Friendly Politeness

‘Hello young man!’

One of those many things the Frenchie in us has difficulty in understanding about you Anglo-Saxons is the fact that, in contrast to the more formal French approach where the use of Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle to address strangers is de rigueur, your notion of friendly politeness requires you to greet people you’ve never met in your life before in the most familiar of terms. During our holidays in England last year, for example, we walked into a small  shop, only to be welcomed by an assistant, young enough to be our grand-daughter, and whom we’d never clapped eyes on in our life before, with a cheery, ‘Hello, young man!’ Her greeting smacked so much of inappropriate familiarity that both our French and Englishman joined together in firmly pointing out that, since she would never have addressed a genuine young man in this way, what really prompted her greeting was, in fact, the very opposite to what she was attempting to imply – namely, that we were no longer a young man. So how is it possible for the uninformed Frenchman not to fall into total confusion in a country where codes of friendly politeness require you to call a man ‘a young man’ when he’s not a young man, but rarely call a man ‘a young man’ when he is a young man, and where it’s quite possible to address both an old man and a young boy as ‘young man’, and both a young man and an old man as ‘old boy?’ Isn’t it far more logical to show friendly politeness towards people you know, and just polite politeness with those you don’t?

     Mind you, we probably got off lightly. For such is the importance you Anglo-Saxons attach to instant friendship that when you go into a shop you can be addressed by someone you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting before with a disconcerting variety of familiar appellations which can only lead the foreign observer to surmise that you’re on the most intimate of terms. What’s more, this obsession with on-the-spot closeness obliges us to invite people we’ve never in our life mucked the pigs out with to address us by our Christian name, or even its diminutive, and to take the liberty of using theirs. Last Saturday evening, for instance, we were invited to a dinner party given by a couple of English friends.


‘Hello! My name’s John.’

    ‘I don’t think you know Jennifer and John,’ said our hostess by way of introduction to a couple we’d never met before.

     ‘Oh, just call me Jennie,’ replied the lady, her cheeks creasing into the sweetest of smiles.

     This addiction to instantaneous friendship can, however, show its limits. This was illustrated one day last summer when we took ourself along to an agricultural show with an English friend and his wife. As we were walking past one stand a young woman rushed up to our friend’s wife.

     ‘How wonderful it is to see you again!’ she effused, seizing her in a smothering embrace. A brief conversation followed between them after which we continued on our way.

     ‘Yes, I met her at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago,’ my friend’s wife explained, ‘but I can’t for the life of me remember her name!’


                             *   *   *


This blog is based on an article from the author’s latest book, Barry’s Frenglish Folies – ‘a potpourri of humorous, serious, and humorously serious reflections on the French and English seen through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman’.

Barry’s Frenglish Folies is available as a free Kindle download at :


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Selling your Second-Hand Car in France

Anglophone expats might find the following information and tips useful when it comes to selling their car in France.

1. Selling Privately or to a Dealer?

First of all you must decide whether to sell your car privately or to a garage or second-hand car dealer. If selling privately you’ll have to calculate the price you’d like to sell it at. This can be done by using the Internet site of specialized car dealers or by consulting the tables and formulas supplied by car magazines. Prices are based on the average sales price for your make of car along with its age, number of kilometres, options and sometimes the region you live in. Don’t be too greedy. What you should be aiming at is a price which suits both you and the buyer. It might, however, be a good idea to increase your selling price by, say, 2% to give yourself room for manoeuvre when it comes to the inevitable haggling. Be aware that your potential buyer will certainly have done his sums, too.

2. Selling to a Professional.

If you decide to sell to a professional the selling price will be some 10% lower as it takes into account his working expenses and margins. You can calculate the official value by consulting the publication L’Argus which is on sale at newsagent’s and in supermarkets.

3. Selling Privately.

If you sell privately you’ll certainly have to advertise your vehicle. You can do this regionally or nationally through specialized advertising newspapers, magazines and internet companies. Usually they provide special forms you can use to describe your vehicle (colour, extras, kilometrage, age and, of course, the selling price). You’ll also have to provide a suitable photo. Make sure it’s a flattering one. It might sound elementary but when selling your car privately it’s important to carry out all necessary repairs on both mechanics and bodywork before putting your vehicle up for sale. It’s also important to give a good impression – so give it a thorough wash and clean inside and out. Use polish on the bodywork and a plastic and/or leather renovator inside. Make sure all the floormats have been cleaned. Your aim is to make it look as near to new as possible. It could make all that difference. In addition, normally a buyer will want to see the service manual along with details of all scheduled services and repair bills.

