Watch out for the British cowboys – Maybe it’s time we expats started trusting the locals more.
When the technician showed up this week to fix my television and install the satellite dish for my broadband internet, I was relieved for two reasons. First, I don’t want ever again to go through the trauma of my husband missing England v France in the Six Nations, as well as a Chelsea cup game on the same day. I think I aged about five years as a result — and I wasn’t even here, I was in America.
Second, the technician was English. Part of the relief at this was that, after two weeks in America, I can no longer speak French. More important, though, an unconscious equation went through my head as soon as he said hello in a Leeds accent: he is English, therefore I can trust him.
The television was no problem — a mouse (probably a French one) had chewed through a cable. The satellite broadband, however, was more complicated. We just couldn’t work out exactly where the damn satellite dish should point and, inexplicably, the technical support desk doesn’t open until 2pm. At 12 o’clock, after three cups of coffee and numerous trips up to the roof, my charming technician finally conceded defeat.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ve got another job not far from here. I’ll pop back later.”
If you live in France, you immediately trust other English people. You assume that because you have a shared culture, they will understand you, be nice to you and not let you down. This is, in part, the result of a deep-rooted mistrust of foreigners (totally natural for an island race), although we do trust the French more than we do others. As Nancy Mitford said: “Frogs are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.” In today’s politically correct times, that sort of statement is not allowed, but the fact remains: we trust our own above all others. Are we right to do so?
Not at all, according to an English friend of mine who lives in Provence with his American wife. After five years here, he is about to sell up and relocate to California. The reason? “I’ve had enough of Brits ripping me off,” he says.
The rip-off began with his solar heating system. Instead of getting a local company to install it, he went for one based in northern England. “In retrospect, this was a bad decision,” he says. “But we had just moved over and spoke little French. I felt more comfortable dealing with English contractors; I just didn’t think I could cope with all the technical stuff in a foreign language.”
The system, which cost him more than £8,000, has never worked, and the company is now insisting it has gone bust and is refusing to answer any of his calls, letters or e-mails.
My friend also decided to put in a swimming pool. Again, he felt more secure using a local English contractor than a French one. The pool was built and all seemed to be going swimmingly — if you’ll pardon the pun — until a leak was discovered. Water started to seep out into his neighbour’s garden, creating a swamp where the lawn used to be.
My friend called the contractor. All he ever got was the answer machine.
“The man seems to have gone to ground,” says my friend. “Now we have found that not only is the pool a disaster, all the grouting around the tiles that line the pool and the pool area has dried and cracked. The whole place looks like a building site again.”
A couple I know who bought a house in the Midi-Pyrénées made the mistake of thinking that just because the sellers were English, they were trustworthy. When they went to visit the property, all they could hear was barking from the dog next door. They asked what was going on. “ ‘Wasn’t it just typical that it should happen the day we were looking around’, was their response,” says Sandra, one half of the couple. “We all had a good joke about it, and the next time we went to look, it had stopped, so we thought no more of it.”
My friends hadn’t realised that one of the reasons the house was up for sale was that its owners could not stand any more of the dog the neighbours kept in the cellar for 23 hours a day — not surprisingly, he barks for most of that time. Their second viewing must have coincided with the one hour when he was let out.
“I remembered afterwards that they were not keen to let us come at certain times, but of course suspected nothing,” Sandra says. “You just don’t believe your own kind could do that sort of thing to you. Maybe we were naive, but we totally trusted them, mainly because they were English. It didn’t occur to us that they would have the nerve to lie to us.”
Of course, we don’t automatically trust other English people if we live in London, so what changes when we move abroad? It is more than the fact that they speak English. It is an affinity thing. We are a minority here, so we automatically think we will stick together. And there is the relief of dealing with one’s own kind, of understanding more about them in five minutes than we will in five years when it comes to a Frenchman.
So, what about my charming English technician? Yes, you’ve guessed it. Four days after his first visit, I am still waiting for him to call or show up again. By the time he makes it back, the French mouse will probably have chewed through another cable. Or maybe I’ll just call a French technician. At least he’ll be able to talk to the mouse.
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