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 competiton, 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 maybe 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 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 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 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 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 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.’ With 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 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