My husband has a foolproof method for ascertaining just how French our children are becoming. Every Sunday morning as we tuck into our boiled eggs he asks them two questions:
What is the best football team in the world and was Napoleon a good bloke? The children dutifully reply “Chelsea” and “no”. But I wonder if one day my husband will find himself choking on his soldiers as they nominate Marseille and start reeling off Napoleonic victories.
“Aren’t you worried your children will grow up French?” I am often asked. Worried? Yes. About almost everything there is to worry about and plenty more. About them growing up French? No. It seems to me a pretty nice thing to grow up. And when they’re ready for their first job, they can go on the French version of The Apprentice. Instead of being told “you’re fired”, you’re told “you’re completely useless so you’ve got a job for life.”
The question of national identity is one that every parent should think about when they uproot their children and take them to a foreign country. Strangely enough the children feel it strongly as well. Olivia was only one when we moved to France but she maintains she wants to live in London and has a strong preference for all things English. This includes her choice of friends at school. Although they’re only six, four of them hang out in an English clique. I can’t decide whether I’m appalled by this or secretly quite pleased she is exposed to some English culture outside the home. At least they can discuss Peter Rabbit and Winnie-the-Poo without having to explain who they are.
But how much of a difference does living in another country make to their character? Does it mean they become less English? Will they feel more French when they’re 18 and renounce their British passport in favour of a French one? Will they refuse to eat Marmite? Will they suddenly start demanding snails for lunch? Who will they support in the World Cup?
“England when I’m in France and France when I’m in England,” says 17-year-old Miranda who has English parents but has lived in France for 15 years.
I am always amazed by how English her accent is. You’d think she’d been brought up in Surrey.
“But I am English,” she says when I tell her this. Although she admits that when she travels back to visit her cousins in England she is appalled by several things. “They all drink, smoke and have sex, all the time. If a girl behaved like that over here, she’d be known as a slut,” she says, before adding in an even more horrified tone. “And they never eat bread with their meals.”
I have noticed my children becoming French in some ways. I took Olivia to a museum a few days ago. There was a part of the room that was cordoned off. “We don’t have the right to go there,” she told me very seriously. “We can go here and there,” she said pointing to the non-cordoned parts of the room. “But not there.”
Although part of me wanted to skip over the cordon singing God Save the Queen, I actually quite like the French sense of what is right and what is wrong. One of the worst things that you can say to someone here is “Ce n’est pas normal.” This basically means it’s not right and can be used to describe anything from genocide to a badly cooked piece of duck.
Of course we will never be French. Even if we live here for the next 50 years we’ll always be known as the English on the hill. I don’t even think our children will ever be seen as French, even though Bea speaks English with a French accent, and French with a Midi accent. Integration is tough. A reader who lives in south-west France wrote to me complaining that despite the fact that his 11-year-old daughter has been in the same village in France for her entire school life (including nursery school) she is still listed as a “foreigner” in school documents.
But I didn’t move to France to become French. I moved to France for a better life. Although I have noticed a growing obsession I have with introducing the children to Beatrix Potter, Mary Poppins and Orlando the Marmalade Cat, among other thoroughly British institutions. If they choose to ignore them and opt for The Little Prince instead, that’s up to them. Funnily enough I suspect the English culture I am so keen to expose them to comes from an England that no longer exists. Which is another reason we moved.
If you call SNCF and ask to change or refund a train ticket they will tell you that there is no other option but to go to a station in person and do it before the train you were booked on is due to leave. This is not so. In some cases you can change it online and if you can’t do that call the normal SNCF number (3635) and tap # 33 as soon as the menu begins. You will need your ticket with you to key in all sorts of codes from it but you can cancel the reservation via an automated service. If you do cancel a reservation on the internet or the phone you need to take the ticket to any station within three months to secure the refund. But at least the pressure is off to appear in person before the ticket is rendered invalid.
Norrie Hearn, a reader living in the Savoie, tells me about a company which allows you to call abroad for local rates. All you need to do is to dial an access number before the number you want and you can talk to anywhere from Manchester to Mumbai for a few centimes a minute. For more details go to www.telerabais.fr
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. She writes a beauty blog www.beautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as contributing regularly for newspapers and magazines, writing short stories and studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Smullö that will be published in spring 2020.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and came out in paperback in April 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives between there and London 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