A month or two ago I came upon a post from one of my favorite bloggers Life on La Lune who had a few words of advice for ‘wannabe’ expats. Not long afterwards my mother pointed me in the direction of an article by Michael Wright, author of ‘La Folie’ who now writes for the Telegraph and who received a dressing down from readers on his ‘easy ways to spot a Brit in France’. One of the former blog’s words of advice was “don’t spurn fellow expats” whilst Michael Wright suggested he was happier out of expat reach. What seemed to incense his readers was Michael’s suggestion that the British abroad can provide the worst example of Britishness to the French, whilst the author of Life on La Lune suggested that shunning other British Expats could be the voice of doom on chances to establish oneself if a conversational level of French isn’t in the grip of the Expat in question.
Coming, as I do, from the point of view of an Expat living in a city absolutely devoid of the British (they all sensibly move south realising that it rains more in Normandy than in the west coast of Scotland) I have my own views on the matter.
Firstly, in support of Michael Wright, there is nothing worse than British tourists running amok in a French town who have absolutely no desire to attempt to communicate in French. I have frequently seen British tourists speaking at full volume in English to sales assistants in the misguided belief that the volume will somehow aid the sales’s assistants comprehension. It does not. Secondly, every nationality is instantly recognisable by their dress, the English by their shorts and baggy T shirts, the Germans by their sandals and socks. Need I go on!
However, and I speak from experience, arriving in France without a good working or conversational knowledge of French can be an infinitely lonely place, and shunning English speaking expats, despite the shorts and baggy T shirts is madness. Every-one needs a social life, and for the most part English speaking expats are a mine of information which one can choose to ignore at leisure (but preferably once one has learnt how to negotiate daily life).
A more interesting question is whether the French are pleased to have us in France at all ‘in shorts’ or ‘en pantelon’. Do the British in France have nothing to offer? Can they really not contribute anything meaningful or interesting to the average Frenchman? Do they really let the side down? As much as the best of expats hope to integrate fully into French culture, should we wipe out every aspect of our ‘Britishness’ in our great effort to fit in?
A month or so ago I was suffering in a ‘social desert’ with no invitation on the horizon and with ‘husband à l’etranger’ à l’etranger. Conversation in the appartment had descended to a critical level of ‘ xbox’ talk, that is when I actually extracted my teenagers from texting their copins and copines long enough to enjoy a conversation. I would have at that point jumped over mountains and swum rivers to chat with any other English speaking person. It was then that I decided it was high time I issued another invitation to the city mamans.
Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that the French don’t issue invitations to English people (or to me for that matter) – they do. The problem is more that the French city mamans tend to socialise over dinner since many have their children home for lunch (as do I). Dinner inevitably requires a spouse, and herein lies my problem. My spouse is 4403.8km away (Yes I do have enough time in my social calendar to research silly bits of information like this) Not a good distance to drive home at the end of the evening after having sampled some of the inevitably fine wine presented at the table! So it is that I find that the best invitations to proffer are morning coffee or afternoon tea. No husbands required.
Last month I invited an elegant group of mamans for morning coffee. Having issued the invitations it occurred to me that I needed to buy a new cafetière having smashed the previous in a clumsy attempt to wash up. Not being a coffee drinker (quelle horreur en France) I hadn’t thought to buy a replacement after ‘husband à l’etranger’s’ last departure. Whilst musing where to find a suitably cheap one it also occurred to me that I also didn’t have any tea cups. There is one teacup to every thirty varieties of coffee cups in French shops. Finding some chic ones presents a bit of a problem.
When I suggested ‘coffee’ to the city mamans, each and every one set about persuading me to select a morning ‘qui convient à elle’ . No matter how much diary juggling went on there were invariably a few who couldn’t come. Let it not be said then, that French mamans are not interested in passing a morning ‘chez une Anglaise’!
Date fixed, I set about considering the ‘gouter’ (‘snack’ for want of a better word) for my invitées. The first time I invited a group of French mamans I made scone’s and a chocolate roulade. The French maman’s looked suitably horrified at the idea that one must eat scones with lashings of cream and raspberry jam. That my invitation clashed with their weekly cycle in the forest obviously left them somewhat agitated about the lack of exercise and the consumption of calories. However once I had insisted firmly that a combination of all three parts was essential, they consumed the entire plateful.
The chocolate roulade was ignored.
They also, as one, fell in love with my very British ‘Emma Bridgewater ‘British Birds’ tea-pot’ and ‘tant pis’ing’ (the French version of poo pooing) my apologies for lack of tea cups and saucers, drank very graciously their tea from my ‘Emma Bridgewater’ matching coffee cups . There was no hesitation at my second invitation for ‘afternoon tea’ and several enquired whether there would be scones on the table!
