Falling Out of Love with the French – Confessions of a Fallen Francophile

Once upon a time, I was a committed Francophile. Somewhere between the ages of 11 and 18, I metamorphosed into a garlic-loving paid up worshipper of the French nation. Everything about England was boring. Everything. Why have Stew when you can have Pot au Feu? Sunday dinner pales into insignificance against a Roti d'Agneau, Sauce a l'ail. Shopping…well , fighting tourists along Oxford Street compared to wafting down the Place Vendome……and the French art of flanerie…….flaner le long des boulevards……there isn't even a word for flaner in English……stroll? It doesn't encapsulate the full word, just walking, hanging, breathing in the ambience………Clothes? The English just looked like ragbags tied in the middle with string compared to the visions of elegance in Dior, Saint-Laurent and Lacroix that I eagerly sought in the pages of French Vogue, Elle and Marie-Claire.

The list was seemingly endless- perfume……Hmm, at the time Tweed and Charlie vying aginst L'Air du Temps and Chanel No 5? Drink? Hmmm warm Newcastle Brown or deliciously chilled Veuve Clicquot? Writers….well, in England we had a bunch of sanctimonious Victorians who took pride in the fact they never got a shag for God's sake – in France they were all rounders, drinking, shagging, partying and generally dying of unmentionable diseases at the age of 29. What about painters? Ours all died at 97 after painting scores of haywains- theirs drank absinthe, smoked opium and lived in brothels- dying of syphilis seemed to be a common feature……

By the age of 16 I was desparate to be called Colette-Cherie de Sainte Bon-Bon de la Croix, born in Montmartre, of a dubious artist father and a disreputable consumpitve opera-singer mother. I wanted to mix in the demi-mondaine world of artists and excitement that all of this offered…..

There was just one catch in all of this. I had never actually BEEN to France – apart from a flying visit with my parents, aged 3, after which my father had lost all his money and the peak of holiday excitement reached the dizzy heights of Clacton on Sea. This had to be remedied. I worked on perfecting my French, so that when the fascinating painter in an opera cloak spotted me wafting along the Champs-Elysees I could be up to the task.

After a series of brief visits from the ages of 16-25, I finally and irrevocably got my heart's desire……though the world of work had steered me away from the glamourous world of art and hedonism that was Paris, to the mundane life of a youth worker in West Yorkshire. European exchanges…….how apt. I was (by accident, no-one else was available) sent on a Paris conference for the weekend…….

Then it happened. I met the sexy Frenchman who was blown away by my charme a l'anglaise…….and four months later, moved to France for good. A dream come true.
I threw myself into the intricate task of becoming, for all intents and purposes, French. I mastered the delicate culinary tasks of Blanquette de Veau and Mayonnaise-making, and sat back to imbibe the pure and delicious air of…Frenchness….that reigned. I was here, in my spiritual home, my Englishness being a mere and insignificant accident of birth that had finally been remedied.

And then……little by little….something else happened. No-one was more surprised than me. In the town where I lived, a chic quartier in the richissime Banlieue-Ouest, lived lots of English diplomats and their wives…..I shunned them for their refusal to learn French, their obstinacy in shopping in the English Delicatessen in Le Vesinet…when in Rome, and all that sort of thing…..Then I understood. The French didn't actually care, we would never belong, even if we had lived for 94 of our 97 years in France, we would still be La petite anglaise.

Then it began to dawn on me that the French were actually….really boring. When you have had 8,000 helpings of Gigot d'Agneau at different houses and they all taste the same. Then you realise you can't pop out for a kebab or a curry- because there aren't any.

You can actually only shop in the Place Vendome if you are as rich as Stephanie of Monaco – the other choice being out of town centres commercial, with the same chainstores, Pecca, Camaieu, Prisunic, all selling in any one 'season' exactly the same clothes. If that season's 'look' doesn't suit you – that's tough. Not to mention the bottom question. Frenchwomen do not have bottoms. God knows what they sit on. Now mine is, well, normal, not grotesque or anything, yet finding trousers was impossible. Englishwomens' bottoms just don't fit into them. My friend Catherine and I once spent a whole afternoon on the Metro cofirming this fact (I'm surprised we didn't get arrested, looking at womens' bottoms)..it's just patently unfair, as they all eat like pigs that they should have such skinny behinds.Some stores even class a size 12 at 'outsize'. Frenchwomen all look the same. They all become blonde at 40, with an identikit chignon. They go from basketball boots and jeans straight to a matriarch look, 23 going on 50, and ultra-respectable. There is no inbetween, it's black and white. They wear the same clothes all the time, and call them 'les classiques'. No one-off craziness for an evening, everything is built to last, and expensive to prove the point. And tedious to the extreme.

