If you’re thinking of buying a property in France you’re probably worrying about how to deal with the French bureaucracy, the language and even the French themselves. But all these pale in comparison when treading the dangerous path of dealing with the Brits already installed here.
An English friend of mine owns a village house not far from here. She told me that another Brit had recently moved next door and came round to introduce herself. “Of course I immediately loathed her,” was my friend’s reaction. You see what I mean?
But never fear; you won’t be ostracised by everyone. There is at least one group of Brits living in France who will welcome you with open arms. This is the group that has moved here purely to take advantage of the weather, the cheap wine and the house prices. They speak no French, seeing no need to. “I find jumping up and down and pointing works a treat,” a member of this group told me at a Brit barbecue I had the misfortune of attending recently.
The Best of British group as I call them live in British ghettos, surrounded by British mates, playing golf, bridge and discussing where you can buy the cheapest marmite. Their idea of a national crisis is not being able to get hold of the English newspaper. I actually know one man who spent a whole day careering around the countryside trying to find a copy of the Daily Telegraph. Get it online, was my advice. But of course he doesn’t speak enough French to get his computer connected.
These are the kinds of people who remind me of a woman I once overheard chatting to an acquaintance at the airport in Malta. They were about to board the plane and he was asking her what she had thought of the island. “It was all right,” she said. “But a bit foreign.” That’s rather like complaining Shakespeare’s Hamlet is too full of quotes.
The second group of Brits already installed here may be less welcoming, but it will depend on how entertaining you are. They are the ones who have tried to integrate into the French way of life. They speak French, their children are at school here and they probably take two hours out for lunch. They are jolly pleased with themselves and convinced they have the balance just right. I call this group the Smug Expats.
This is the group that has the ‘I didn’t come to France to hang out with other Brits’ attitude. They may say this, but 90% of their friends will be from the Home Counties and they will be able to count their French friends on one hand. Funnily enough though they will have adopted annoying French habits like kissing everyone they meet (even perfect strangers) at least three times. It’s my husband’s pet hate. “I just don’t want to get that close to middle-aged women,” he says. “And apart from anything else, it all takes too long.” He should look on the bright side, if he were French he would have to kiss the men as well.
The Smug Expats will also refuse to call the bakery anything other than the boulangerie and sign off their emails with little French-isms like ? bientôt. Totally maddening. Why do we suddenly have to start writing emails in French to other English people? Did we do this while living in Blighty? I don’t think so.
This group will also see you as a bit of an arriviste (yes, I know that’s a French word, just thought I’d show you how annoying it is), demanding how long you’ve lived here and if you’re going to here full-time. If you are not going to live here all year round you will be viewed as way down in the pecking order than them, rather like a flea on the back of a water-buffalo. In fact if you don’t live here full time then you don’t really count. “There are two types of people in France,” one Smug Expat told me recently. “Those who live here all year round and those who don’t.”
The group that will really hate you, and cross the street to avoid you, is the third category. This is the group I call the Gone Totally Native. They have probably been here for more than twenty years and are more French than the French. They are of course fluent in French, probably speaking it with the local dialect. They can now hardly bear to speak English, let alone mix with other Englishmen. They don’t mind barking dogs (in fact they probably own a few), they smoke roll-ups, they drink pastis and they wear their slippers to the bar. By now they’re pretty good at boules too. Some of them have probably even run for mayor of their local town. They would love to wear a beret but are scared of being laughed at should anyone discover they actually weren’t born in a local field.
These people are so far removed from Britain they probably think Margaret Thatcher is still Prime Minister. In fact they most of them probably left Blighty to escape Margaret Thatcher. They are socialist down to their un-washed toe-nails and hate the idea of France moving anywhere near a more free-market model. They are hugely up on all things political, although of course they hate anyone that isn’t to the left of Karl Marx. They may sound unappealing (and indeed they are) but as it is election year here in 2007 you should try to befriend them. That way you will know what’s going on during the campaign and you’ll be able to impress all your new friends from category one and two by telling them all about it.
Of course there are lots of Brits living here that don’t fall into any of the above categories, like moi. The kind of expat you become will depend mainly on the company you chose to keep. I have one simple rule for life here. Talk to anyone that’s interesting but don’t become friends with anyone you wouldn’t have been friends with back home.
Just as there is no reason to avoid someone simply because they are English, there is also no reason to speak to them because you happen to be born on the same island.
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. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
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