At the End of the Day

Expat learnings

Over the thirty-five years since the truly unpleasant Peter Mayle wrote A Year in Provence, the market has been flooded with what soon became “a genre”. The arrival of a genre always coincides with the departure of creativity, in that one gets what I call Xerox marketing on the subject of being (for example) a British expat in France. Or Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Croatia and all points east.

Mayle’s book was and remains a masterpiece of invention and condescension. As a direct result of this, he was ostracised by his own French neighbours (and quite right too) but nevertheless made a small fortune from the book. Worst of all, the text seeped down into the Starry Eyed Bollocks Chatterati, and spawned hopelessly misleading afternoon telly programmes like A Place in the Sun.

Long before any of this nonsense, the irrepressible David Nobbs of eventual Reggie Perrin fame wrote a TV sitcom – years ahead of its time – called The Sun Trap. It never got very far, but it was based in Spain and proved extremely prescient about the pretensions and dangers facing those who fell for The Dream. Hence its failure.

Most of us have, at some time or another, been buttonholed by professional expats determined to tell everyone how happy and integrated they are, how they’ll never go back to Blighty, and what an astonishingly low cost of living they enjoy. A lot of it comes under heading of protesting too much. It is an enormous jolt to leave one’s native culture behind, and ultimately one remains a product of the tribal synapses, signals and symbols.

I have always tried to maintain a neutral view of French life. Yes, I am a francophile, but yes, I also know how infuriating “Je m’en fou” can be. Yes, I am pretty fluent in French these days but yes, I’m painfully aware of being an outsider: not because I’m made to feel unwelcome, but because I miss a thousand references to events, celebrity, and the past here in general that I simply didn’t experience. My youth was spent elsewhere, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.

In the end, I think it comes down to being focused about what the real cultural kinship is for someone living the life of an étranger résident. Inevitably, it involves personal events that can easily be dismissed as stereotypical and “not really representative”. But such dismissal misses the point entirely: it is the small yet significant interactions that truly illuminate the reasons for one’s macro life decisions.

When one discusses things here about how much unadulterated bullsh*t (des conneries) there is to politics, economics, banking and the pro-Brussels media, the French may disagree, but they don’t go glassy-eyed because you raised the subject. Whereas I felt culturally isolated in Britain for forty years – unable to live in any ideological stockade – I don’t get that sense here at all.

Like me, the French on the whole do real: that’s to say, they think mutualist utilitarianism and community spirit to be infinitely more important than inflexible ideology. Those ideas are under attack (especially among the urban young) but, thankfully, it remains a dominant view in the medium to smaller communes that the major focal point is a good meal and a pissup in the salle des fêtes (community centre) with your neighbours at reasonably regular intervals. So on that – to me – vitally important dimension, I am very much at home here.

Something happened today to illustrate this. We have a new mayor in our little corner, the adorable Monique. From the very first meeting, there was a loud click (‘claque’ in French) between us that has nothing to do with sex or indeed any physicality: she is simply open-minded, funny, hard-working, effective and compassionate.

Monique pitched up today to say hello, and it soon became clear that she was concerned that I hadn’t been to the last local jamboree – un après-midi de galettes. I love galettes (pancakes) and so the explanation was very simple: my neighbour Ange had given me the invitation, and I’d completely forgotten about it. All the Mayor wanted to do was check I was OK.

I served her some tea and we discussed all kinds of interesting stuff. There were no awkward silences, but there were lots of laughs. France is full of Moniques….and while that is the case, no corporacratic superstate is ever going to change things. That – and the healthy cynicism plus natural truculence and vibrant agriculture of Gallic culture – ensures that I am right to be here: when all the tits are pointing skywards in the aftermath of eurocollapse, France will survive better than anyone. It will be far from plain sailing for anyone, but the culture will abide.

It’s nowhere near perfect, and at times excrutiatingly lonely. But expecting perfection is a recipe for disappointment. More friends and more lovers in my life would help. Having been fixated on getting the property here right for nearly two years, I need to become far more social again. It’s something I’ve already resolved to get right in 2016.

Earlier at The Slog: The Demography of Mammon

18 thoughts on “At the End of the Day

  1. France will not be the only European country that manages to retain its ‘espirit’. I think my adopted homeland will, too, despite its current economic problems. I believe it has something to do with a bloody-minded determination not to let the prats win?