Now, to flanerie. I thought I'd be really good at this effortless wafting around….but all you pick up is mad Algerians asking if you want to marry them….stand around for more than 30 seconds on any Parisian street and some strange man comes up to you and offers his services, and asks for your phone number. Apparently, because you look foreign…..(you can take that down to 10 seconds in the Gare St Lazare…). As a woman, in fact, anywhere you go you are fair game for every middle aged married lothario…..even my English students (generally government officials or high-ranking managers in companies such as Renault), felt that it was perfectly acceptable to suggest looking at my underwear. Then you realise. All the Frenchwomen have wedding rings. They all get married at 22 to avoid this, then their husbands go off bedhopping and so do they. In the end, I bought myself a chistmas cracker type ring as protection.

French make-up and perfume is, I'm afraid to say, still excellent. I am, I'm afraid writing this wearing Clarins moisturiser and La Roche-Posay foundation. But it is the be-all and end all of Frenchwomens' life, this search to keep the man they snared at 22. They are forever dieting and prinking and preening and at the beauty parlour, beacuse it's all they have. In France, you don't have fun, you have Family. With a capital F. They have 34 children called things like Marie-Laure-Celeste and Charles-Louis-Sebastien and spend all their time working in girly jobs then go to the beauty parlour, come home and and cook a 27 course dinner for the piggy husband (who doesn't give a damn about what he looks like) and all the little piggies. Then get up and do the same again. Till they die. I just hate them because they have perfect fingernails and never ladder their tights.

Now, writers have gone seriously downhill. Now they all seem to be middle aged men pontificating about their mid-life crises and appearing on late night interview programmes about their mid-life crises. Or philisophers, like Bernard-Henri Levy, who appear to spend the whole day gazing and their navels then theorizing on them, No drinking, no roistering, nada. Female witers who are any good, like Amelie Nothomb are just regarded as weirdos and/or perverts.Painters possibly even worse, so up their own bottoms it's untrue. I say it's because they took the absinthe away personally. Now I know why the word bourgeois was invented. To describe the average French person.

Go to a dinner party for example. Where you are served, invariably the same thing over and over again, Gigot, Blanquette, Plateau de Fruits de Mer……and wine. Oh Goody, I see you cheering up. Don't get too excited. You'll only get one glass. 'What!!!!' I hear you cry, 'this is the land of wine and song!' Ha! You're a woman. In France women don't drink. point. You'll be sick of the 'diet and beauty parlour and isn't little Charles-Henri-Jerome a genius who'll be going to Sciences-Po (French LSE) when he's 18' conversation, closeted with the women, and desparate to get pissed to alleviate the tedium. But Odile-Cecile after one glass has put her hand over it, giggling in a puerile fashion, 'Oh no, I'll be tipsy!' Followed by Marie-Louise-Agnes, and Caroline-Beatrice…..'I'll have one!!!!!!' You say enthusiastically, and the gimlet eyes of the whole room turn on you. Might as well have ALCOHOLIC tattooed on your forehead. You've just failed membership of the velvet-hairband good-girls club. Don't mention any exs either. That will put you on the pile marked Slut. No raucous nights out with the girls for them, no hobbies, no fun. They don't get Bridget Jones. They asked me if she had always been an alcoholic. I didn't try The Rocky Horror Show, luckily.

This might all be due to French Music……great, you say, Plastic Bertrand! No, he was Belgian. Too interesting to be French. The first time I heard French music, i thought honestly that it was April Fools' Day…….It sounds like something that my Mum would listen to….or rather my Grandma, even my Mum is more hip than this. Everything through from 1930 to now sounds exactly the bloody same. Edith Piaf could top the charts now. All romantic ballads and les slows (sloppy snog-songs), sung by identikit Sacha Distel lookalikes. Claude Francois, Patrick Sebastien, Serge Lama, all crooning the same drivel, or stuff that sounds like a headline vaudeville song from the Black and White Minstrel Show. Only departure from this was Serge Gainsbourg (yes, that one that wrote Je t'aime moi non plus…..) but even he has a problem. His ex-wife. She was English, Jane Birkin, has lived in France for 40 years but still speaks French like she learned it yesterday.So if you are an English girl with a French other half who happens to like SG, guess what, ha ha ha SOOOOO funny- you are La Petite Jane Birkin……You sound just like Jane Birkin! You might be making an effort, but, La Petite Jane. Don't call me Jane.

