Category Archives: Living French

Cheek-Kissing in France

A common French greeting

It’s a measure of the drastic changes in English attitudes towards kissing in general and cheek-kissing in particular that what is now more and more considered as an acceptable form of greeting would have raised eyebrows – even shocked (especially between males) – three or four decades ago when it was mainly confined to theatrical types whose off-stage lives were marked by a general tendency to ostentatious affectation. On the French side of the Channel, however, la bise, cheek-kissing, has long since been a common form of greeting.
   Apart from special occasions such as the New Year when, traditionally, at the stroke of midnight, even those who are little more than strangers will let their hair down enough to cheek-kiss one another, faire la bise, cheek-kissing, is a friendlier, more informal way for men and women to greet each other than shaking hands (hardly surprising with an act which forces you into such close proximity with others that you can smell their make-up, after-shave and sometimes even their breath) and, therefore, usually indulged in by those whose degree of familiarity permits this. Unlike men who shake hands when they encounter members of the same sex, women prefer cheek-kising other women (handshaking between women is formal and only resorted to when being introduced on official occasions). Cheek-kissing is also common between men and women who are on friendly terms, or simply because they’re close working colleagues or members of the same sporting club or association. When we walk into the clubhouse of our local golf club, for example, we systematically cheek-kiss all the women we know (while shaking hands with the men). And we’ve even known a woman stranger accompanying a friend to offer us her cheek (rather than more formally holding out her hand) on being introduced. In France, however, there can be a considerable gap between private and public behaviour – so you mustn’t be surprised if the woman who readily offers you her cheek at the golf club simply wishes you ‘bonjour’ in the High Street. And though in the past male cheek-kissing took place only between close male relatives, i.e. brothers, fathers and sons (and perhaps very close male friends), today there is a growing trend among young French people (and even older ones) to use la bise on a daily basis when greeting others of a similar age.
   As far as the cheek-kissing technique itself is concerned, the first question which springs to mind is which chop do you begin with? Well, basically, that’s for participants to decide. Personally, without really knowing why (perhaps it’s because we’re right-handed), we usually go for the left one first, and when she realizes this, the lady usually co-operates by holding it out. But, as with shaking hands, you can leave it to her to take the initiative. And what do you do with your mits? While pulling the lady towards you in an intimate hug would be going too far (the French don’t really go in for hugging), placing your hand half way down her arm (or even on her shoulder) would be a more natural accompaniment, and far more acceptable than keeping them both rigidly stuck down your sides. And how many times do you do it? Well, this is, in fact, a regional thing. Where we live, thank goodness, we’ve never been witness to more than one on each. But, depending on where you are, it can be once on one, once on the other, and then back to the first for a second helping. And in some regions it’s a ritualistic two on each.
   What’s more, the word ‘kiss’ is more often a misnomer. Rather than planting your lips on the cheeks of the other, the technique usually consists in briefly rubbing your chops together, and at the same time making a kissing movement with your lips. The result is that most of the lip contact is with the surrounding air – though we do have a copain, a pal, who believes in firmly planting his lips on the cheeks of women he feels real affection for. Wearers of spectacles or sunglasses should be careful as their frames have been known to inflict nasty pokes in the eye. And, similarly, if you’re sporting a cap with a long nib, you’ve got far more room for manoeuvre if you take it off.
   Anglo Saxons must also be aware that in France cheek-kissing is a manifestation of friendly affection, and has no sexual connotations. On the contrary, kissing on the lips is indulged in by those sharing an intimate physical relationship (i.e. husband and wife or homosexual partners), and never by male and female members of the same family (i.e. brother and sister, or mother and son), as is sometimes the case in Britain.
   That romantic gesture of ‘old school’ French gallantry, la baise-main, which consists in the male bringing his lips into light, respectful contact with the back of a lady’s outstretched hand is now less common in higher social and diplomatic circles – though a former Président de la République (a reputed woman chaser) systematically used it as a way of promoting the legendary French touch when welcoming foreign lady heads of state. Though the hand-kiss is, apparently, still quite common in Central and Eastern Europe, the French – in their everyday life, at least – look upon it with affectionate amusement. And on the rare occasions when it is used it is bestowed on the older, usually married woman.
   In this respect, we remember one particular occurrence some years ago when we went on a coach trip organized by an association we were members of. Having set off well before dawn one Sunday morning, we stopped for breakfast coffee and croissants at a motorway café. Our driver parked his coach alongside a Polish truck. Now in France it’s forbidden for heavy trucks to circulate on Sundays, and we couldn’t help noticing that one of the two drivers, a young man (he must have been in his middle twenties), had – even at this early hour – found no better way of whiling away what was going to be a long, inactive day than by ingurgitating the contents of a bottle of vodka. On seeing us step out of the coach, he leapt down from his cabin (still clutching his bottle), and proceeded to bestow on each lady a mockingly respectful hand-kiss the moment she’d placed a foot on the ground. Not only did these middle-aged ladies find the gesture hilarious but, we suspect, were secretly flattered by his attention – so much so that they readily consented to a group photo being taken with our grinning young trucker in the middle.