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  2. My recent resolve to distance myself somewhat from the webby thing dissolved in the warmth of your post. There was more sense spoken in those few brief paragraphs than anything else I have read or heard about living on this little cosmic grain of sand these last few years. The Memsahib and I have been toying with the idea of moving to the continent in the autumn of our years – the south of France possibly, or Spain; I can rub along reasonably well in either language but her vocabulary is limited to “dos San Miguel, por favor” … I see pratfalls ahead.

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  3. Yeah spot on John. I’m in the same boat in Bayern. Don’t know about you but the Brits I know tend to be downright weird. I’ve given up getting to know many of them.

    I think the broader picture for us Euro expats is that we realize how “programmed” we were in the UK. I certainly do now.

    And yes the loneliness is painful, often. There’s a constant sadness attending expat life.

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  4. A year in Provence was the only ” failure” in the body of work of that sadly missed actor John Thaw. Not his fault the production was puke inducing.

    The Sweeney now that plus Kavanagh plus Morse plus his sitcoms were on a different plane.

    A craftsman who died far too early.

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  5. I left England with a newly minted B.Sc in 1963 and went to Canada on a student visa. I had intended to return to England. That was the plan but the reality was an Anglophone wife, three kids and a career so I settled into Canada. Decades passed and I now live in Quebec with a Francophone wife. I now look back on my first 21 years spent in England as something that happened to someone else and I am now equally as comfortable in an English speaking culture as in a French speaking culture. At 21 it was just an adventure, but to emigrate after a career in England must be very difficult. Learning another language in one’s sixties is hard and there isn’t enough time to understand more than the basics of a new culture. Chapeau to those that have succeeded in doing both. Most don’t and they just stick to their own. I remember one evening when hiking in the SW of France a few years back, having dinner at a restaurant where the French were eating indoors and the English outdoors. The English were clearly local residents but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) speak a word of French and they were giving the French waiter a hard time as a consequence. It is not hard to say “sugar, please” in French and with a smile. I was so embarrassed that I asked the waiter, in French, if he would kindly serve the rest of my dinner inside with the Francophones.

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  6. Yes John, you’re doing a great job amusing yourself with your property and writing interests.
    imho it’s best to look forwards, keep busy, make strenuous efforts to look after the health – but always knowing in the back of your mind that the eu mainland is dead from the neck upwards.
    Good luck my man..!!

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  7. Nomadic of nature I’ve lived in a number of countries. In my experience – if you study the language, culture and history really hard – you can get up to speed with conversation and cultural references in around ten years. That, however, does require hard work and determination. Local girlfriends help a lot :-).

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  8. A level headed approach to, and an insightful account of, living in your adopted country. The rural French in particular seem to have managed to cling onto an appreciation of natural human values which is truly sustaining, and on which the cold hand of urban ennui cannot find a grip; I like to think that I could and possibly will live there, and have friends who do. For a keen motorcyclist, mostly of the older variety, the French D roads are a joy, and the scenery similarly so. With my two teenage children, I’m planning to visit Holland and Normandy on a sidecar outfit this summer for ten days or so under canvas.. hopefully I’ll get a chance to go solo before that, on sera!

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  9. Petr Mayle wrote that book 35 years ago when France was a very different place and the differences resonate from the pages of the book.Sure he was arrogant and piss taking but it was quite gentle.His description of Provence was very accurate as i found out when i cycled from England to Spain and stayed there for two weeks.

    I live in Tenerife now and have done so for 15 years.I will never be Canarian but i cant ever be British again……Im in nationalistic limbo but warm.

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  10. Lovely article John, all the best with your plans for 2016.
    Just remembered watching the ‘The Good Year’ by Ridley Scott, also from a book by Mayle, a truly terrible film.

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  11. Re Peter Mayle: his first book was a clear plagiarism of the work of Lady Fortescue, published in 1935. No acknowledgement whatsoever. Even the ‘ male chicken’ incident is there. Don’t know if he is decent chap, but both books are entertaining.

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  12. John, I look forward to your ‘End of the Day’ pieces as much as I do your financial/economics articles. Always a good read, thank you.

    DavidC

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