4. Official Identification

There are plenty of rogues about, so ask a potential buyer to supply official identification – ideally his identity card complete with photo.

6. The ‘certificat de cession’.

As the seller you’ll need to fill in a certificat de cession. This informs the authorities of the sale of the vehicle along with the name and address of the new owner. It’s in three parts: one is for you, one for the buyer and one must be sent to your local préfecture within two weeks of concluding the transaction. This form can be obtained from your préfecture or sous-préfecture or downloaded from

7. The ‘certificat de non-gage’.

You must also let the buyer have a certificat de non-gage. This is an official document proving that the vehicle hasn’t been stolen and that you’re its 100% owner (i.e. you’re not still paying credit instalments on it). This is also free and can be obtained from the same sources as the certificat de cession. Though not mandatory it might also be a good idea to establish a contrat de vente giving details of the vehicle and the sales transaction (registration number, make, date first registered, kilometrage, sales price) which can then be signed by both parties. Contract models can be found on Internet.

8. The ‘procès-verbal de contrôle technique’.

If your car is more than four years old and you’re selling privately you must supply the buyer with a procès-verbal de contrôle technique (see ‘The French MOT – le contrôle technique). This must be less than six months old (or less than two months if the MOT revealed defects which entailed a contre-visite).

9. The ‘certificat d’immatriculation’ or ‘carte grise’. 

Give the buyer the car’s certificat d’immatriculation, its registration certificate. If your vehicle is relatively old it will be the carte grise (it’s a bit confusing as the new certificat d’immatriculation is still frequently referred to as the carte grise). If it’s the carte grise draw two parallel lines across it and write legibly between the lines ‘Vendu le …’ or ‘Cédé le …’ followed by the date and time it was sold. It’s important to indicate the time in case the new owner commits a driving offense after taking possession. Sign below and cut off the top right-hand corner along the dotted lines. If it’s a certificat d’immatriculation write on the top part ‘Vendu le …’ or ‘Cédé le …’ the date and time it was sold, followed by your signature. Then fill in the detachable coupon with the name and address of the buyer along with the date and your signature in the box.  Give the complete certificate to the buyer. Do the same if you’re selling to a professional but don’t fill in the detachable coupon. This enables the buyer to drive his new acquisition for a maximum of one month while waiting for a new certificat d’immatriculation to be issued in his name. If selling your car to a dealer simply give him the certificat d’immatriculation. Usually he will supply all the documents and look after the formalities. Make sure he respects the official procedure. Mention the sale on your carte grise or certificat d’immatriculation. It might be a good idea if you personally send the certificat de cession to the préfecture as proof that the vehicle has been sold.

10. Test Drive

For obvious reasons a potential buyer will want a test drive. Give him the keys only when you’re both inside the car. When it’s over get him to switch off the ignition and hand you the keys before you get out. I know this sounds needless but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Some so-called testers have been known to drive off.

11. Payment

When it comes to settlement tell him you want to be paid by banker’s cheque. Normally this guarantees payment but forgeries do exist. Don’t hesitate to ask for the name of his bank so you can telephone to make sure they issued the cheque. This is imperative if you accept payment by personal cheque. Consequently, the transaction must be concluded during bank opening hours and not during the weekend when it will be closed. Please note that many French banks are open on Saturday mornings only. 

14. Be on the Safe Side

Just to be on the safe side make sure you’re actually holding the cheque before handing over the keys and the crossed, dated and signed carte grise or the detachabe certificat d’immatriculation coupon.

15. Hidden defects

Be aware that as the seller you’re responsible for any hidden defects existing before the transaction. If the buyer proves their existence he can ask you to refund part of the price he paid if he decides to keep the vehicle, or to cancel the sale with a total refund of the price paid. However, providing the buyer agrees, you can include a written let-out clause with regard to the hidden defects guarantee in the sales contract. French judges are usually more clement with the seller when the buyer is a professional as they consider he is better qualified to judge the state of a vehicle than a private buyer.

