Sweet joy of stifling Gallic gloats
Helena Frith Powell
“I DON’T want anyone yelling ‘come on’,” says Arnaud, the owner of the bar La Maro 20 in Pezenas, a Renaissance town in the heart of rugby-playing France, when I walk in wearing my England rugby shirt. On the large screen they are showing the South Africa v England group match. “Great game,” shouts the only Frenchman yet to be seated. The rest are outside smoking.
As kick-off approaches the bar fills up. There is an interview with Jonny Wilkinson. The assembled crowd growls. “He won’t make it through the first half,” says Olivier, who, despite being the father of my children’s best friends declared a few days earlier that I was “dead”.
Integration can only go so far. In the seven years that we have lived in the south of France, I have tried as far as possible to mix with the locals. Our children go to the village school. I shop in the markets. I even supported France in the football World Cup last year. But here, tonight, in a bar surrounded by French men in blue rugby shirts humming the Marseillaise, I have decided it’s time to show my true colours.
“Come on England,” I yell as the whistle goes. “Come on Jonny! We love you!”
A few of the locals look surprised even shocked. I have always played down my English roots. But this rugby World Cup has brought out a jingoism I never thought I had.
It is no surprise to me that the emblem of the French rugby team is a coq. This past week seems to have brought out the rooster in every French man I meet. “France has never lost a tournament it has hosted,” gloats a local wine maker. “Anyway, we’ve beaten the masters, you lot are chicken-feed.”
As a resident I have the right to switch allegiance. Some have told me I should be supporting France because the players are more attractive. My French girlfriends are getting very excited about Sébastian Chabal. He’s the animal-human hybrid whose last bath was probably during the last World Cup. Even the so-called pretty boy of French rugby, Frédéric Michalak, has had his head shaved so he looks like a rugby ball.
None of these characters compares to our Jonny Wilkinson. He is prettier than the French 15 put together. He looks pretty nervous too, but that is probably because he is worried that if he gets caught in a ruck he is more likely to be snogged than shoeed.
“I’ve seen enough,” declares my husband after the first England try. The French have gone very quiet. A rare and satisfying sound.
Then it goes horribly wrong. A penalty and the mood turns. The French crowd looks to see the reaction of the English supporters. The upper lips remain stiff.
Another penalty and they’re ahead. How best to show our support for our boys? Any attempt to sing Swing Low is quickly stifled by the Marseillaise. We are slightly outnumbered. I’m with my husband, my friend Mary, her sister and one Irishman. But he’s supporting the French. Jonny misses a penalty.
“How about streaking through the bar?” I suggest to Mary. “You look more like Erica Roe than me. We need to create a diversion, break their concentration.” I am a firm believer in the crowd willing the team on. This is what I did at the quarter-final and it seemed to work.
Then suddenly the battle turns our way and most of the French go outside for a cigarette or seven. “Without Jonny you have no team,” grumbles one as defeat looms. “We should have cut him in two and now it’s too late.”
The French are no longer interested in rugby, they’ve gone home back to their cheese. The bar’s owner Arnaud Maro Laget, who plays No 8 in his rugby team, is gracious in defeat, saying well played and how we deserved it. He doesn’t mean it, obviously. “Now you need to win,” he says. “We want the cup to stay in Europe. Good luck. And, by the way, we’re not open next weekend.”
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