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ? In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.
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French Neighbourhood Watch

[audio:|titles=Neighbourhood Watch]
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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Intercultural Language Problems

[audio:|titles=Don’t Mind Me – I’m Just a Foreigner]
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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Intercultural Relationships

[audio:|titles=Intercultural Marriage and Relationships]
Newly married coupleThe recently-landed Anglo-Saxon expat might find the following tips and observations food for thought when addressing some of those problems which intercultural relationships with the French  can bring. They’re based on my own experiences during more than 40 years of co-habitation with the same French partner.

Newly wed couple1. As far as marriage is concerned the basic principles which govern intercultural relationships are not very different from those which go to make a happy and successful union between a couple of the same nationality living in their home country. It’s just that the sources of possible disputes are greater, can run more deeply and have, therefore, a higher risk of leading to argument, recurrent conflict and, in extreme cases, final separation. Religious, social, political and cultural variations can raise their potentially divisive heads, codes of behaviour can be at variance, language can be a formidable barrier, and even relatively trivial matters like eating habits or food preferences can pose problems. And if you have children, your views could diverge on how to bring them up. All the more reason why a big effort must be made to be open-minded, tolerant, patient, understanding and willing to seek a compromise, while not neglecting those values of mutual respect, honesty and sincerity which are essential to all healthy relationships. It also helps to have a sense of humour.

2. Even though hitching up with one of the natives is not necessarily a bed of roses, it’s the quickest and most effective way of integrating a foreign country as it will give you instant access to your partner’s friends and relations.

3. Though you might be convinced that love conquers all, be aware of the sobering thought that the friends, and especially the relatives of your beloved can make or break an international relationship. For reasons I won’t go into here, your French girl/boy friend’s maman and/or papa might be hostile towards you as a foreigner.  At heart they might prefer their daughter/son to settle down with a native. She/he could be influenced by them.

4. Communication is an essential, though difficult aspect of every relationship whether cross cultural or not. Depending on your level as a non-native speaker, language can be an even greater barrier as it can prevent you from expressing in any great detail or with the required nuances what you really think or feel, or understanding what your partner thinks or feels. My only advice here is patience, patience, patience. Be aware, however, that even though patience is generally considered to be a virtue, it’s one which some French people don’t seem to have.

5. Being obliged to evolve in a foreign language can also be a source of conflict from a social point of view. For even though you can take a leading part in social life back home where you can express yourself in your mother tongue, you might find yourself in the frustrating position of having to play second, or even third fiddle when confronted with the same situations in a foreign language. And even if your French is well up to par the fact that the subject of conversation could be something or someone you yourself have never known could seriously reduce the the extent to which you can participate in it. So when your partner is a native speaker, at some time or other as an expat Anglophone you’re going to have to cope with the disagreeable feeling of being left out, or even ignored in the conversation your beloved is having with friends and relatives. This can be a source of exasperation and could put a strain on relations. It’s something you should talk about together.

6. You’ll also have to decide, of course, which language you’re going to use between you at home. This will depend very much on circumstances, your motivation and degree of fluency. In my own case French was a natural choice since I was a French schoolmaster in England and already spoke the language well on arriving in France. Not only did it correspond to my own desire to embrace the country, its language and culture to the full, but it suited my French partner who had neither the need nor the desire to speak or write English beyond the commercial requirements imposed by her job. If your French partner’s English is better than your French you might be tempted to speak English at home. This is the easy way out. If speaking French all the time would be too wearing for you both, why not schedule regular French-speaking sessions as part of your domestic routine? And if you have children, be aware that bringing them up in a bi-lingual context is an excellent way of giving them a head start in life. Discuss this between you, decide on certain rules, and stick to them.