Call of France

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‘It was as if that loathsome creature which had left such slimy traces in his past had now crawled into the present’


Disappointing academic results, a disastrous first love and a failed job experience all go to make Michael Morgan deeply disillusioned with himself and others. He decides to train to be a French teacher. But at home the atmosphere is poisoned, school life becomes tedious, misjudged relations with two female colleagues lead to disturbing repercussions … and tragedy strikes. He longs to wipe his life’s slate clean by escaping to a fresh start in France. But is he running away from himself? And then he’s given the chance of sharing in an exciting venture. Should he stay in England or pursue his French dream?

Based on some of the author’s own experiences, Barfield School, the soon-to-be-published, first novel in his trilogy, CALL OF FRANCE, is a psychological drama which explores the thoughts, feelings and motivations of Michael Morgan, a young French teacher whose obsessional dreams of starting a new life in France lead to some regrettable choices. Their unforeseen consequences make him even more determined to escape.

Call of France website:

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More Thoughts on Prolonged Expat Living

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FRENG THOUGHTSThe concept you have of your inner self is, of course, determined to a great extent by the environment in which you evolve and your perception of the image others have of you. In this respect language – that verbal garment we are obliged to don in our self-presentation to others – plays, I think, the most important part. For nothing says more about you than the way you express yourself. But even though my choice of expat living was to a great degree motivated by my perfectionist ideal of speaking the language like a Frenchman I think that, in spite of my best efforts to reach it, in the absolute my goal was unattainable. For though I’m frequently told I could almost (it’s the little words which hurt the most) be taken for a French native speaker, I’m convinced that, with the exception perhaps of the highly gifted, speaking a foreign language without a trace of accent requires you to live in a bi-lingual context from your very earliest years. Since I began learning French at the relatively advanced age of 11 and, in addition, was subjected to old-school translation methods more adapted to the teaching of a dead language than a living one, I’ve never been quite able to rid myself of an accent which, though I’m told is ever so slight, is enough to make me frustratingly aware that I never have, and never will completely fulfil my initial aim. For despite the fact that it doesn’t readily betray my English origins, my accent frequently prompts strangers to politely enquire whether I’m Swiss (I live near a Swiss border) or Belgian. And only the other day someone asked me if I was French Canadian! So, in my experience once you’ve been tagged as English (even though for me this has always been an advantage in France), you’re never really allowed to forget it. And still on the subject of language, one of the great drawbacks of expat living is that when conversation goes beyond the repetitious banalities of everyday life I can’t help thinking that what is expressed by me in French could be better said in English. I’ve finally had to resign myself to the fact that the former will always be an acquired language: for not only do you need to concentrate more on what you yourself are trying to express but you also have to listen more carefully to what your conversational partners are saying. And in discussions of a more cerebral nature thoughts get cluttered with questions like ‘Is what I’m going to say grammatically correct?’ ‘Was that the right word I just used?’ ‘Is that noun masculine or feminine?’ ‘Did I pronounce that word correctly?’ ‘Did I really understand all he said?’ And you frequently have to rely on the judgement of a native speaker as to the standard of your own linguistic efforts. When I’m speaking English, on the other hand, since I myself am able to judge the quality of my language, my mind is free of all these niggling linguistic doubts; language and ideas flow much nearer together so that I can talk and at the same time think ahead about what I want to communicate. So speaking an acquired language for lengthy periods of time can get a little suffocating. That’s why being a writer in your native language can bring a kind of relief. And going back to England now and again – even if it’s only for a few days – gives me the opportunity not only of seeing my family (I’ve long since lost all contact with my former English friends), but re-finding my roots. Somewhere in my own eyes this refreshing breathe of fresh native air resuscitates the dormant Englishman in me. But one thing I can never understand and which is perhaps a reflection of the two persons that now dwell in me is that when I watch a France-England rugby match in France I’m for the English – whereas when I’m in England I’m wholeheartedly behind the French!

