Good Things

I wish I didn’t but I do. I find Britain hard work these days.

I went to London last week to promote the release of my book in paperback. Here is a small vignette from my journey:

Nimes airport. A car park within sight of the departures hall. A walkway lined with lavender. The hiss off sliding doors. A cool, spacious interior. No shops. One or two adverts, pleasing to the eye. Nothing to buy. Only a little cafe, selling good coffee, croissants, pains au chocolat and simple, honest sandwiches.

I amble through customs. My hand luggage raises some suspicion and must be opened. A woman in uniform, polite and efficient asks me if I mind. Inside she finds a jar of local honey, some fig jam, some green olive tapenade and some goat’s cheese. All presents for my hosts in London. She gives me a rueful look.

“You’re not really allowed these.”

I sort of know this and feel a bit guilty and I make a face which says as much.

She packs up my things and says,

“Try to remember next time.” Then she adds, “If you grill that goat’s cheese with some of that chestnut honey and some walnuts…” She kisses her fingertips.

I smile at her.

“I know. I live in the Cevennes.”

She swipes her hand at me.

“Well then you know all about good things (les bonnes choses).”

And she zips up my suitcase.

I probably don’t need to recount the return journey from Luton. I’m sure you can imagine it:

Shops…Hundreds and hundreds of them. Clamouring at you. All of them part of the chains that wrap themselves round and round the British Isles and make every town and every airport look the same.

Then the long long snake through security. The detached, officious intransigence of the airport staff. We’re cattle and they’re rangers. Only I suspect rangers have more feeling for their charges.

A growth industry is here. Tiny ziplock bags to ward off our attackers. Cases gutted. People in various stages of undress; shoeless, beltless, humbled…

I reach the gate after a fifteen minute walk involving many stairs. The plane is due to leave in a further 15 minutes. It sits with its doors open on the tarmac in front of us. “I’m sorry madame… (No one has ever been less sorry) Gate’s closed.”

One of my fellow passengers is a Frenchwoman. She throws out an arm:

“But the plane is there! And we have another 15 minutes!”

“I’m sorry madam.”

I lead the woman away, telling her how pointless it is to protest.

We sit together on the bus to Stansted where the same labyrinth awaits us and she tells me all the things that she loves about living in Britain, which fills me with an unfathomable sense of pride.


22 thoughts on “Good Things

  1. I think I have to agree in general. Not that I have those experiences of France, I am sure France has its faults as well as its gentilesse. But your experience of arriving back in the UK is my experience every time I leave here – whether for a short holiday or to live in another country for a time. Away, one finds civility, politeness, not always helpfulness but at least a sense of what is worthwhile in life and shared humanity. As soon as one arrives in Britain, whether rail station or airport, it is officiousness and rudeness, jobsworths determined to exert their petty powers, the cattlepen treatment, and dour and humiliated people seething beneath their skin with hurt pride and bruised sensibilities, and I am immediately stressed, upset and angered.

    Someone should mention to the tourist authorities that this is NOT a good way to begin your experience of Britain. The same is true of immigration systems as of customs systems. The whole set up seems to be designed to hate, confuse and confound incomers and mentally and emotionally batter them half to death, and then treat them with the contempt that suggests they should be grateful to be here at all. Why do we British act like this? Why have we no common human civility? It grieves me greatly.

  2. Lucy

    I have just read your book, I myself live in Paris and have done for 12 years, I found most things true, it was a good read, but…now I come to your blog and all you do is bash England constantly!! I can’t believe how virulent you are against good old Blighty, yes I live in Paris, yes I like France, but I still love going home…you seem to think that everything in the UK is backward and bad!!! For example you talk about someone in a French, small airport letting you off for the cheese etc and then getting to England and been inundated with shops and images of people being searched etc…erm the same thing happens here! You also find nice people to let you off in England! Why have a go at pools in Britain, you don’t think there are also constraints here too?? I just don’t get it..loved the book but now feel you’re not at all the person I thought you were.


  3. Just returned from a weekend in France and was struck by the fact that French men still look at me! (I’m 46) I can’t help it… I sort of liked it. 😉

  4. Hi Lucy,

    I’ve been here 18 years now, I live in Languedoc Roussillon, am just divorcing my French husband, a liberating process which has made me realise how much Englishness I have been suppressing just to be able to live with him. I wonder if I could ever go out with a French man again. They are a strange species…

    Anyway, I feel completely the opposite way on leaving Carcassone and arriving in Liverpool. In Carcassonne I’m always struck by the very bored-looking employees “putting up” with all these English people traipsing in and out of their terminal, joking amongst themselves to pass the time and trying their best to ignore us all.

