LIFE IN FRANCE
For one hopelessly ill-concealed reason or another, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in France recently. And I don’t mean chic, metropolitan, art-gallery, fashion-catwalk France - all Chanel and bright lights. It’s true that Paris is uniquely lovely and exasperating and arrogant and delightful - but Paris is not France in the same way that London is (thank heavens) not England.
I’ve been a regular visitor to Paris for some years now and feel more or less familiar with its sights and sounds, its pleasures and frustrations. But, more and more, I have been seriously puzzled by the city’s relationship with the rest of France. My friends there give me the impression that real life - culture, art and civilisation - end abruptly at the city boundaries and that what lies beyond is a desert of charmless rustic provincials living in a countryside best viewed in Impressionist paintings in the Louvre or the Orsay.
It’s a version of the ‘north of Watford’ syndrome to which all Englishmen must become accustomed if they do not live in London or the south-east - only far, far worse. One of my Parisian friends never leaves the city except in an emergency. Others reluctantly leave it only to visit relatives or friends, and then only after they’ve made strenuous attempts to find an excuse not to go or have been threatened with disinheritance if they don’t.
I’m ashamed to say that I know someone who didn’t even attend his sister’s funeral in La Vendee (in western France) because, after being on an exclusive restaurant’s waiting list for months, he had finally bagged a table. And what difference would it make to his sister? She was, after all, dead.
I’m not sure that a Londoner - or someone from, say, Sevenoaks - would be quite that contemptuous of the rest of England.
I’m not even sure that contempt is the right word here. Perhaps Parisians do look down on the rest of France. Perhaps they are ‘afraid’ of what they might find if they ever manage to leave the Ile-de-France. Or perhaps the feeling is a shade more positive than that; that Paris offers them everything they will ever want so there is no need ever to leave it.
All of this - the overblown praise of Paris and the matching scorn heaped upon the rest of the country - was, until recently, of purely academic interest to me. But my recent times in France have been spent far from the sophistication of Paris. I’ve been staying on the edge of Beaujolais country, about as far north of Lyon as it is west of the Swiss border.
This is deepest rural France. This is the France of goat’s cheese and countless wineries; of red-tiled farms guarded by arcades of cypress trees; of village pastry-cooks and distant hills. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the people who live here are as contemptuous of Paris as Parisians are of them. Paris est bien/Pour chat et chien - ‘Paris is good for cats and dogs’.
To local people here, the French Revolution happened in Paris - along with almost all the other bad things they’ve learned about French history. Paris is actively resented for the wealth it sucks out of the rest of France and for the limelight it always appears to be in.
In a weird and deeply unsettling reversal of my experience with my Parisian friends, rural French folk distrust and dislike the selfsame Parisian arrogance which many foreigners find so beguiling and so ‘typically Parisian’.
The resentment felt on this side of the Channel for the London-centric nature of English cultural life is as nothing compared to the destructive tension between metropolitan and rural France. I met several people who had never visited the city in their entire lives, and who had absolutely no intention of ever doing so. Pursuing the subject with them was counter-productive; why on earth would they ever want to visit Paris? They looked at me as if I was out of my mind to even suggest such a thing.
French people themselves are, of course, aware of this discord and many have tried to explain it. I was told, for example, that, at the time of the Revolution (1789), almost half of the people of France didn’t even speak French and, to many, the creeping victory of languedouil over languedoc is still resented outside Paris, and especially in the south.
(The reference here is to ‘languedouil’, the part of of northern France where the word for yes was ouil, now oui. In southern France - ‘languedoc’ - the word for yes was oc, which has now disappeared.)
Others cite a catalogue of Paris-based cultural and economic oppression which, to many rural French folk, is still going strong. Provincial capitals like Lyon or Marseille or Bordeaux are, they say, regarded very much as second-class cities by Parisians and my experience in Paris seems to confirm this.
If Londoners habitually ‘disrespected’ cities like Manchester, Bristol or Newcastle in this way, there’d be civil war in our green and pleasant land.
My biggest problem, as an outsider, with this French scenario is that it is so wasteful. Paris is a beautiful city and France is a beautiful country. And yet the citizenry of both waste so much effort sniping at, and begrudging, each other.
If only they would stop and look around, as outsiders do, they might see things differently....
After all, substantial numbers of disaffected Anglo-Saxons have seen fit to up sticks, migrate across 20-odd miles of open water (at the very least) and settle in France. Estimates of the number of British expats living there vary between half a million and 750,000. That’s at least the equivalent of a city the size of Manchester or Sheffield or Leeds. Or about three Newcastles.
About 18 years ago, I numbered a couple of Sheffield friends - Chris and Joyce - amongst those migrants. They sold up and abandoned south Yorkshire for the green hills of the Dordogne. When I asked them why they went, it quickly became obvious that they were besotted. A decade of francophilia finally got the better of them and they joined the steady trickle of English families for whom the pull of France becomes irresistible.
And now that I’ve spent some time there myself, I’m beginning to see how Life in France can be so mesmeric and seductive. This has been the first time in my whole life that I’ve spent time in a foreign country and not been on holiday.
And it’s not all cognac and baguettes. The grass on the other side of the fence is truly never that green once you get up close.
Life in France can be fraught - to say the least - even if you’ve only been there for a short time. They drive on what is obviously the wrong side of the road, they eat snails and frogs (they really do), they speak an opaquely impenetrable language, their radio and tv are wondrously awful, their plugs only have two pins, there’s no Waitrose or Morrison’s and it gets very hot.
Over the next few weeks I hope to be able to tell you how well I am coping - or not coping - with my occasional Life in France....
....will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 7 July at the Yellow Coffee Van, near the Swirle on Newcastle’s Quayside. Mike and Pauline (who own and run the Coffee Van) are looking forward to greeting us (for some reason). Please make a good summertime effort to be there or I’ll be terribly humiliated. And we don’t want that.
And anyway, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.