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Some thoughts on Prolonged Expat Living

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FRENG THOUGHTSI frequently recall the words of my old university tutor (himself a former French schoolmaster) who used to say that his ability to speak a foreign language fluently had enabled him to lead two distinct lives. In my own case I would go even further and say that more than 40 years of uninterrupted expat living in France have transformed me into two almost distinct people: for I don’t perceive the French version of Barry Whittingham as being quite the same as the English one – so much so that this gave me the idea of writing my first book François Théodore Thistlethwaite’s FRENGLISH THOUGHTS which looks at the French and English – especially in their everyday lives – through the eyes of a split-identity ‘Frenglishman‘, each of whose French and English extremes can take control of the whole. Even though I don’t think I’m suffering from a case of Multiple Personality Disorder, I can’t help reflecting on some of the reasons which might go to explain why prolonged expat living has caused a Brit like me not to have quite the same perception of himself in France as he does in England.

I think that, in my own case at least, the main explanation can be found in the fact that the initial challenge I set myself on settling in France was to immerse myself so totally in the everyday life, culture and language of the country as to become as much of a native as I possibly could. One of the things this involved was having the least possible contact with my countrymen and women. But don’t get me wrong. This in no way stemmed from a desire to deny my English origins (which I’ve always been proud of, and which I’ve always found to be an advantage in France), but from what might be called a sense of adventure. This filled me with an irresistible urge to give myself another dimension by becoming part of a culture which I perceived as being excitingly different to the one I knew and for which I had felt a constant attraction from the age of eleven when I had begun learning French at school. In addition, the year I spent at a French university as part of my studies had left me with a feeling of intense dissatisfaction. For a number of reasons which I won’t go into here my original aim of making spectacular progress in spoken French had fallen short of original expectations, and had left me with the frustrating feeling of having let a golden opportunity slip by. I promised myself that if ever a second chance were to come my way I would do all in my power to take full advantage of it. Fortunately, this second chance did present itself when my application to spend a year as an exchange teacher in a French lycée  was accepted.

On reflection, however, perhaps the word ‘adventure’ is not entirely appropriate. I know it has connotations of courage and audacity but I can sincerely say, without false modesty, that I don’t think the word really applies in my case. For I’ve always considered that courage should have a sustained, consistent form and involve fighting against a permanent temptation to yield to adversity rather than meeting the specific, short-term challenges of climbing a snow-topped mountain or hacking your way through a steaming jungle. And since my freely-consented choice to go and live in a foreign country was the result of a desire so overwhelmingly invasive that I couldn’t resist, real courage for me would have meant making the constant effort to endure what I considered to be barely tolerable – the conventional, routine English schoolteacher’s life I was leading, and which I would probably continue leading in one way or another for the rest of my working days. And I must admit that expat living is a choice I’ve never regretted.


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The French MOT

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Centre controle techniqueHere are some tips the recently-landed Anglophone expat might find useful when it comes to submitting his vehicle to le contrôle technique, the French MOT

1. The French MOT is mandatory for all cars four years old from new. So you’ll have  to take it along to a state-approved centre de contrôle agréé. If you live in a small town, as I do, there could be three or four of them. You’re free to choose which one. Consult the yellow pages of your annuaire téléphonique.

2. You can take your vehicle along for its contrôle technique any time during the six months preceding the date four years ago when it was first put on the road. So, if this was on 1st July 2011 it must be carried out between 1st January and 30th June 2015. After that it’s every two years.

3. If you bought your car new from a French garage they’ll usually inform you when it’s due for the test. Otherwise it’s up to you to remember.

4. You’ll have to present the original of your certificat d’immatriculation, and not a photocopy. The certificat d’immatriculation (or carte grise as it was previously called and is still frequently referred to as) is the official vehicle registration document.

5. Even though the points a centre de contrôle must check are the same, it’s not the case with the cost and each is free to charge what it likes. In practice, however, there’s quite a lot of competition and you can generally reckon on around 65 euros. Some even do special promotions which are advertised in local newspapers. And if you want to save a few euros you can always shop around.

6. Once your vehicle has been tested you’ll receive a pass or a fail, and you’ll be presented with a list of defects not warranting repair along with those you must get seen to. The mandatory repairs must be carried out (you’ve got two months to have this done) before re-submitting your vehicle. This is called a contre-visite and it will cost you around 20 euros (only the mandatory repairs are checked). Please note that motorcycles are not required to pass the contrôle technique – for the moment at least.