7. Though it’s not really the subject of this article, when the person you’re sharing your life with is of the same nationality as yourself, living in a foreign culture and maintaining happy relations within a marital or live-in partnership can still be a challenging prospect. After all, it’s not because you’re really enjoying renovating that old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere that she necessarily feels the same. I mean, that cock which insists on crowing at the crack of dawn each day could be getting on her nerves, she could be fed up with not being able to find an interesting job, and missing friends and family back home much more than you think. Make sure your channels of communication are wide open.

8. In France great progress has been made over the last three decades in the name of male and female equality, and now most Frenchmen don’t consider it beneath them to help with the dusting or change baby’s nappy. Remember, however, that you’re living in a culture which only gave women the vote in 1945, and which as late as 1963 didn’t allow a female to open a bank account without her husband’s or father’s permission. Just be aware that the gallant Frenchie you’re so madly in love with may reveal he has a more traditional perception of gender roles once you bed down together.

9. A common Anglo Saxon misconception about the French male is that he’s always on the look-out for extra-marital gratification. While this was a little true in the past, especially among the bourgeoisie, where it was relatively common for the master of the household to seduce their naive, country-raised maid who feared that not letting him have his way would mean her losing her job, this would rarely be tolerated today.

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Paris Elected As Their Favourite Shopping Town

[audio:|titles=Paris Elected As Their Favourite Shopping Town]
Tourists shopping in ParisAccording to an article which recently appeared in the Economics Supplement of the Figaro newspaper Brazilian, Chinese and Russian tourists have voted Paris their favourite shopping town. Moreover, 28% of them come to Paris just for the shopping. A solid argument in favour of Sunday opening for shops and stores which, at the moment, is the subject of considerable controversy in France. A recently published study by Advice Consultants, Abington, shows that luxury boutiques are the capital’s trump card when it comes to persuading foreign visitors to part with their money.  Figures also reveal that for more than 75% of tourists Paris is by far the most attractive place to do your shopping – well ahead of its eternal rivals, London (11.7%) and Milan (5%). The survey which focuses on Brazilian, Chinese and Russian tourists (three nationalities representing the biggest potential for development) shows that an almost unanimous 93% of Brazilians place Paris at the top of their place to shop list, while 71.5% of Chinese and 58.9% of Russians do the same.

Place VendomeThe same survey notes that out of an average of ten days spent in Paris these same shoppers devote two whole days just to shopping – 28% of them admitting that shopping is the main aim of their visit. And their budgets are high – which is just as well since their favourite shopping places are the Champs-Elysées, the Boulevard Haussmann, the Place Vendôme and the Rue du Faubourg-SaintHonoré, all of which are famous for their high concentration of de luxe boutiques and the astronomical prices they charge for their wares.

According to the survey, 75% of the Brazilians taking part planned to spend between 3.000 and 10.000 euros, including meals and accommodation, while 8.5% said they would probably be spending even more. The budgets of most Chinese were more modest  – between 500 and 3.000 euros for 57% of them. Nevertheless, 10% of them said they were ready to spend more than 10.000 euros. As for the Russians, more than 60% planned to lighten their wallets by sums ranging from 1500 to 10.000 euros.  Lumped together, these tourists would, therefore be spending on average the ‘modest’ sum of 4.980 euros in their favourite shopping town.

Chinese shopping in ParisAs far as the things they intended to buy are concerned, 51% of tourists plumped for clothes, 40% for souvenirs and 38% for cosmetics. The three top designer names quoted were Louis Vuitton (27%), Chanel (14%) and Dior (12%). The survey did show, however, that these tourists didn’t in any way exclude a visit to more affordable shops like Sephora, Zara or even H&M.

Duty-free shopAnd proof that some tourists are quite prepared to leave their purchases to the very last minute is supplied by the fact that 44% of those questioned admitted that they planned to do some last minute shopping at airport duty-free shops while waiting to catch a plane back home. Airport terminal shops could rely on foreign visitors spending an average of 645 euros, the Chinese and Russians spending their money mainly on perfumes and cosmetics, while most Brazilians favoured top of the range wines, cheeses and  gastronomical goodies like goose-liver pâté and truffled sausages.

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Does Expat Living Influence Your Self Identity?

[audio:|titles=Does Expat Living Influence Your Self Identity]

Two Different People?

My recent reading of Louise Wiles’ ‘How Has Expat Living Impacted on Your Sense of Who You Are?’ at recalled to mind the words of my old university tutor (himself a former French schoolmaster) who often 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 41 years of uninterrupted expat living in France has 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 it gave me the idea of writing my 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’, whose French and English extremes can take control of the identity of the whole. Though it didn’t cause me to wonder whether I was suffering from a type of Multiple Personality Disorder, this same article did prompt me to reflect on some of the reasons which might go to explain why a long-standing expat Brit like me doesn’t have the same perception of himself in France as he does in England.

