French Women Don’t Eat Cake – Or Do They?

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!

Musings on parenting expat-style.

When I was thinking about moving to France, I spent a large proportion of my time worrying whether the kids would settle and be happy. Once I arrived in France, and the kids seemed settled, I spent an equally proportional part of my time worrying whether the kids would be happier back in the UK, and whether school was more fun ‘UK style’. This wasn’t because I had any undue worries about French schooling per se, but that in one of my French classes back in the UK an ex school inspector, and fellow student had planted a seed of doubt in my head that French schools lacked ‘va va voom’ and inspirational teaching after having visited many in the late 80’s and early 90’s. My own second cousin(once removed) did not wax lyrical about her own experience in a ‘collège privée’ in France in the 70’s.

When my 9 year old pipes up that he really doesn’t want to go to school as he clambers out of bed in the morning, and my 13 year old tells me that history was really boring, instead of recognising that it is early morning and my nine year old would far rather be playing on a computer regardless of which country he lives in, and that my thirteen year old has a tendency towards the sciences, I lurch headlong into several long moments of guilt with a supplementary dose of worry. The overriding problem is that maternal instinct drives a parent to want to provide the best for their child and there is very little one can do to fight it.

It would be easy to jump back into our old life; the house remains where we left it; our friends for the most part are still where we left them; all our children have taken the 11+ as a sort of insurance policy thanks to the UK grammar school that was prepared to send the test papers to our collège in France, and we did on-line applications for each of them for entry into UK secondary. So why don’t we jump back to our old life?

Because, as you’ve already spotted, no sooner done than we will worry that we have given up on an opportunity,  clipped a growing skill of bilingualism, limited their horizons of multi-culturism and separated them from their friends. And haven’t we already worried about separating  them from their friends when we departed from the UK, and didn’t we discover that the very best of their friends stayed in touch.

The simple truth is that we could easily go back, but would our life be quite as rich. Would our children forget how they kiss all their fellow classmates each morning? Would they loose the possibility of buzzing to Lycée on a scooter? Would they start to forget their new language? Would they start to loose the confidence in themselves that came from facing a challenge, succeeding, and realising that anything is possible?

Our local town back home has market, castle, river and canal, but does the market sell Bulots (welks) and Crevettes(prawns) draped in seaweed, and is there a local guy in ratty trousers selling local cider (which could be quite frankly dreadful – but often isn’t)

and is there watercress for sale from on a little rickety table manned by the farmer who grew it locally,

or trays of goats cheese, some so mouldy that one starts to question their edibility, and is there a man selling freshly cooked crèpes?

Are there cafés set out on the pavement with every age group enjoying a coffee outdoors whatever the season, and are there teenagers sitting in groups drinking coffee in preference to beer?

There are bakers of course, but are they independent, selling incredible patisseries and freshly baked bread without preservatives? Are the pharmacies run by husband and wife teams who know the ailments and family histories of their customers, and do the bank clerks of the inner-city banks know their customers by name and greet them as they enter?

My 15 year old daughter came  back one day, three weeks into her new lycée with a verbal invitation for a sleep-over party. ‘Will there be boys’ I asked, ‘One or two’ she replied, ‘Will there be alcohol’ I asked ‘and will the parents be there’. I grumbled about never having met the parents, and she muttered something about the fact that none of the other parents were making such a fuss. I insisted I dropped her off, and if I didn’t like the look of the set-up….

When my daughter told me the address I mused that on that particular stretch of road there weren’t many houses. As we parked outside a beautiful mini chateau with a circular drive and sweeping steps up to the front door she pulled out her phone. ‘M’, she said, ‘Do you live in the biggish house with the iron gates?’ I had to admire her ‘sang-froid’.

As I sat down in the café a day or two later with the French mother of one of the other invitées, she related how she had jumped straight on the phone to ‘interrogate’ the host mother. ‘When she told me she was senior in the ‘Direction for the Commissariat d’Education’ I decided she was OK,’ she said.’ And my son sent me a photo of the house from his phone when he arrived’.

It seems that Expats aren’t the only ones to worry after all!