7. It might first be better to take your car along to your local garage for what is called a pré-contrôle technique. This means they’ll check it and, if necessary, carry out all necessary repairs before submitting it to the test centre. So you simply leave your car with them and collect it a few hours later after it’s been through the control. This is what I do and my vehicle has never yet failed. The fee is relatively modest and it could save you some trouble and expense. And when possible you can also combine the pré-contrôle with a scheduled service or oil change.

8. In addition, if you intend to sell a vehicle more than four years old privately it’ll have to have another contrôle technique. You must give the buyer the procès-verbal de contrôle proving it’s been carried out, too. This must be done before you sign the sales contract. Even though any required repairs must be carried out, it’s not necessarily your responsibility. The buyer can agree to have this done at his expense. The procès-verbal mustn’t be more than six months old so that the buyer can be issued with a new certificat d’immatriculation. Please note that when a car changes ownership in France a new certificat is issued.

9. If you sell your car to a professional (i.e. garage, second-hand car dealer) you don’t have to have the contrôle technique carried out. They’ll have it done.

10. Be aware that if you don’t put your vehicle in for its contrôle technique within the prescribed time you could be fined 135 euros and your vehicle immobilized. This means that you’ll have to hand in your certificat d’immatriculation to the gendarmerie who’ll then issue you with a temporary authorization to use your vehicle, valid for seven days, enabling you to take it along to your chosen test centre. Once it has passed, you take your procès-verbal de contrôle to the police station and they’ll give you your original certificat d’immatriculation back.

11. Vintage cars (more than 30 years old) must only pass the French MOT every five years.

Vignette Controle technique12. Once your car has been tested the centre will stick a special stamp on your certificat d’immatriculation. If the defects don’t warrant a contre-visite this will have the letters ‘A’ followed by a reference number on it. If the opposite is the case the ‘A’ is replaced by the letter ‘S’ along with the latest possible date you must have the mandatory defect repaired and the vehicle retested by. When your vehicle passes the contrôle technique a small square vignette will be stuck in the bottom right-hand inside corner of your windscreen indicating the month and the year the next control must be carried out by (in two years time at the latest), as well as the vehicle registration number. If your vehicle fails, it will indicate the month and the year you must have the contre-visite carried out by (two months at the latest). In both cases the car registration number is indicated on the vignette which is replaced after the next periodical control.

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French Beginnings

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Beret-topped FrenchmanI suppose I can trace my French beginnings to that time at the age of eleven when I started to learn French at secondary school. But even before, in my last year at primary school, when my mum told me I’d be learning French at my new school I’d felt a flutter of excitement, mingled with curiosity, at the prospect of soon being able to view a land which I already perceived as being mysteriously different to my own through the telescope of its language – despite the fact that the children’s comics of the time frequently portrayed the Frenchman as a shady, beret-topped, thin-moustached fiend who’d take advantage of the slightest opportunity to stab the upright, blond-haired Englishman in the back. But the first signs that these French beginnings were growing into a budding love affair was when we started our French lessons. However, I can’t say that things got off to the best of starts. For my linguistic apprenticeship had been placed in the hands of a dry, stern, elderly schoolmaster (a Mr Poulson by name) who seemed not only to make a point of never speaking to his pupils in French but succeeded in mystifying (and boring) us all for the first two or three weeks by attempting to drill into us (without the slightest explanation as to what it was all about) the phonetics of the language: the spoken language was broken down into its individual sounds to each of which was attributed an odd-looking symbol (so strange, in fact, that I remember seriously asking myself whether, by some mysterious process, learning French first involved mastering the letters of the ancient Greek alphabet).  And for the next two weeks or so our lessons consisted in Mr Poulson suspending a phonetic chart on a hook above the blackboard and then pointing to each symbol with a rather vicious-looking cane – the intimidating appearance of which was enough to persuade the class to chant in perfect unison the corresponding sounds. Individual boys were then randomly summoned to stand up and repeat in the same manner. So it was with a feeling of immense relief on the part of us all when suddenly, for no apparent reason, the body of phonetics was buried – never again to be exhumed – and a new life was infused into French lessons by the distribution of what I can only infer was the standard textbook of the day. And I couldn’t avoid thinking that here again  – from a strictly pedagogical point of view at least – nothing in it really encouraged an eleven-year-old to take more than an enforced interest in the language. For the method consisted in presenting a living tongue in much the same way as one long since deceased: each chapter contained a lesson on one aspect of the then barely penetrable mysteries of elementary French grammar, exemplified by a short, simple, non-phonetic text in French. Chapter 1, for example, began with a basic presentation of the subject pronouns: je, tu, il, elle, nous, vous, ils and elles. The following chapter placed the corresponding affirmative forms of the verb être next to each: je suis, tu es, il est, etc., after which we were treated to the even more mysterious intricacies of the interrogative and, above all, negative form (having to place a ‘ne’ before the verb and a ‘pas’ after it in order to say something as simple as ‘not’ left me in a state of wondrous perplexity). The only concession ever made to the fact that we were learning a language which could be conveyed by mouth as well as pen took place during the first part of the lesson when Mr Poulson, using very much the same method as the one applied to inculcate the phonetic sounds, obliged us to chant in chorus, and then individually, the conjugations of the various forms – the only difference of note being that, instead of simply pointing his cane at symbols on a chart, it was waved imperiously in front of us with much the same jerkily precise movements as a choir master imparts to his bâton. The rest of the lesson was devoted to doing the written textbook exercises on the grammatical point in question (including English sentences for translation into French), one of which we were usually given to do at home.