Total Immersion

I think 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 meant was having the least possible contact with my countrymen. 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 which filled me with an irresistible urge to give myself another dimension by becoming part of a culture 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 the language at school. In addition, the year I spent at a French university as part of my studies in French Language and Literature had left me with a feeling of intense dissatisfaction. For a number of reasons (see my blog ‘Some Lost Illusions’), the original aim of making spectacular progress in spoken French had fallen far short of my original expectations, and had left me with the frustrating feeling of having let a golden opportunity slip by. And I had promised myself that if ever a second chance were to come my way I would do all in my power to succeed. Fortunately for me this second chance did present itself when my application to spend a year as an exchange teacher in France was accepted.

A Sense of Adventure?

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 these notions are applicable in my case. For I’ve always considered that courage should have a sustained, consistent form, and involve fighting against the permanent temptation to yield to adversity rather than meeting the specific, short-term challenge of climbing a snow-topped peak or hacking your way through a steamy 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.

An Acquired Language

The 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 speak.  Even though I did set myself the perfectionist’s task 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 that hurt the most) be taken for a native speaker, I’m convinced that, with the possible exception of the highly gifted, speaking a foreign language without a trace of accent requires you to live in a bi-lingual environment from your very earliest years. Since I began learning French at the relatively advanced age of eleven and, in addition, was the victim of 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 certainly never will completely fulfill 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 or Belgian. And only the other day someone even asked me if I was French Canadian! So, in my experience, once you’ve been tagged as a foreigner (even though I repeat, being an Englishman in France has always been to my advantage), you’re never really allowed to forget it.  And, as I’ve had occasion to observe, the temptation is great for an expat Brit to try to act the part of the stereotyped image the French have of the typical Englishman. Moreover, I can’t help thinking that, when conversation goes beyond the repetitious banalities of everyday life, what is expressed by me in French could be better said in English, and I’ve finally had to resign myself to the fact that the former is a language I’ve gradually acquired. As a result, it requires a greater effort of concentration and attention, not only in regard to what you yourself are attempting to convey, but 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 used?’ ‘Is this noun masculine or feminine?’ ‘Did I pronounce that word correctly?’ ‘Did I really understand everything he said?’ And you frequently have to rely on the judgement of the native speaker with regard to the standard of your own linguistic efforts. All this goes to make a more hesitant, more modest person. When I’m speaking English on the other hand, since I myself am able to judge the quality of my language, my mind is freed of all these niggling linguistic doubts; language and ideas flow much more closely together so that I can talk and at the same time think ahead about what I want to communicate. As a result, I perceive myself as being a far more confident in my approach to others. So, speaking only an acquired language for lengthy periods of time can get a little suffocating, and going back to England now and again – even if it’s only for a week – gives me the opportunity not only of seeing my family (I’ve long since lost all contact with my English friends), but re-finding my roots. And somewhere in my own eyes this refreshing breathe of native air resuscitates the dormant Englishman in me.

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Deep in the Heart of Rural France (4)

[audio:|titles=Deep in the Heart of Rural France (4)]

My Eccentric Friend’s Wife

His wife, a calm, private sort of woman (she was some kind of social worker) was considerably younger than him, but I never knew her well enough to get beneath the outer shell. She seemed to accept her husband’s idiosyncrasies with a mixture of indifference and resignation and only lost her composure when his incessant monologues (he was a great talker – usually on high-blown philosophical or political topics) prevented her from concentrating on the soap opera she was watching on T.V. In cases like this she would inform him with a vague look of irritation, and without the slightest concession to my presence, that ‘Tu nous chauffes les oreilles!’ I never saw him react with any aggressiveness to this type of peremptory injunction which always had the effect of quietening him down. On the contrary, he appeared to take pride in bringing it to my notice that this type of ‘bon sens terre-à-terre’,  down-to-earth common sense, was the main reason for him marrying her.

A Traumatic Childhood

They had three children, a girl and two boys, the eldest of whom was aged around 11, and who worshipped the ground his father trod on. Though generally reluctant to talk about his past, I gathered that my eccentric friend’s mother, who was French, had married a German, and he himself had been born and had spent his boyhood in the Germany of the 30’s where Nazism was on the rise. He did confide in me, however, that (like the young François Théodore Thistlethwaite) he had suffered a great deal in his childhood, as his mixed parentage had made him the object of much cruel taunting on the part of his German peers. One incident I witnessed, moreover, provided evidence to suggest that the sufferings of the boy had been traumatic enough to have affected the man.