The key feature in all of this is individuality. The French love to be the same as everyone else. Eccentricity is a crime, there is no margin. My ex's favourite cry was 'people will stare at you!' He could never get my reply 'Good.' They all want to be the same, in their little appartements, eating the same food , driving the same cars, wearing the same clothes, watching the same TV (now French TV is TRULY appalling). They want their bourgeois little lives and deaths without ever deviating from the norm. These people who I believed to be wild, cretive, accepting of difference, enjoying life to the full, are as repressed as 1950s England- Balai dans le cul (Broom up the bottom). They are terrified of anything that might upset the bourgeois equilibrium.they don't hink, they just want to follow. And worst of all, many of them firmly believe Jean-Marie le Pen is a nice man. They think the English are wild, and liberated (hence Frenchmen going after English girls). Smalltown French life is like Bexhill on sea c 1948. Without the excitement. Most of them have never even been to Nantes, let alone Paris. Most French people never even go abroad.
Frightened it might shake their convictions, shake their opinions? On second thoughts, I wouldn't like to see Jean-Marie le Pen as a tourist. They can keep him.

I only realised how much I love England after seven years in France. Here, though we don't believe it, there is a certain freedom to be yourself and live the way you want to. You can dress the way you want, and find clothes to dress in. You can think the way you like, and are sure to find at least a group of people who agree with you and your view on life. Social life is more like an urban family, a network of linked friends, not the all-encompassing French notion of blood 'Family'. Women don't get stared at going out alone, looked at like they're tarts, women have a life, not merely an existence and the beck and call of hubby. Living together- well, none of my friends are married. Children? Well, it's up to you. Nobody imposes an overwheming social more any more, there are many, which seem to co-exist quite peaceably side by side, parallel normalities……..

Finally, I've realised that what I have in England is more real and tangible, more me. I have traded in the flashy and bourgeois French model for one that thinks with me not aginst me, equally eccentric, and English! Being pragmatically English, he seems to have no problems accepting the souvenir of my extended holiday, now six years old. I've never been happier in my life.That's another key point – we are just so much more laid back than the French – what they call derisively Le Phlegme Anglais….we don't make a fuss, we just accept it and get on with it. I have traded in the velvet hairband and got my goth gear out of mothballs. And I think, I am finally happy with what and who I am.

Maybe the French love affair was a kind of escapism, a fundamental discontentment with my life. Maybe I wanted to be something else because I didn't like what I was or where I was from. This seemed to be a common reason for running off to France among my English friends in Paris. Wanting something they felt they didn't have. But now I've done it, and I've learned my lesson. Better the devil you know. I don't want to escape now, I 'm too happy where I am.

Could go out and get a kebab…..or a curry, mind you! Vive la Difference!

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2 Responses to “Falling Out of Love with the French – Confessions of a Fallen Francophile”

  1. I only realised how much I love England after seven years in France – isn’t that always the way, the old adage being you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Okay, the UK wasn’t ‘gone’ exactly but you did place a body of water between you and it. I for one am glad you came back, Khlari. I wish it had been under happier circumstances but I guess whichever way you look at it, it was nevertheless and always will be the right and positive move to make. x

  2. With my arm very firmly pushed up my back by the Spicy one I have come plodding into your wonderful blog. Middle aged yes. Lothario? I wish! and happily bereft of a mid-life crisis but still enjoying the self same rage as when I had more hair.
    And thank you Andy, thank you very much for informing me of this wondeful site and thank you Clare for your words.
    Welcome back to England and welcome to blogging.

    PS. Teacher eh? hmmm, I have had endless amounts of fun with teachers not that they would have enjoyed a minute of it with all my juvenile high jinks. Not one looked like you shame to say.

    Ah! Oh! Ah! Oh!

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