get back to Blighty. Come along Colin.’
Well, well. There we had it. Colin is definitely not a name one would normally hear around Prince Charles. Maybe, just maybe, the author named her Candida in the book to save her the embarrassment of having been an under-parlour maid five times removed who polished the Queen Mother’s shoes or soaked her dentures.
PRACTICING WITH BOOKS
On the central long table we laid out the big illustrated, luxury editions of coffee table books. It was the safest place for them. We could of course not prevent customers from leafing through them, but at least we could keep an eagle eye out for the kinking of corners or sticky hands.
One a hot Saturday afternoon a Frenchmen and his three children took the two steps down into the shop.
‘Regardez!’ he exclaimed, waving at the books, ‘these books are all in English!’ All three boys were flabbergasted. ‘But Papa, we can’t read English, you can’t read English,’ the eldest, maybe eight years old, remonstrated and made for the door again, only to be grabbed by the sleeve by his father.
The father dragged his small sons to a spectacular coffee table volume of Ocean Liners of the 1920 and 1930s. The three boys joined in the turning of pages, except that they wanted to flick through the book rather faster than their father. The sound of pages colliding and being pulled caused my husband to blanch. The smallest boy, aged around four, moved along the table and started to flip through Winston Churchill’s Greatest Speeches as if it were a kindergarten board-book of the Very Hungry Caterpillar.
My husband who easily loses patience with children fled from the shop. ‘This is not a playground sandbox,’ he hissed behind the closing door, ‘these books are mine.’ At times like this he had a touch of the Basil Faulty about him. My task was to fix these kinds of problems, the French way.
I cleared my throat, still hoping the father would intervene and do the decent thing. No such luck.
‘Could you please stop your boys from doing that,’ I said with a false smile, ‘these are very expensive books. Unfortunately we don’t stock children’s books.’ I spoke the word children’s books rather loudly, to emphasise my point.
‘Aaah, Madame,’ the man exclaimed,’ but books are such wonderful things. Children have to get used to handling them!’
Something in my brain snapped. I fixed my smile.
‘I couldn’t agree more with you Monsieur, but please, can you let them practice on your own books?’ With that I went over, closed all the books and stood guard, arms crossed.
The next day we heard from the other bookshops in the village that we, ‘Le bookshop Anglais’, hated children.
NO DOGS ALLOWED – dog-owner dramas
Disliking or not allowing children a free rein on their days off in our shop was a cardinal sin, second only to insulting their pooch. Some dog owners were in total denial that their little treasures dropped their, well, little treasures, wherever and whenever they pleased, with not one black plastic poo bag in sight to pick up the offending articles.
DOGS NOT ALLOWED signs couldn’t simply be hung out.
A middle-aged woman with rather too much lipstick staggered into the shop, her high-heeled sandals catching on the ancient stone step. A handbag-sized Yorkshire Terrier on a bejewelled lead and with a silk bow between his fluffed-up ears tumbled from one step to another and landed on the shop floor.
‘I’m so sorry, Madame,’ I tried to smile, ‘I am unable to receive your adorable dog in my shop.’
The woman’s lips pursed, crackling her thick lipstick. Oh, dear – maybe I should not have used the generic word ‘dog’; maybe I should have said, your little friend, your little companion, your darling – your child??
‘I’m sure yours… is very well behaved,’ I kept up the smile, though my cheeks were starting to ache, ‘but if the village dogs smell that your dog has been here, they too will come – and they are NOT very well behaved.’
This argument had worked in the past. To suggest customers carry their dogs on their arm was usually also grudgingly accepted as a compromise. This Madame was obviously of a different mind. The black-painted eyebrows rose by at least three inches. She tore the shop door open, rushed into the street and began to broadcast at the top of her voice: ‘You HATE dogs, you horrible people … you probably also hate CHILDREN! Her ample bosom heaved with fury and threatened to spill from her décolleté as she dragged her quivering pooch up our steep, sun-scorched street as if it were a floor mop.
I watched her go – who was being cruel to dogs here?
Olivier, a Belgian bookseller colleague of ours, a man who delighted in provocation of all and sundry, was the first to have the temerity to hang out a dog-related sign.
“LES CHIENS ROI NE SONT PAS BIENVENUS ICI (Dogs threated like kings are not welcome here). His wording caused no end of abuse, both inside and outside his bookshop – he was over-joyed at the outraged he was causing. We didn’t want to take the same route but something had to be done.
I resorted to wording the perfect sign for our shop door. In my most ornate calligraphy I penned:
-S.V.P. LES CHIENS NE SACHANT LIRE, ATTENDENT DEHORS. (Dogs that cannot read, please wait outside).