    I feel a rush of joy upon arriving in England. The passport controller saying, “Alright love?”, the smiles and friendliness of the scouse bus driver taking us into the town centre. I breathe a huge sigh of relief. I feel that here I am amongst my own. I can let my guard down, and I can RELAX and LAUGH.

    I LOVE all the shops in Liverpool airport, all those cafĂ©s that sell Italian coffee, the funny books and magazines you can buy. I recently went to Kent and spent a couple of days with a friend who lives there. We had a wild time in Primark, the Ann Summers shop, the Body Shop. The lady in the Body Shop chatted to us as if she’d known us all our lives, and convinced us that we wanted to buy some banana hair conditioner!! We went and got our eyebrows threaded in Superdrug by an Indian lady who had a little stand in the corner of the shop. My stay continued by a night out in a pub where we drank a pint of guinness and blackcurrant and had a game of pool, and no one looked at us in suspicion because we weren’t accompanied by a couple of blokes…

    It always strikes me, that I spend the whole time just laughing and acting daft, when I come over to England these days. Then I get back, and there’s the custom’s official comparing you to your passport photo suspiciously, no one smiles and says hello, here we go back to the land of frosty politeness, and I wonder why I put myself through all of this?!!!

    And then again, here I am, in the heat of Summer, basking in the sunshine. And I do love the way the French blokes manage to make you feel desirable, just by smiling and saying hello as you walk past.

    Thanks, Lucy, for your book. It’s made me realise that I’m not going mad. There truly are so many cultural differences between the 2 countries, and it’s just up to me to decide my own reactions to these differences. I can always keep my sanity by nipping over to England for a few days. Chips and curry sauce and a pint of guinness, and Bob’s your uncle!!

  5. I’ve just finished your book. Loved it. So much so that I’m going back to the beginning to read it all again. I’m an Englishwoman who has never visited France, but your astute analysis and insight is fascinating. And I’m thrilled to see you have a blog!

  6. Hi Lucy,

    Read your book whilst holidaying on the Western coast of Scotland. Loved it and couldn’t put it down. I’m the same generation as you and did the opposite ie married an Englishman and left France to live in the UK forever. Your book had it all: all that I loathe and all that I dearly love about both countries, all the reasons why I didn’t want my daughter to be educated in France and why I wish she wasn’t so restricted by the British system. And all the reasons why I pine for my native Provence but can never bring myself to move my freelance business to France. I too got divorced and chose not to go back “home” because the other country had become home in every way, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health… I think the French woman in me is now my secret garden in my very British life. Thanks for putting it all in a book so eloquently and knowledgeably!


  7. I’m late to this party, but I would like to suggest the antidote to your experience.

    Try traveling from Boston’s Logan Airport to Heathrow. For me, married to a Brit but never having resided in Britain long enough for the mystique to fade, it was like going from trailer trash to royalty.

    After having been grumbled at, ignored and glared at, for having the audacity to travel with small children, on the Boston side, I found velvet ropes dropping and doors opening and hands waving me, the wilted lady with the melting children, to the front of every line. How sensible, how civilized, this seemed, to expedite the undesirables passage through customs so the rest don’t have to be subject to the slow- but -sure train wreck.

    And then as I sat next to a woman in a colorful sari, as we both nursed our babies in clean comfortable chairs in the family section of the ladies room, I thought, once again, how civilized.

    This was three years ago, maybe that family room hasn’t been cleaned since, but I will never forget how grateful I was to find it.

    P.S. I’m reading your book and enjoying it thoroughly. Being in France temporarily, but tempted by the prospect of staying here to raise my daughters, your book provides some much needed perspective. Thanks.

  8. Well, ok I get Ian’s point about “The Shop” But we don’t all live like that in England. I live in the UK, in the south east and in a beautiful place, by the sea, and also in the countryside. I have very little to do with the shop. It is cool here to ‘be a bohemian’ and to totally reject the shop. We are not all sheep bleeting in a herd towards the shop, and I for one am very friendly towards six year old kids who might amble up my lane for a glass of water and a chat.