One morning, as we were driving back to the village, we passed an isolated farmhouse in front of which a paysan was busy chopping his winter wood. Just as we were passing the man lifted his axe above his head with the aim of splitting a log, and at the same time raised his eyes towards us in what I interpreted simply as an attempt to identify the occupants of our car. My eccentric friend had a different vision of things. Jamming on his brakes he reversed back, stormed out of the car and proceeded to ask the dumbfounded man why he had made such a threatening gesture!


My friend’s reputation as an eccentric also rendered him liable to provocation. One of the inconveniences of his house, the garden of which was surrounded by a low wall, was its location next to the café. However, even though things did sometimes get a little boisterous on Saturday evenings – especially when there was un bal monté (a dance held under a temporarily-erected marquis) on the village square – the problem was not systematically one of noise. I first became aware of this one Sunday lunchtime when I myself was busy chopping up wood on my forecourt. As I was taking a breather, I observed a youth stroll out of the café and, without further ado, empty the contents of his bladder against the garden wall. On seeing this, my friend, who was in his garden, politely asked the young man if in future he could satisfy this call of nature inside the cafe (it did have a rudimentary toilet). Without even looking up, let alone replying, the young man slowly zipped up his fly, strolled back inside the café, only to re-emerge a minute later with half a dozen pals. They then lined up with military precision and ostentatiously relieved themselves against the same wall. I fully expected my eccentric friend to go berserk, but he showed remarkable restraint and quietly went inside.

And when the end of my rural sojourn finally arrived I congratulated myself on having faced all those hardships with that same stubborn fortitude (but, fortunately, not the same results) which had made Scott so resolute in his quest to daunt the Antarctic wastes, or Livingstone so determined to convert to Christianity those primitive African tribes. In truth, however, I never regarded them as privations but as part of a unique, privileged adventure, and these experiences only confirmed me in my desire to prolong my stay in France. I recently discovered that Paul Romer died in 1996. Despite his oddities, and even though I could never share his extreme left-wing views, I can’t help thinking that the world is a worse place without him.


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Deep in the Heart of Rural France (3)

[audio:|titles=Deep in the Heart of Rural France (3)]

The Dangers of Colloquial Expressions

One morning while sitting in the staff room, I eavesdropped on a conversation between my eccentric German teacher and le proviseur, our headmaster, with whom he seemed to be on familiar terms. I didn’t really understand everything they were discussing, but at one stage my friend exploded with a ‘Mais tu te fous de ma gueule!’ Understanding this to mean something like ‘You’re pulling my leg!’ I conscientiously noted it down. Now that evening I’d been invited to dinner by an English teacher colleague – a rather prim and proper middle-aged lady (my leftist friend referred to her as la petite bourgeoise) with whom I always took pains to be on my best behaviour. During the meal I had the distinct impression that her husband (he seemed to delight in showing off his wit) was making gentle fun of my accent. Considering this the ideal moment to use my recently-acquired expression I burst out in a tone of mock anger: ‘Mais tu te fous de ma gueule!’ Even though they did their best not to show it, a slight sagging of the mouth on both their parts made me suspect I had somewhere infringed the rules of verbal propriety – so much so that the following day I described the incident to my eccentric friend. With considerable amusement he explained that what I’d said was not only colloquial but vulgar, for it was nearer in meaning (he spoke English well) to ‘You’re taking the piss!’ than ‘You’re pulling my leg!’