The sign was still pointed at accusingly by scandalised dog owners, but it also amused many and overcame the threat of the dreaded cocked hind leg (or worse) against the corner of our bookshelves sitting in the sun against the show window.
I was deep into cataloguing an exciting lot of book I had found in the Revel vide-grenier this Sunday when I heard a scraping of feet and my shop went dark. I looked up- in the door stood a broad figure of a man with a hat. He took the two steps down into my shop and once more let the sunlight in.
‘Good day, Sir,’ said a growly voice. American, unmistakeably – only Americans call you ‘Sir’. They even call their fathers ‘Sir’. My husband am I exchanged looks – which one of us should stay or leave with such a large man in the tiny shop.
‘Or should I have said Bonjour?’ Our customer seemed unduly anxious about which greeting to use. ‘Well,’ I tried to give a friendly reply, ‘it does say English Bookshop on the sign, so Good day is fine.’ I put my head down and carried on with my work.
From the corner of my eye I could see the man nervously weaving through the narrow spaces of the shop. Hemingway, I thought. Or had dear old Hem not shot himself after all? No, this was just another Hem. We’d had a few of them. Some time ago we had an American kitted out as Sherlock Holmes, convinced that he looked like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These men seemed to have something in common – once they got talking – and they talked, endlessly if you let them – they were usually divorced, had fled America with the romantic notion that French women would be keen to share their bed with a mature, well-to-do American more willingly than their former wives in Minnesota, Missouri or even Massachusetts. Their obvious and appropriate targets should have been widows or divorced, middle-aged women, but, predictably, they aimed for the bikini-clad younger models who strutted the beaches. Being disappointed on the love and the legendary passionate front, they glossed over their disappointment. ‘I really came to France to write books,’ we were often told. Inevitably, the books were usually going to be about their own lives, books which they had not written – yet. They were still waiting for their muse to descend as if by magic.
I could see that this Hemingway in hat and heavy coat, with a whiff of Scotch Whiskey and Cuban cigar about him, was waiting for me to lift my head, so he could open a conversation.
‘Admirable,’ he sighed loudly, ‘admirable. What treasure your tiny shop holds.’ He came to the desk, extending his fleshy hand. ‘I believe handshaking is the form in France. I’m Archibald Donaldson.’
So, not Hemingway after all.
Women also sometimes came, striving to emulate their heroines, though more often than not, this turned out to be Brigitte Bardot. The French call these women the 1664s – in their slim jeans and long bleached manes they look 16 from the back but 64 from the front. Those who were rather on the plumper side dyed their hair pitch black, wore black glasses and pouted à la Juliette Greco. We’d had one parched looking Agatha Christie who lived in a chateau nearby with peeling walls, but a Barbara Cartland look-a-like had not yet floated in in a cloud of pink organza, though once, before dawn, a crate full of her novels with images of swooning women and muscular, lean men with green eyes and pert buttock muscles, turned up outside our bookshop. We left them there with a card saying, FREE BOOKS – help yourself. In the course of the day we saw some peering into the crate, two women walked off with a copy each. We left the crate out overnight – we didn’t want those books to clutter our shop floor. Two days later, when we woke up, the whole crate was gone.
WRITER’S VOICE AND THE ‘ROUGE’ MALE
Our book village had a truly international clientele, including many writers who came for residential summer workshops, mostly from Boston University led by Harvard or Yale professors of poetry or creative writing. Being a writer and editor herself, my wife had created Writer’s Voice, a literary English language short story magazine. The American as well as British published writers submitted work and were duly published. From our tiny shop, the magazine travelled world-wide, even to Australia, Alaska and Hawai. Inevitably it attracted the ‘would-be writers’. There was an absolute ban on English contributors wanting to write about terrible French plumbers and builders and other renovation misadventures, mostly due to their inability to speak French.
But not everyone was deterred at the first hurdle.
‘Since my divorce I am a confirmed batchelor,’ one Jonathan announced as he pushed a few pages over my desk, ‘France has inspired me; I have been writing short stories. Here are the latest two. ’ Not wishing to be rude, I agreed to read his submission. It was clear that what had inspired him was the discovery of Henri Miller’s books. He obviously found fantasising about relationships with women easier than real life.