  9. @Ian I am sure you know all too well what was going through the minds of the English couple. They didn’t want to be accused of being paedophiles/ child abusers. And fair enough, I suppose. Although it’s ridiculous that they feel they can’t invite in a young boy for a drink I completely understand where they are coming from. In the UK, inviting a child in may well be interpreted in that way – b/c of mass hysteria about this very subject in newspapers. I’m sure it’s not unique to the UK, either.

    Obv your son would not understand this, but I can’t believe you didn’t know what their reasoning was. I am sure you could have explained this to your son in a child-friendly way too, so that he didn’t think that all British people are rude/ unfriendly/ afraid of children.

    I thought your comment about life outside your cushioned bubble sounded a bit smug, by the way! Not everyone is able to escape “#The Shop”, as you put it, even if they would like too.

  10. Hi Lucy,

    I am so happy to have found this blog. I have just finished The Secret Life of France and ADORED it. So Much resonated with me. You and I were both born the same year, and so come from similar cultural ‘memories’ of growing up in England (I still live here, although after several years living abroad, France and USA, before my kids.) Your book has made sense of my multivalent attitude toward France and England and made me laugh out loud, lol, so many times.

    Thank you,

    Alice x

  11. Lucy,

    What a marvelous book. Like Hugh F-W am married, very happily to a French woman. Breton too (doubly complicated). Your description of applying for French citizenship reminds me of my struggle to get the correct paperwork for my marriage in Rennes. I laughed out loud at your encounter in the bookshop – much to the consternation of the other people in the hotel restaurant.

    I have but one simple question: When will your book be published in French so my wife can read it too? Her English is very good, but it would be so much better if she could read it in her native tongue.

    Perhaps it would lose too much in translation – or you may be shunned for ever by your neighbours. What a brave and inspiring book. Congratulations.

  12. I Just put down the book.
    I worked in commercial film in France from 1968 to 1990 – so how did we miss each other?
    I shall write at length later but you remind me of the attitude to language: We had a perfectly good film for Remington razors that was supposed to carry in Press and TV the very French Headline:
    “Ca Va!”
    All were refused because “Ca Va”, understood by every single French homme ou femme, didn’t have the necessary formal bits to make a formal French sentence.
    My children, raised and educated in France, eventually promoted themselves to good jobs and good lives in London (What that proves I just don’t know!)
    Again, Congratulations on the book – and I’m sure it will do well in the USA (Canada is another Anglais/Francais story)
    Jed Falby

  13. Ian Walthrew, your valley resounds with censoriousness. Are you sure the rest of the family hasn’t just escaped?

  14. Interesting to read your remarks about shops, and also to see a picture of where you live from one of your earlier posts.

    (You can see where I live in France on my website ).

    I sometimes Twitter @IanWalthew, and when I tweet about life here at home in France I start the tweet with #TheValley.

    Anything I tweet about concerning life outside #TheValley, (apart from various # for my own reference because I use Twitter as a kind of bookmarking system for my own use) I start with #TheShop

    Consumerism in the USA and Western Europe (including France) and most parts of the developed or developing world has simply run amok.

    England is particularly insufferable because it’s so small and crowded, and the sense of arriving in, and never leaving until you depart, one vast shop is so overwhelming to me that I really can’t support it to go.

    So this July I am putting the finishing touches to my next book while my wife and children nobly leave #TheValley (and willingly I must say, to see Grandmas, aunts and cousins) and enter #TheShop.

    It’s not so easy, even in France, for one to leave #TheShop behind, and find #TheValley, but you and we seem to have succeeded. How blessed we are. That’s going to sound unbearably smug, but the more I think of our good fortune, the more I reflect on the possible existence of what I refer to as ‘The Divine’.

    I read an excellent article in the NYT about children in the USA suffering from ‘nature-deficiency syndrome’. I look at how our kids live and I couldn’t even begin to explain that to them.

    The fear so many English carry, and that you speak of, for their own being and country, is clear as a photograph to me. It’s shop or die.

    My six year-old son recently called in at a nearby gite on his bike, just up our very quiet lane, because he had seen an English car. Less than ten minutes later he was back and he recounted what had happened.

    He’s a good raconteur, with voice impressions and lots of detail, and he explained how he went to the garden gate and said hello.