Local Reserve

The village boasted what went under the name of an épicerie, situated at a corner of the square next to my friend’s house and more or less opposite my farmhouse.  Not only was it a grocer’s but it could equally have been a hardware shop as the articles sold ranged from tools and paint to pans and crockery, and I even saw a heating stove very much like the one in my bedroom on sale. It also had an adjoining bar with something vaguely resembling a terrace outside; and upstairs there was a small restaurant. Despite having acquired by association the reputation of suffering from the same mental deficiency as my German teacher friend, this must have coincided so much with everybody’s pre-conceived idea of the mad-dog Englishman that it didn’t in the least prevent the lady owner from inviting me to eat there one midday. She beckoned me to sit on a bench at a large oil-cloth covered table, occupied on both sides by three or four locals. After greeting me with a polite ‘Bonjour monsieur,’ they then resumed their conversation (ignoring me completely) in a language which, to my great dismay, I didn’t understand a word of. It was with some relief that the owner later informed me they were speaking the local patois. Their reluctance to communicate, however, was, I felt, more due to deep reserve than any feeling of hostility. For this was perhaps the first time they’d ever been in close contact with a foreigner and they were unsure of how to address me. This was again brought home to me when I had a drink with my exchange partner’s brother, Daniel, in the grocery shop bar where we met one of his paysan friends. During the half hour or so the three of us were together, never once did he speak to me directly, but always with a ‘Dis à ton copain que … ‘ (Tell your pal that …) or a ‘Demande à ton copain si …’ (Ask your pal if … ) through the intermediary of Daniel.

Strange Games

At weekends and during the school holidays we shared activities not normally associated with village life in the depths of rural France. No doubt inspired by his regular cohabitation with the American Indians, my eccentric friend soon suggested we begin archery contests. This consisted in us standing in the middle of the small village square and shooting arrows at a scarecrow target attached to a post some 50 metres away in an adjoining field. These became regular occurrences, and no doubt served not only to reinforce the villagers’ conviction that he was out of his mind, but also to endorse the similar judgement they had applied to his English friend.

A Red Indian wigwamIn view of the rudimentary toilet facilities available in the farmhouse I asked my eccentric friend one day if I could avail myself of his bathroom shower. Though he readily gave his assent, he did suggest that before I did so, I might like to experience the deep-cleansing effects of a Red Indian bath. Feeling morally obliged to comply, I followed him to the wigwam which was permanently erected in his front garden. Inside, I was surprised to discover a large hole. Under his direction we then proceeded to make a large fire. Once it had burned down we placed ten or so blackened stones piled up nearby (they had obviously served the same purpose many times before) into the now glowing embers. When he judged they were hot enough he put on a pair of thick gardening gloves and gingerly carried each one into the wigwam where he carefully placed them in the hole. After closing the tent we waited ten minutes during which time he entertained me with a Red Indian war dance and chant around the fire. We then stripped down to our underpants and seated ourselves cross-legged inside. And after spending a long half hour sweating profusely in the stifling, dry heat he finally suggested that, since the stones were now cooling, I went and had my shower.








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Deep in the Heart of Rural France (2)

[audio:|titles=Deep in the Heart of Rural France (2)]

The Bedroom

A slightly smaller version of the living room stove was to be found in the bedroom which was large enough to accommodate a single, and a large  double bed with three or four mattresses piled up on it. I did vaguely formulate a plan to sleep alternately in both for the first few nights with the idea of permanently appropriating the more comfortable of the two. With this in mind I asked my eccentric friend whether I could remove the mattresses – whereupon he pointed out with what I suspected  to be sadistic delight that ‘the double bed was where la vieille Marthe breathed her last breath!’ With a shudder I abandoned the idea .

To my immense relief the bedroom poêle showed much less inclination to smoke. As winter set in, however, a problem of another kind arose. Though I used to stoke it up just before going to bed, the wood soon burned itself out, and after three hours or so, despite a thick wadding of eiderdowns and blankets which kept body, legs and arms nice and warm, the effects on my head of direct exposure to the rapidly-falling temperature woke me up. For in this part of France there reigns a semi-continental climate of extremes with baking summers and freezing winters. And during anti-cyclonic weather the temperature would regularly descend to -25° degrees or more during the night. I informed my friend of this and, being a man of a practical inclination, he suggested that the answer might lie in me purchasing a balaclava helmet. This I did, and from then on my nights were undisturbed. Getting up in the morning, however, was rather like joining the contents of a deep-freeze cabinet.

Beyond the bedroom there was a tiny, triangular-shaped room with a large window and a glass roof – a sort of mini conservatory which you entered through a heavy, glass-paneled door. I don’t remember much about what was in it but I do recall the window and roof being riddled with bullet holes dating, I was informed, from World War 2. Apparently, there had been a pocket of  German resistance in the village (my  exchange partner’s father had lived though it all) and the advancing Americans had responded by raking the back wall of the farm with machine-gun fire.