The stories consisted of Jonathan describing himself and his improbably sexual encounters. He was trying hard to write ‘dirty’, rather as school boys might do in what he thought was just like Henri Miller. I came to a sentence: I am what they call a rouge male.’ It made me laugh – obviously a typing or spell-check error. I started on the second story, and sure enough, there it was again: I knew it – French women find a rouge male irresistible…
It took a while for our hilarity to die down. Jonathan was nothing like a rogue, or rouge male. He was tall, heavy, with the sort of wiry hair farm boys had when they had stood too close to a threshing machine, strong glasses and a somewhat frantic manner. His only mode was that of broadcasting. Had any woman consented to go to his room, she would have had to wait until he was all talked out – probably by the time dawn broke, or until after breakfast, or lunch, without much ‘Henri Miller-ing’ at all.
A week later Jonathan returned. ‘Have you published my story? I’ve brought you the next five.’ We made the excuse that all issues for the remaining year were already planned and full up. ‘Well, that’s your loss,’ he quipped, ‘by next year I will have so many stories that I will publish a book and then you’ll be able to stock it in your shop.’
When he had finally departed, after I had said that I was closing for the tenth time, we breathed a sigh of relief. He would not be back.
‘No doubt his book will be entitled: The Rouge Male,’ said my wife, ‘followed by: Rouge Male rides again.’
FAT MEN DON’T DO STAIRS
The very obese customer heaved himself along the space between our bookshelves reaching to the ceiling. He stopped between two tables and leaned on them, breathing heavily. I was hoping that no other customers would enter the shop or else all oxygen in the shop would be used up and we were sure to suffocate.
I was serving one of our regulars who had bought her month’s worth of books and was ordering some more. My husband was on his knees in a very awkward corner, shelving.
‘Travel,’ said the big man. He was obviously too exhausted to make a whole sentence, or maybe he was just the rude type who treats shop staff like menial servants.
‘The section is just up those few steps.’
‘What? No lift?’
It had not occurred to us that anyone would require a lift to go up five steps.
‘So sorry,’ I said,’ forever diplomatic.
‘Why not?’ growled the man.
‘This is a house from the twelfth century,’ I made a helpless gesture, ‘the walls are one and a half meters thick.’
An angry glance. The man turned around. Grumbling, he squeezed his bulk between the bookshelves and central table back to the front.
‘I don’t do stairs!’ He heaved himself up the two stone steps, out of the shop and toddled down the street. He obviously also ‘didn’t do’ steep streets such as ours.
Aged three I was a stateless refugee in Vienna – the card, issued by The Allies, certifies it in Russian, French and English. Now I have become a refugee once more, a Brexit refugee. After a total of thirty three years in London, I moved to Holland and I’m not the only one. The thirty three years were interrupted by a nineteen year interval back in France. On my return to the UK in 2004 I found a totally changed country. Money, excessive drinking and brash showing off seemed to dominate with the men and teenage boys, hair, killer heels, boasting about not functioning until they had consumed three large glasses of wine, were the women’s preoccupation. Even top female Radio 4 presenters boasted about their alcohol consumption. After France it was a total shock. Twelve year-old girls were striving to look like ‘celebri –ies’. From politicians to children, there didn’t seem a single letter T in the country left to be dropped.
I was shocked by the frenetic consumption, the compulsive race for ‘must have’ items, whether it was the 25th handbag, the latest style of hair highlights, the 100th pair of shoes. This was replicated by those who could least afford it, filling buckets with terrible clothes in Primark on a weekly basis. All the competition aggravated the fierce confrontational British society which, to a large extent, has always lurked under the surface of the divisive class system.
The Brexit ‘debate’, driven by venom, anger and envy and gross political lies from all quarters, has driven the country into a national melt-down. The election of Trump confirmed how easily a population can be whipped up into bad behaviour, if not hate. One of Trumps disciples held a speech which strongly reminded me of Joseph Goebbels whose speeches I once had to translate for the National Film Theatre/BFI.
In short, by 2016 I had enough. I was teaching French to teens, heard from them about the material competition, the bullying, the aggression that is now endemic in secondary UK education. Even in the school yards which I passed daily, children were constantly fighting, mothers shouted at them in shops but otherwise let them run around like stray dogs.
So, to Holland I went in 2016-17, exchanging a large house for a large 2.5 room rented apartment in Delft. Life here could not be more different.
Everyone rides bikes, three year-olds and octogenarians There is virtually no traffic in the town centres, even in the nearby capital of The Hague. Trams abound (every 10 minutes). Even in Rotterdam, a dynamic New York/Chicago style city, there is hardly any traffic in the centre.