    A woman came to the gate, and when he asked, in English, if she was English, the woman said yes. It was about 1415hrs and c.35 degrees. Evidently he must have looked hot, but as no invitation was forthcoming, he asked if he might come in (with a view to getting a drink/shade).

    The woman said yes, and my son sat down at the outside table; after a minute or two of chatting he asked her if he might have a glass of water.

    The woman said “Err, oh, yes”, and was halfway out of her chair to get the drink (re-inacted by my son), when the husband (mid-fifties, I saw them later as they passed by on a walk) said in a whisper so loud it was if he assumed my son was deaf:

    ‘I’m not happy about him being here, I’m really not happy.’

    The woman then sat down and said:

    “Oh, actually we’re going out now. I can’t give you a drink. You should probably go now. Is your bike still there?”

    We all had a fine laugh about this story – my son said that of course his bike was still there – and the man’s words ‘I’m not happy about it, I’m really not happy’ has become this holidays’ catchphrase.

    But beyond the laughs, I thought to myself: what would the chances be of a 6 year-old boy, in the middle of nowhere, getting that reaction from two fifty something people from just about any country you care to think of? Except from England.

    What could there possibly be to be unhappy about? They’re in a beautiful spot, on holiday, and little boy stops and says hello. He’s not planning on moving in. Why the muttered whisper of fear, that a six year-old boy could feel so viscerally he described them, unprompted, as ‘frightened’. Of him.

    Of course its ludicrous to draw definitive conclusions from this experience, but my son told this story – his mouth open in amazement, eyes wide open in a sort of state of shock – looking to his Anglo-Australian parents and siblings to help him process (viz. to believe) what he had told us.

    For him – where the catch phrase here, to virtually everything, is ‘C’est normal’, when you thank someone – the interaction was completely and sincerely of an alien nature to him. He had genuine difficulty processing the experience and we had to sort of joke our way through it.

    On the other hand, the fear is here too. Even in #TheValley.

    There is a clear family-centric culture – perhaps particular to the Auvergne – where about one third of the parents ‘cover’ their children like a chicken sitting on her eggs (to use the description of a friend when my wife was listening to her have a bit of an amazed moan about certain families we both know.

    ‘He walks like a two-year old, he speaks like a two-year old,’ our friend said about a mutual friend’s child, the same age as my son. ‘She [the mother] never lets him out of his sight.’

    Interestingly, this mother in question has spent most of her life not in #TheValley, but the #TheShop.

    #TheShop to me is a metaphor for fear, and it’s a place where people validate and confirm their existence by consuming. And furthermore, it’s a viral and very real fear that is spreading like low clouds through the few remaining Valleys.

    All I ask for is 18 years because #TheShop (and especially its endless propaganda to consume) is rapacious capitalism at its worst, and it wont be happy until everyone and everywhere is infected.

    I have a friend, who even here, is talking about moving to Mongolia – he thinks we’ve got ten years at best, then he’s gone.

    Obviously I hope he’s wrong.

    However, my feeling is that in ten years something is going to explode in #TheShop and like New Orleans after Katrina, the rich white 4WD folk will flee for #TheValley and #TheValley will be turned in #TheShop 2.0 and #TheShop will be habitated by people without 4WDs.

    Obviously, I hope I’m wrong.

    Meanwhile, it’s heaven.

  15. I agree with Lucy.

    Lesley: if you are flying Ryanair, why should I have any sympathy? Quite aside from your changing the place of comparison from England to Scotland!

    England is a strange place – beautiful in places but terrible more commonly. At least in France, you can look people in the eye, and say good morning as if you mean it.

    Perhaps Lucy and I are too choleric – it is a privilege earned along the road of previous dissillusionment experiences. Even if la France is also enculĂ©e…. and comparisons between two countries can always be discutable.

    But if you are going to be foutu anywhere it might as well be in France, especially the Cevennes…. Britain is in many annoying ways relatively more horrid in comparison. Scotland especially.

    Note to Lucy: You need an ass.

  16. I had exactly the opposite experience flying from Bordeaux to Edinburgh last week. The new low-cost terminal at Bordeaux is a glorified cattle shed with shops and it doesn’t matter how many vines they plant outside the main terminal for local colour, it’s still just a big pen. And my bag was measured twice to make sure it complied with constantly shrinking low-cost dimensions.
    Edinburgh was …… oh all right, Edinburgh wasn’t much better, but the staff were much nicer.

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