Caning handBut it was the ‘learning’ homework we feared the most. This consisted in us committing to memory the conjugations of some of the more malicious ‘irregular’ verbs (how the verb ‘aller’ could undergo so radical a change as to become ‘je vais’, ‘tu vas’, ‘il va’,’ etc, defeated all my logic). But the most harrowing part was yet to come. For the following lesson always began with a control test – designed to root out the less rigorous among us – which consisted in writing out what we’d been set to learn by heart for homework. We then swapped copies with our neighbour for marking. And even though a relatively generous tolerance of five mistakes was granted, anything above was the object of merciless sanction: the offender was sternly commanded to step out to the front of the class, hold out a trembling hand – to which was applied as many vigorous strokes of the cane as the mistakes he had made beyond the permitted margin of five. These then were my French beginnings.

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French Neighbourhood Watch

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Neighbourhood WatchIt is yet one more measure of the differences (even diametrical opposition) that exist between French and English that a recent proposal to implement in a village near which I live an Anglo-Saxon style neighbourhood watch scheme whereby the ordinary citoyen, in co-operation with local police, would form a neighbourhood surveillance group designed to combat the increasing number of burglaries and anti-social behaviour around them, has met with considerable reticence, if not hostility. Though some recognized that the police and the citoyen must work together in the fight against crime, considerable concern was expressed that a project of this kind might lead some to indulge their unhealthy curiosity in the private lives of their neighbours while others gave vent to fears that the group could assume some of the characteristics of the notorious wartime Militia.

In Anglo-Saxon cultures the generally-held view that individual well-being and freedom can only be obtained by co-operating with legitimate authority has led to a more developed willingness to work together in reinforcing the observance of rules and laws. In England and the U.S.A., for example, it is common to find voluntary neighbourhood watch schemes which involve the ordinary citizen in creating organized, patrolling surveillance groups whose aims, in co-operation with the police and local authorities, are to reduce burglaries, car crimes, vandalism and general anti-social behaviour, as well as increase security (e.g. better street lighting) within a given residential area. Far from being considered as a limitation of personal liberty these initiatives are generally perceived as being in the interests of the common good.

Safe driver signIt is perhaps even more significant that in England (and certainly other Anglo-Saxon countries) enough trust is placed in the ordinary citizen’s sense of civic responsibility to invite him to become actively involved in directly ensuring that others respect what is generally considered to be conducive to the well-being of all. An example of this was provided some time ago when a well-known national haulage firm hit on the idea of appending to the rear of its trucks a conspicuous sign, along with a phone number, inviting public road-users to report those among the company’s drivers they judged to be conducting themselves in a manner dangerous or simply discourteous to others. This initiative was perceived by the public as making a positive contribution towards safety and civility on roads – so much so that it considerably reinforced the public image of the haulage company in question. Moreover, during recent city riots in England, popular newspapers made headline appeals to the general public to ‘shop a moron’ – to denounce to the police those they personally recognized from video surveillance footage as committing acts of violence, theft, arson and looting.