My Lycée

Another not negligible inconvenience arose from the fact that there was no running hot water – which obliged me to heat up a large pan full every morning on the butane gas cooker before being able to wash and shave. The remaining drops were used to make a cup of instant coffee. This was particularly painful when I was time-tabled to begin my first lesson at eight, for since the village was some half hour’s drive from my school it meant rising at half past six. However, the fact that this only happened twice a week prompted me to bless the good fortune of the fully-qualified French teacher with whom I was assimilated. In my English school we were obliged to stay on the premises from 8.45 to 12.00 and from 2.00 to 4.15, regardless of whether we had lessons or not. And even though we did have free periods, these were frequently occupied by marking or substituting for absent teachers. In my lycée, on the other hand, a teacher holding the C.A.P.E.S. (the equivalent of an English Diploma in Education) had only 18 one hour lessons per week, and those with the Agrégation (a more advanced  teaching qualification) even fewer. And once you’d finished teaching nothing stopped you from going straight home. This most of the teachers did. Having a ‘good’ timetable, therefore, (which everyone aspired to, and which, as far as I could see, was attributed to the more senior staff) consisted in having your 18 teaching hours concentrated over three working days, for this meant you were free to stay at home for the rest of the week. Though most teachers justified this by maintaining that a good part of these non-teaching days was spent marking or preparing future lessons, it certainly wasn’t the case with my eccentric German teacher. In addition, the country children I taught were placid and calm – unlike the frequently disruptive pupils of my urban English school (where my French exchange partner only just managed to survive), who had to be held in an iron hand.

Slang expressions

My main goal during this teacher exchange year was, of course, to improve my everyday spoken French which, though allowing me to participate in  conversations of a reasonably advanced nature, was sadly lacking in idiomatic speech. Determined to fill what I considered to be this deplorable gap, I adopted the habit of recording all the colloquialisms I heard in a dedicated notebook, and then taking advantage of the slightest opportunity to employ them in the situations of everyday life. I had soon gathered quite an impressive collection of expressions like ‘se jeter un godet derrière la cravate’ (to knock back a jar or two) ‘faire du lèche-vitrines’ (to do some window shopping) along with such sexist remarks as ‘elle a du monde au balcon’ (what a pair of knockers she’s got). I was even taught one or two chansons paillardes (rugby songs). On one occasion, however, I was made to realize that my policy of opportunistic application was not without danger.

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Deep in the Heart of Rural France (1)

[audio:|titles=Deep in the Heart of Rural France (1)]

My Teacher Exchange

As I explained in my website bio, after spending two years as a French master in an English secondary school, I successfully applied to go on a year’s official teacher exchange to France with the aim of extending my professional and personal horizons. My first steps towards integration were, of course, greatly facilitated by me being a graduate in French Language and Literature: for, in spite of problems (see my blog ‘Lost Illusions), the year I spent at a French university as part of my studies enabled me to acquire a reasonable mastery of the spoken language along with a general insight into  French culture and lifestyle.

Family Misfortune

During our correspondence prior to my departure for France, my exchange partner, Jean-Pierre, had informed me that he lived with his parents in a village some 15 kilometres from the small town and lycée where he taught, and had kindly extended an invitation for me to stay with them until I could find accommodation of my own. With this in mind, and in order to give myself time to acclimatize to a foreign environment, I had planned my arrival some two weeks before the start of the school term. This proved to be a good move as it enabled me, above all, to get to know Jean-Pierre before he set off to replace me in England. On arriving, however, I learned that tragedy had struck. The only daughter (Jean-Pierre also had a younger brother who was doing his military service at the time), a nurse in a Paris hospital, had recently died of cancer. So great was the shock that the mother (she had been the village primary school teacher until her retirement the year before) had had some kind of cerebral attack which had left her semi-paralyzed. Learning all this caused me some embarrassment as it made me feel as if I was intruding upon their misfortune and grief.  However, I was quickly assured by Jean-Pierre that not only was this not the case but, on the contrary, my presence provided them with a welcome source of diversion.

A Remote Village

An isolated village in the Haute-Saône

            An isolated village in the Haute-Saône

And the remoteness of the village couldn’t have better suited my plans to immerse myself in a totally different life.  Lying deep in the rural département of the Haute-Saône (la Haute-Patate as many Parisians scornfully referred to it), a region of étangs and vast forests, it exerted an irresistible charm on me right from the start. As I approached it for the first time along a pot-holed forest lane past the occasional lone farmhouse, each with its small clearing and a dozen or so grazing cows, I had the strange impression that my Mini had become a sort of time machine with windows, and I was the spellbound witness to a journey from the grimy, industrialized world I had previously known into one which was resembling more and more those black and white textbook drawings of a long-past rural idyll which had so often set me dreaming during those first-year French lessons at school.