The biggest difference is a societal one: No one shows off – no statement handbags, no killer heels, it is not done to boast about either qualifications or about making money. Dutch girls and students don’t strive to copy Kim Kardashian, children are calm and happy, women have wild hair – what’s the point of spending hundreds of euros at the hairdressers when they are constantly on a bike, rain, snow or shine? They ferry their toddlers around in large plastic buckets attached to their bikes. It is an everyday thing to see a woman with a new-born strapped to her chest, a two year-old in a seat at the front and a three year-old in a child seat at the back. As soon as a child can stand they get a tiny bike without pedals for a year, then they graduate to pedals and whizz along, often with a parent holding on to their shoulder – no one wears a helmet. As they ride down the streets they hold conversation – without traffic noise one hears people talking at the other side of the canals.
In nearly three years I have never seen either a bike collision or an accident between a driver and cyclist. How cars give way to bikes always amazes me; and bikes give way to pedestrians.
The surprising thing for me was how much the Dutch talk – not small talk, but talk, properly, and they talk a lot with their children, while riding their bikes together in town or around the huge family table they all have in their houses. Children have tiny rooms so everyone congregates around the big family table, whether adults and children eat, do homework or play. It reminds me of how I grew up in France where children shared bedrooms. The rest of the time the family did things together. The most important conversations happen around the table when eating. I have yet to see a screaming temper tantrum from a child in a shop.
My neighbour had her second baby this morning – at home. A midwife turned up, all went well. Many Dutch women give birth at home without the help of epidural injections. This may be because as children they are brought up to be self-confident,self-reliant. They are not risk averse. Children learn to swim at the age of four and do sport in and out of school – sport is simply part of every day life for all and everyone seems to belong to one sports club or other. Of course, there is, as everywhere, the MacDonald effect – some young women are obese. It does seem to occur in a certain age band (late teens, early twenties) and sadly, as everywhere, it is manifest in the poorer sections of society and among the immigrant population.
Among the calm happy children in our street we do have one tantrum throwing, chubby three year-old, daughter of two obese parents – the daily screaming concert starts when her mother takes her to kindergarten and repeats when she comes home – they are English.
For the last year I have been working with a group of writers who write fiction in English. Between Rotterdam and The Hague I have found an amazing collection of nationalities, from Russian to South American and all countries in between. Most of them use English in the work place. Few learn Dutch – all Dutch people speak English relatively fluently and relatively correctly – it’s perfectly possible to live here without speaking Dutch.
Before coming here I had decided I would learn the language – the Dutch smiled in sympathy and incredulity (or was it pity?) when I announced it. Dutch must be one of the most difficult languages on earth, not because of the grammar but because of the b…-breaking uitspraak, the pronunciation. Nevertheless, as soon as I had installed myself, I set about reading normal Dutch authors of which there are many – and very good they are too. It’s a shame not more of them are translated into English. I am now retrospectively grateful to my father who taught me my rather literary German (the first time I went to Germany people stared at me. They thought they were talking with a dictionary). I learnt my German grammar in a lycee in France. To learn Dutch a good knowledge of German vocabulary, verbs and sentence structure definitely helps.
I have learned six languages in my life, two being Romanian and Hungarian when very small and now totally forgotten, but nothing seems to persuade my tongue and throat to quite make the required Dutch noises. Perhaps my Dutch also sounds a bit like a dictionary but it is quite fluent now to the amazement of my Dutch neighbours who marvel at my correct grammar and large vocabulary, acquired solely from reading literature. I know I will never speak like real Dutch people. I am told I have a French accent in the sense that I pay attention to pronunciation. I tell myself that it will do – I always learned languages like a parrot, was taken for a ‘native’ in every language in no time, but I feel that somewhere in the back of my language brain there is a little voice, telling me that I don’t really want to make those horrid, grating, slurping, scraping sounds of the Dutch language. Maar – ik ben heel blij hier te leven met de leuke, grappige Neederlanders.
Brexit: Should I stay or should I go?
VIEWS FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE CHANNEL
‘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 gazeD out from their terrace a black cloud now hovered somewhere on the North-West horizon and it had 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 benefited 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 be obliged 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 Baxter 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, attached was a piece of forested land 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 some heavy lifting 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 Baxter’s money had been spent, the young man proved difficult to move on. The situation became fraught and old Mr Baxter suffered a heart attack but recovered. The bad tempered young man grudgingly packed his rucksack and left. Then, not long after, the house went up in flames in the middle of the night, nearly setting the surrounding sun-dried pine forest on fire. After the pompiers had extinguished the flames the house had suffered severe damage – and Mr Baxter 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 eleven 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, ‘the mayor 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.’ For the French speaking well means that you command respect and that you respect others.
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, they may miss out on 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 live outside the cities in France .’ 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 Romanian/Hungarian 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