In France not only would solicitations of this kind be considered a Big Brother style encroachment on personal liberty but dangerous in that they provide too great a temptation for individual human perversity to divert them to malicious, selfish ends by encouraging people to inform on others for reasons of personal animosity, jealousy or desire for revenge (perhaps the national memory has not forgotten those somber days of Nazi occupation when denunciation was rife), and accordingly best left to those professionally appointed to carry out the task. For in France it is not impossible that the English haulage company’s publicity campaign could have been exploited for personal financial gain. This, at least, is what the experience of my businessman neighbour, Monsieur Martin, would suggest.

Now Monsieur Martin’s firm has a small fleet of delivery vans on the sides of which the company name, together with email address and telephone number used to be displayed. I say ‘used to’ because Monsieur Martin has now deleted the phone number. Why? you may ask. Simply because he was receiving more and more calls from people claiming that one of his vans had bumped into their car, causing considerable damage, before driving on without stopping. In reality, these allegations were simply fraudulent attempts from members of the general public to save their no-claims bonus by attempting to make Monsieur Martin’s firm liable for damages resulting from an accident which the claimant himself was probably responsible for in totally unconnected circumstances. Seeming proof of this was supplied by the fact that not one single person has yet accepted Monsieur Martin’s systematic invitation to provide him with a written claim containing name and address, along with details of the circumstances in which the ‘accident’ occurred!

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Living with the French

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IdiosyncrasyThe following are tips on how to deal with what I’ve personally found to be some of the more common things which may surprise or even shock the newly-settled Anglo-Saxon expa when he starts living with the French. The list is in no way exhaustive.

– Don’t be surprised at the number of strikes and/or street demonstrations going on every single day of the year. The latter are perceived by the French as being a legitimate manifestation of direct democracy. When it’s safe to do so they’ll even take the kids along.

– Living with the French also involves being led to believe that they invented the game of tennis, rugby, golf (I once even read an article in my local newspaper claiming they’d even invented cricket), try not to show your indignation. Be diplomatic and reply something like: ‘This might possibly be the case but don’t you think …?’

– Think twice before admitting you’ve made a mistake. I know that in Anglo-Saxon countries it’s usually considered to be a sign of honesty but in France it’s an admission of incompetence. You can blame anyone or anything.

– Be patient at your local tennis club’s Annual General Meeting (or any other meeting for that matter). Expect them to waste a considerable amount of time chatting about what you consider to be irrelevancies. And don’t be surprised if the only result is that they agree to disagree. Oh yes, and you’re not expected to turn up dead on time.

– If you see someone letting his dog do it on the pavement in front of you, turn a blind eye. After all, it’s none of your business. Aren’t people in uniforms paid to stop this sort of thing?

– Bear with them when they keep reminding you that France is the cradle of human rights. This is drilled into them at school. It all goes back to their main claim to glory (apart from Napoléon) – the Révolution and the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (1789).

– Don’t be too hard on them if they seem to spend most of their time moaning. They’re the first to admit they’re a nation of criticizers, complainers and protestors.

– Don’t be surprised that in a country like France which has a plethora of rules, regulations and laws you find people doing their best to get round them.  Be aware that applying them officially is often considered to be the ultimate sanction.

– Just as the English show a deep distrust of the weather but love talking about it, the French have no faith in their politicians but adore discussing politics. So gen up on Mr Cameroun (or whoever’s replaced him by the time this blog is published) and his policies. You’ll be expected to know all about them. And they still love to hate Mrs Thatcher.

– Despite the fact that Marxist-inspired, egalitarian ideology still influences Gallic thinking, living with the French will soon reveal that they’re a bunch of conservatives at heart with little desire for change. As an Anglo-Saxon (especially the U.S. version) be prepared to be treated as an ultra-liberal capitalist with a strong tendency to pitilessly exploit the downtrodden poor. The media remind them of this every single day.

– Be suspicious when he tells you he agrees that motorway speed limits should be lowered, there should be more speed cameras, tax evasion should be punished more severely, etc., etc. What he really means is that all this is fine as long as it applies to everybody but him.