The German Teacher

In addition, I was soon introduced to a wild-looking character who lived in the same village, and who taught German at the lycée where I was to spend my year. He was an original, having espoused the American Red Indian cause to such a  point that, not only had he made considerable efforts to assume the appearance of a Redskin himself, but regularly spent most of his summer holidays living with a Sioux tribe on their reservation in the U.S.A. He immediately suggested that, as far as accommodation was concerned, I could rent, for a modest monthly sum, the small farmhouse located opposite his house where, he informed me, his recently-deceased grandmother (‘la vieille Marthe’, as she had been known in the village) had lived most of her life. Even though the farmhouse had seen far better days, it is a measure of how much you change with age that what I now look upon with unmitigated horror was, at the age of 28, a source of such irresistible attraction that I was unable to resist his argument that here was a unique opportunity for a city-born and bred, newly-landed Brit like me to experience authentic French country life.

The Farmhouse

A typical Haute-Saône farm (Photo by courtesy of France-Voyage)

                A typical Haute-Saône farmhouse
            (Photo by courtesy of France-Voyage)

The farmhouse (nobody seemed to know its exact age, but it must have dated from around the middle of the 19th century) was separated from the only village street by a narrow strip of cobble-stoned forecourt on which reposed a rusty metal horse trough and, when I first took possession, a pile of un-chopped logs. The right side of the front was occupied by a typical Franche-Comté farm archway, beneath which a door on the left gave direct access to the large kitchen. Straight on  through the archway was the door leading to a stable containing my eccentric German teacher’s rather mangy-looking horse which, as I was later to witness,he was in the frequent habit of riding bareback, Indian style, along the neighbouring country  lanes. And even though I was personally more struck by the incongruity of the act than anything else, the local paysans took quite a different view, and he was unanimously branded as being stark, raving mad.

My Living Quarters

The living quarters consisted of the front kitchen at the back of which a latched door led through to a rather confined, square-shaped living room. From this room another door gave access to a single bedroom on the left. Both living room and bedroom looked out onto the empty field and lane behind the farm. But, of all the rooms it was the front, east-facing kitchen which I had the most difficulty reconciling myself to. A chipped and stained sink with a single cold water tap next to which a rusting, greasy butane gas cooker stood on a flagstone floor all combined to create an atmosphere of chilly gloom which the rays of an early-morning sun shining through a small, cob-web-festooned window could do little to disperse. Much of the kitchen area was taken up by a solid-looking oak dining table. I never ate there, however, as I couldn’t summon up the courage to clear a space among the piles of dust-caked plates, saucers, cups, glasses, knives, fork and spoons, pans of all shapes, sizes and descriptions and, strangely, a dozen or more coffee mills. Over the table dangled a large electric lamp (apparently electricity had found its way to the village in the mid fifties) on a long flex – so long, in fact, that its broad, grimy glass shade hung so low that two people sitting opposite would have had difficulty seeing each other. And I never bothered to explore the contents of the enormous cupboard standing in a corner that was permanently deprived of all but the feeblest light of day. I just assumed that the objects heaped up on the table were simply an overflow of what was hidden within.

The Stove

An old wood-burning stove

                     An old wood-burning stove

In retrospect, I suppose the living room was only minimally better. It did, however, present one advantage. In the corner next to a small oil-cloth- covered table there was a poêle – a wood-fueled stove, from the rear of which a broad metallic pipe rose up for a metre or so, and then bent horizontally into a hole in the wall. Even though its top had two removable rings, which I presumed were for cooking, I never used them to this effect as they only seemed to retain enough heat to keep a coffee pot moderately warm.

The stove’s main appointed task was to heat the room – a function which it performed rather badly.  This is not to say that it didn’t do reasonably well as long as the weather wasn’t too cold. But it quickly avowed its limits when the temperature dropped below  -10° (as it frequently did during the winter I spent there), and keeping reasonably warm in these conditions meant never stepping out of an imaginary circle drawn not much more than one metre around it. There was also another price to be paid. On being first shown round by my eccentric German teacher friend, I had been struck by a pervasive smell of stale wood smoke, which the effects of a sunny August afternoon had induced me to accept as part of the overall charm. I had noticed, however, that the smell was more insistent in the living room. I was to learn the cause one chilly early October evening when I lit the stove for the first time. The pipe leaked effusively.  And the same cause had very much the same effect on my clothes which quickly became impregnated with a stench more reminiscent of that produced by a batch of freshly-cured kippers.

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