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