– When an Englishman walks past a pretty woman in the street he’ll usually fix his gaze on an imaginary spot two yards ahead. Any Frenchman worthy of the name will actually look at her with desire. I quite understand that the newly-landed Englishwoman might find this a little disquieting at first, but try to be positive and consider it to be a form of flattery. Though they’ll never admit it, most Frenchwomen expect this. And if they don’t eye you up and down, it could simply be that you’re getting on a bit. Or you’re just letting yourself go. Take a cold, hard look at yourself in the mirror to see what needs to be done.

– Living with the French also means you’ll have to deal with that infuriating habit they have of serving tea with a jug of warm milk .Be sure to point out to the waiter when ordering that you want it ‘avec du lait froid’.

– If you’re English and are confronted with authority, try and get out of that silly habit of doing what you’re told without asking questions.

– Unlike the English who’ll go to extraordinary lengths to reply: ‘Well you certainly might have a point but on the other hand don’t you think that …? when they’re intimately convinced you’re speaking total rubbish, the French don’t normally consider direct rectification, disagreement or contradiction as being tantamount to a declaration of war. So don’t be offended if you’re told, ‘Non, je ne suis pas d’accord!’

– Living with the French also involves not throwing up your arms in horror when he says he’s looking forward to eating a nice horse-meat steak for lunch. Though the number of boucheries chevalines is now fast declining you can still buy horse meat on some specialized market stalls.

– Be aware of and make all necessary compensations for the fact that with many French people the sight of a uniform can have very much the same effect as that produced by a red rag when dangled close to the nose of a bull.



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Intercultural Language Problems

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Three people conversationIntercultural language problems can arise in a union between a native French person and your expat self  when you have only basic skills in the language of the country. For not only would a limited comprehension of everyday spoken French make it difficult for you to have more than just the vaguest idea of what a conversation between your native partner and a third person is all about, but your inability to use the language of your adopted country actively enough could mean you’d only be able to pop in the occasional word or two. In addition, even though you’d always thought that at home your social skills were reasonably well honed, intercultural language problems can be aggravated by the fact that you live in a small town where everybody (except you) knows everybody, where your partner was born and bred, and where the subject of conversation is, therefore, shared between her/him and the friend to the exclusion of yourself. And in such circumstances even the most trivial of encounters can sometimes be the cause of not negligible strain. Let me give you an example.

The other day I was walking with my live-in partner, Renée, along the High Street of the town of some 10, 000 inhabitants where we live when we happened to meet a friend she hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing since the days they were at school together. After the usual exchange of  greetings and enquiries about each other’s health their conversation turned towards a mutual friend who, I gathered, had married some while ago and left this town of their birth. ‘Au fait, ça fait des lustres que je n’ai pas de nouvelles de Jeannine. Qu’est-ce qu’elle est devenue? enquired Renée.

‘Ah, tu sais, d’après ce que j’ai entendu elle vient de divorcer. C’est bien dommage. Ils ont deux enfants qui sont absolument adorables.’

Now I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Jeannine, her ex-husband or their two adorable children, so I think I can be forgiven for taking only a minor interest in their recent divorce. But after ten minutes during which I was obliged to endure a situation where I felt as much interest was being shown in me as in the wastepaper bin we were standing by (even though Renée had previously introduced me, and made the occasional half-hearted attempt to include me in their conversation), what started as nothing more than a vague disinterest began to swell up into a feeling of frustration, even annoyance at what I perceived as being unpardonable rudeness on the part of Renée’s old school friend whose only concession to my presence had been a distant ‘Bonjour monsieur.’

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m far from considering myself to be at the hub of a universe around which others should gravitate in beatific awe. I do, however, believe in the elementary politeness which consists in acknowledging the presence of others from time to time. On the other hand, I did realize that Renée was enjoying her chat. But when the subject of Jeannine and her marital woes was exhausted and they started to reminisce about other classmates and teachers I began to give serious thought to finding the best way of abridging their chat. Should I drop some kind of private hint to my partner that I’d prefer her to end the conversation there and then? Should I make it perfectly obvious to both that their conversation was getting to be a bit of a drag? Would the situation justify me simply walking away in a huff? Fortunately, reason got the better of me and I finally decided to opt for a middle course by politely announcing that I’d leave them to talk about old times together while I had a beer in the nearby bistrot. Fortunately the hint was taken, the conversation was brought to an end, cheeks were kissed and we parted the best of friends. Do you sometimes have the feeling you’re being faced with similar intercultural language problems?


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