A real change of pace
I’ve never had it so good
In my column last month, I argued that the only way to save France was to put some Brits in charge. This produced an extraordinarily large and rather critical mailbag. “Why don’t you go home to that wonderful utopia called England and leave the French to organise things their way?” asks Graham Harris, who lives in Switzerland.
Jean, a Frenchman who has lived in London for more than 20 years, was equally scathing. “You’re not in India in the old days any more,” he wrote. “Why don’t you just come back to the sunny, prosperous and friendly UK?” (Not that it can be so bad in Britain if he has lived there all that time.)
I admit that it was never my idea to come to France. It was my husband’s. He came home one day and said: “Let’s move to the Languedoc.” I ignored him at first, but now, seven years after making the move, I am still here, struggling on. You have no idea of the trials and tribulations I’ve had to suffer.
My days are tough. They begin early, as I am woken by the sound of the swallows that have built a nest in our house. I drag myself from my bed into the garden for a quick swim in the pool, then to the nearest fig tree to pick my breakfast. I don’t always have figs; sometimes I have peaches or apricots, or a mixture of all three. The stress of deciding which tree to go for first is excruciating.
After breakfast, there is the school run. Oh, how I miss dodging all those 4WDs driven by blonde women wearing designer jeans. As I freewheel down the hill on my bicycle, with my son on the back and my daughters pedalling away in front, I think fondly of the double parking, the road rage, parking tickets and the traffic jams going on without me.
The school here is fine, and the children seem happy, but what I find I am missing is that letter at the beginning of term demanding £4,000 in fees per child. Most odd that we’ve never had one. Perhaps foreigners are exempt?
No longer am I allowed to have a cheese and pickle sandwich at my desk for lunch. Now I have to stop whatever I’m doing at midday and sit down to a proper meal. Regulations state that it must be three courses, although sometimes I get away with two. Of course, all this eating begins with shopping, so at least three times a week, I haul myself into the local medieval town and trawl around the shops.
First up is the deli, the Crémerie Clerc. There I am forced to choose between any number of varieties of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as at least 40 cheeses, hams and pâtés. Sometimes I get so confused, I just have to stand and eat some juicy green olives from M Clerc’s olive jar while I steady my nerves.
After Clerc’s, I go to the bakery to pick up some warm bread, possibly two or three loaves, maybe one with figs, nuts or raisins. Then I move on to the fishmonger, who on Fridays often has turbot caught that morning in the sea, half an hour away. If we’re eating meat, I go to the butcher, who makes hamburgers from prime beef for the children. But how I miss the convenience of a Tesco superstore, with its vast car park, well-dressed staff and trolleys with their own sense of direction.
After all that shopping and lunch, I am forced to have a siesta. Thankfully, this is obligatory only in the summer months, when the heat makes work almost impossible. So I lie there fuming, imagining what fun it must be to be in a London office instead of relaxing on my bed with the fan on above me and the cicadas chirping away outside.
Of course, I dread getting ill in France. I have had two babies here, and each time I was put in solitary confinement, with attentive, cheerful staff popping in every few hours. There was even a woman who came by every morning to take my food order. Would I prefer the fish or the chicken for lunch? And what about pudding? How irritating can you get? Surely it’s perfectly obvious I never eat pudding.
The other annoying thing here is the public transport system. Where’s the fun in a train being on time and going where it says it is going to go? In Britain, when you get on a train, there’s at least a bit of suspense. And as for that old “Sorry I’m late, darling, I got stuck in traffic” excuse, there’s no chance of using that one here. I must have been to the airport 150 times, and each time it has taken me pretty much exactly 60 minutes.
Let’s not even mention the weather; it’s so bloody good, there’s nothing to talk or write about. Why can’t we have floods, so I can appear on television in a canoe looking heroic and slightly dishevelled?
But enough of my whingeing and back to the mailbag. At least one reader appears to be paying attention. Since my column appeared, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has begun waging war on the 35-hour week. He has also said that he wants to abolish inheritance tax and cap income tax. My programme is well on the way to being adopted. With my influence at an all-time high, I can see no reason to leave.
WANT TO RELEASE some equity from your property? A quick call to your bank or building society should be enough, shouldn’t it? Not in France. Our bank, Crédit Agricole du Midi, may have renamed itself Crédit Agricole du Languedoc and hired several English-speaking staff, but that doesn’t make it any easier to raise more money.
Our cause is an admirable one: building a tennis court to make a Wimbledon champion out of one of our three children. “Fat chance,” or words to that effect, says one of the bank’s staff, when we call to inquire. “There is no difference in what the bank requires, even if we speak in English,” she tells me. “You will need to fill out lots of forms and send us masses of documents. And you can’t borrow more than 35% of your monthly earnings. So, do you want to go ahead or not? We would have to do it today, because I am going on holiday for three weeks.”
More France Please, We’re British by Helena Frith Powell (Gibson Square Books £9.99) is available at the Sunday Times BooksFirst price of £9.49, with free delivery in the UK. Call 0870 165 8585 or visittimesonline.co.uk/booksfirst
LA VIE EN ROSE
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Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019