Clinging on to Blighty
They have realised their dream of living in France. But many UK expats are determined to create a little Britain once theyre there
As thousands of people flock to London’s Olympia at the end of this week for the annual Vive La France exhibition, many expatriates living in France are doing their best to keep things resolutely English.
If you drive towards the Mediterranean coast from my house on a Tuesday evening, you will see a curious sight among the vineyards: people dressed in whites, playing cricket. The players are mainly English, but there are some locals, notably the owner of the village newsagency. “I have no idea what’s going on,” he says. “But it’s more fun than boules.”
During the past few months I have been invited to a curry lunch (tempting — I do miss chicken tikka masala), to a Christmas carol service, to join an English cinema club and to bonfire night. I was even asked to join a new branch of the Women’s Institute, which hopes to cater for British women around the Med. I told them I would only join if I could pose naked in their calendar. To date, they have failed to respond to my generous offer.
Just before Christmas, an English deli (a contradiction in terms some might say) opened in our local town. The biggest outcry came from the English community. “What are they thinking of?” asked one incensed lady. “I think it’s outrageous. I didn’t move to France to eat baked beans.”
Colette, a French friend, is more sanguine. “I think it is good news. I put Worcestershire sauce on everything and love custard powder. I wonder if they have that funny mustard you English eat?” In Montpellier, the hippest place to eat is an English restaurant called Auntie Lou’s. There you can enjoy favourites such as Thai curry and fish and chips. For some reason these are never on the menu at your local French bistro.
“I find it all very depressing,” says Charles, a neighbour of mine with a holiday home here. “I didn’t come to France to do all sorts of English things. I came here to live like the French.”
Another expat friend is even more vocal. “I find it offensive that Brits are moving here just to get cheaper housing, and then carry on living as if they hadn’t left Tunbridge Wells. What’s the bloody point?” When we first moved here, I was eager to live the French adventure. I shunned my River Café cookbooks in favour of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. I manicured my nails, wore matching underwear and vowed to mix only with French people. I then decided to talk to the English as well, partly because they seemed to understand what I said. Now I have decided to talk to anybody, as long as they’re interesting.
I don’t see why one should immediately shun all that is English just because one is in France. Why would you suddenly give up Jamaica ginger cake? Now the supermarket stocks it in its recently revamped English section, there’s no need to. Would you rather watch George Clooney in English, or talking out of synch in French? The French have actually taken this invasion of Brits and their traditions better than some of the expats. At a screening last week by the film club, I spotted my daughter’s teacher. I asked her what made her come along to a film in English.
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“I like to see a film in the language it was made in,” she said. “I can’t bear all that dubbing.” An English bookshop recently opened in Béziers. The owner tells me half her clients are French. They especially like the chick-lit genre. Apparently there is no such thing in France. No wonder French women are forced to create other diversions, such as sleeping with their best friend’s boyfriends, to amuse themselves.
Meanwhile over the Channel, Christine Loÿs-Declere has launched a counter offensive, with a guide called French Touch in London. “It will cover French shopping and culture,” she says. “One of the aims is to prove that this love-hate relationship really doesn’t exist. The fact that there is so much that is French in London proves you must love us really.”
That’s all very well in London, where we can enjoy all things French in English. Maybe the mania for bringing British traditions to France is all part of an effort to uphold yet another great British tradition: a reluctance to speak French. As PG Wodehouse says in The Luck of the Bodkins: “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”
A friend who recently moved from London to France saved himself more than £1,000 by using a removal broker. These people take all the details of your move and then find the best quote. ET Brokers, the firm my friend used, charged a £35.25 fee (0870 800 3880, www.etbrokers-removals.com).
On the move
There is a survey being carried out by Bordeaux University as to why Brits move to France. Anybody who is planning to move to France within the next three years and would like to take part, please go to www.ifrede.org/britsurvey. The results will be published at the end of 2006.
It is being run by Dr Marie-Martine Gervais-Aguer from University Montesquieu — Bordeaux IV. “The aim of my research is to understand why British people settle in France,” Dr Gervais-Aguer says. “We shall try to discover and identify what the needs of these people are, and possibly the distortions between dreams and French reality. From this data, public organisations, local governments and the private sector will be able to adapt their policies to improve information about France, the integration of newcomers, and so on.”
Pool security barriers
One of the first columns I wrote two years ago was about the impending law on barriers around pools. This came into force on January 1, and now you must have one of four approved methods in place: barriers, alarms, security covers, or a greenhouse-like cover known as an abri. The fine for not installing one of these is €45,000 (£30,000). The standards have been set by Afnor, which is responsible for French safety standards. For more information, visit www.equipement.gouv.fr, www.afnor.fr or www.saferpools.co.uk.
More France Please, We’re British by Helena Frith Powell is available at The Sunday Times Books First price of £9.49, with free UK p&p, on 0870 165 8585 or www.timesonline.co.uk
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