Since this event, I have made every effort to produce an English cake specialty, and have bought a ‘English tea selection box’. I have also moved from house to apartment. The first time the French maman’s came to the apartment they forsook the lift and climbed the 100 steps to the apartment, arriving breathless but with enough calories burned to allow them their ‘full english tea’ and once more polished off the scones.
This most recent time I invited all the French mamans for morning coffee complete with new cafetière and new chic cream tea cups and saucers (complete with pretty ‘M’ motif). Once more the French mamans arrived exausted after their climb to the apartment, eschewed coffee for tea, drank it from the aforesaid ‘Emma Bridgewater’ coffee cups with complete distain for the vastly inferior brand new French tea cups and polished off the coffee ‘cup-cakes’ (très à la mode en France), one mother requesting a doggy bag.
So there you have it. We British may not always like to rub shoulders in a foreign land with other British but the French do! They love receiving invitations to visit us. They adore all things ‘Brrreetish’ and all our funny quirks and habits, mannerisms and customs. They like nothing better than chatting about their experiences on British turf, our lovely villages and beautiful countryside even if they don’t yet believe me that it doesn’t rain as much there as it does in Normandy. Give them time!
But most of all, as much as they disdainfully turn their noses up at the calorific wantonness of ‘le gateau Français’, never let it be said that they do not enthusiastically support Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” –
As long as it’s English, that is!
That’s so wonderful the French mamans love your scones! We Americans love scones too. In fact, despite the fact we seceded from the UK a long time ago, the USA LOVES everything British. Trust me, as soon as you guys open your mouth, we are swooning over the accents. I feel like most French people don’t mind having English people among them. There aren’t many stereotypes I can think of against English immigrants than there are, say, against immigrants of North African descent.
I’m definitely on Life on La Lune’s side, when she says not to ignore fellow expats. There is a fine line between wanting to integrate yourself in the culture (which is great) and only hanging out with fellow expats. I had an American roommate in Madrid who acted like hanging out with Americans in Spain was akin to committing a cardinal sin. She was really obnoxious about it and only talked how she was so special because she had a Spanish boyfriend (who was twice her age, mind you but that is a story for another day). It really turned me off to her and she alienated every American expat she met. I really hate when people reject their home country and act like they are ashamed of their roots. It’s not cute.
In general, I think French people welcome expats who make an effort to speak French. My aunt and uncle in Mont Saint Aignan have been hosting American students studying abroad in Rouen for the semester (in case you have run into any Americans in Rouen, they are probably students from that program) and they absolutely love having American students in their house. It allows for a cultural exchange.
Thanks very much for the mention and the link. Yours is a thoughtful and interesting post. I have to say I was in the Michael Wright camp when we first moved here but experience taught me that avoiding other Brits simply because they were Brits was stupid and we were missing out on good friendships – and good advice. Since then, we’ve adopted the policy that it doesn’t matter what nationality our friends are as long as they are people we like.
There are problems, though. You are in danger of being drawn into an ex-pat clique whether you like the people or not; we do have two parallel social lives because of the language issue; and there are so many Brits around here now that I am afraid we are in danger of changing the character of what we actually came here for. And we all know the feeling of shame we experience when we see our badly-behaved compatriots in the supermarket.
On the other side, French people we know are genuinely interested in British culture and we broaden our horizons by introducing new things to each other. I have received very little in the way of negative comments from French people, many of whom welcome the new perspective that we Brits bring. But that might be because my French is now quite good, so I am able to communicate.
So, as always, there are two sides to the argument and the truth is somewhere in between.
As for the cake – I don’t usually eat it myself for fear of excessive expansion. But chocolate roulade is another matter…
I don’t know about the southern part of France, but Northern France seemes to be almost perceptibly changing before my eyes. Sometimes/often I fiind it disappointing. Bit by bit loosing it’s very individual identity and becoming globally Western. I suppose that’s the internet. I hope it doesn’t change irrevocably. Though it’s useful when you need Golden Syrup and occasional supermarket delivery!
For me – cake for comfort, gateau for opulent indulgence.(usually the latter)
It’s madness to ignore any group of people for whatever reason. I have several friends who are married to Frenchmen but they still socialise with ex-pats (as well as with French friends of course) because as one of them said, ‘No matter how fluent you are there are times when you want to talk in your own language, read in your own language and be among people who were brought up with the same sense of humour as you.’
And I’ve found that French people love English cooking – especially puddings and cake. Chocolate cake goes down very well indeed, mince pies don’t hang around for long either.
We tried mince pies and christmas pudding in school. They weren’t very successful, but I have yet to try them on adults!
Haha, love how you converted the French mamans to calorific scones, cream & jam!!!
Far from being snooty about British eccentricities, I have always found French friends to enjoy the differences between the two cultures, and with good humour too. I love that you have converted your mamans to scones and cream!
On the friendship debate, I believe that friendships with both locals and other expats help enormously when you relocate as an expat. I wrote about it a while ago here if you fancy a read: http://www.theworldswaiting.com/2012/05/tips-for-expat-success.html