It is in the nature of neighbours to squabble, and notwithstanding the official cordiality of the past 100 years, Anglo-French relations have been known to suffer sporadic minor ruptures. These are rather stimulating occasions, traditionally marked by name-calling and foot-stamping on both sides of the channel.
Either Albion has been more than usually perfide, or those damned Frogs have been feathering their nest again. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that we take it in turns to irritate our friends across the water. And yet, inevitably, we kiss and make up. After all, we have so many things in common.
One of them is the terminology we use when insulting one another. Cold, self-serving, arrogant and bloody-minded – is that a Frenchman talking about the English, or an Englishman talking about the French? I have heard these same words applied to both nationalities, and they have become so well established that when we come across a humble Frenchman, or a warm-blooded Englishman, we are taken aback. It is not at all what we have been led to expect.
The fact is, quite a few of the nationalistic clichés are accurate. Naturally, I can’t speak for the French, but I certainly feel qualified to speak about them, having spent several years observing them on a daily basis and at close quarters. Like many people of my age and background, I had a bundle of preconceived notions about the French and their way of life.
When I came to live in France, one of my early discoveries was that so many of these turned out to be true, from the trivial (they really do say “Oh la la,” as anyone who listens to French rugby commentaries will know) to the more important matters which follow.
Let’s start with a fundamental part of the French character that infuriates the English even as it provokes sneaking feelings of admiration. I refer, of course, to the French superiority complex. They consider their language to be the most elegant, their culture to be the most refined, their diplomacy to be the most diplomatic, their wines to be the most aristocratic, and their gastronomy to be the most subtle and interesting.
Then there are the physical glories of France – the mountains, the beaches, the forests, the châteaux of the Loire, the City of Light, Catherine Deneuve. Most of the French people I’ve met have a deep regard for their country – although never, ever for the way it’s run – and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that God lives in France. I suppose all this can create the impression that the French look down their noses at the rest of the world, which I don’t think they do.
They simply appreciate what they have.
Nowhere is this more enthusiastically celebrated than at the table. The desire not merely to eat, but to eat well, is as much a part of the French character as the national reluctance to wait in a queue. And it’s contagious. I have become just as bad as any Frenchman – impatient for the first asparagus of spring, the first melon of summer or the first truffle of winter.
I am no longer surprised, when eating with French friends, that a great part of the conversation around the table is not about politics, sport or sex, but about food. They are amused and somewhat mystified by the North American fascination with the French Paradox, which to them is no paradox at all; simply a matter of civilised eating habits.
I was recently shown, by a Frenchman who was shaking his head in disbelief, a learned paper prepared by a panel of American university professors. Its subject was obesity, now so prevalent over there that I believe it is classified as a disease, and the paper – several closely spaced pages ending with an impressive list of references – discussed at great length the French and their paradox. You will doubtless be stunned, as I was, by the perceptive nature of the professors’ conclusion. The reason for the relatively low incidence of obesity in France is this: the French eat less.
Is it true, as all we Anglo-Saxons like to believe, that France is the world capital of bureaucracy? I’m afraid it probably is. Consider this classic example taken from Stendhal’s Life of Napoleon. In 1811, a small rural community wished, for the sum of 60 francs, to use some substandard paving stones which had been rejected by the engineer in charge of laying the main road. This required 14 decisions by the prefect, the subprefect, the engineer and the minister. After incredible difficulties and extensive activity, the required authorisation finally arrived, 11 months after the request had been made, at which point it transpired that the defective paving stones had already been used by the road-workers to fill up a hole in the road.
An extreme case, perhaps. Or perhaps not. I remember the 13 months that I spent trying to obtain my first carte de séjour, and the difficulty of establishing my identity with only my passport as proof when, as I now know, nobody takes you seriously in France unless you can produce an electricity bill. I remember the paperwork, the subsequent official inspection and the meticulous, vine-by-vine count when I replaced some elderly vines with younger versions of the same variety. And I remember the look of alarm on the face of the maçon when I asked him to enlarge a small window at the back of the house without the appropriate written permission from some distant central authority.
Despite, or maybe partly because of, these national idiosyncrasies, I find France a wonderful place to live, and I would never willingly live anywhere else. For me, the most pleasant surprise of all has been the people, and here I find that the clichés aren’t true. It is often said that the French are aloof, suspicious of strangers and not very fond of foreigners, criticisms that I’m sure reflect many visitors’ first social contact on French soil.
This is likely to be with that daunting figure, the Parisian waiter. He is bored, he can’t understand what you say, and his feet hurt. Consequently, he treats you with a mixture of disdain and barely suppressed irritation, and you might very easily feel that he represents the attitude of all his fellow Frenchmen. He doesn’t. In fact, he is just as grumpy with his compatriots, and probably with his wife as well.
Outside Paris, the English are usually treated with courtesy. Their halting French is listened to with patience, their curious habits (milk in the tea, warm beer) accommodated. An Englishman may never be truly one of the French family, but unless he’s very unlucky, he will eventually find himself accepted. I used to be somewhat sensitive about my nationality, and I could never quite escape the feeling that I was no more than a permanent and possibly unwelcome tourist. Then one day, a neighbour with whom I was having a drink put my mind at rest. “You are English,” he said, “which is of course unfortunate. But you should know that most of us down here prefer the English to the Parisians.”
After that, I felt much better.
+ + +
Note from the Editor: This article ‘They Really Do Say ‘Oh la la’ was first published in The Guardian on April 5th, 2004 and it is with great thanks to Peter Mayle that we reprint it with his kind permission.