La Fonnestalve





One of the first things that Expats moving to Aquitaine in the south west of France need to understand is the local culture.

There are two (at least); the original local French/Occitan culture and the transplanted and locally propagating Expat culture. Personally I would suggest that they did not join either, but the PC[1] word is integration. However 95% of transferees will not be moving into anything like a French culture, they will be joining an English Expat (sometimes referred to as an ExPatdom) society, sad though that might be.


We are currently awash with ‘Place in the Sun’ and House Hunters (USA) like TV programmes proclaiming that SW France is the place to be; at least this week. The amount of illumination that you get from those proceedings wouldn't’t keep a glow worm going for ten minutes. The house prices that they present are about two orders of magnitude below reality or several years out of date. The idyllic and close co-existence of the new transferees and the locals is extolled as an enduring social delight. It’s all done to jazz up the French Expat lifestyle, not that the life is bad, but it is not as good as those glossy programmes would suggest. Usually they wheel in a couple of French locals dying for their 15 minutes of fame and willing to say that they love their new English neighbours; whom they briefly met yesterday at the request of the presenter!

However one pearl of wisdom that all these broadcasters universally commend for a happy re-settlement is the ‘need to integrate’.

This is usually pushed by a well endowed nubile female presenter who has probably never resided in one place for more than three weeks in the whole of her adult life. Evidenced by the fact that next weeks ‘Place in the Sun’ is in the Cayman Islands followed by New Zealand.

Integrate! How?

What has the average Expat got in common with the local Aquitaine sons of the soil? Even if either of us could speak the others language with consummate fluency. Once you have exhausted the subject of CAP[2] grants or the efficacy of Bordeaux Blue[3] on vine pests, the range of mutually interesting communication subjects tends to peter out. Given the reality that neither nationality normally has much fluency in the other’s language, the main cross cultural communications descend to monosyllabic comments on the weather. Even that is not without its hazards when ‘beau temps’ is rendered in the local patois as ‘Bowtton’ and you wonder whether your flies are undone.

The reality is that what is needed for the two diverse cultures to live harmoniously side by side is:-

  • Civility,
  • The maintenance of respect for each others cultures,
  • Not to challenge France's alleged supremacy in wine growing or cuisine, despite any apparent contrary evidence,
  • Keep paying lots of French taxes from your English pensions,

    and most importantly

  • Absolutely to never never mention the EU/UK[4] rebate.

This of course, does not preclude you from going to the local ‘Salle de Fete’ promotions, to cheer when ‘your’ town wins the ‘Ville Fleurie’ or being nice to your French neighbour.

Despite this some expats do fully integrate into local society; well I have heard that there was one once. No, just kidding!, there may have been two. My classification of the invading Brits (and other nations) is as follows. There are four types.


The four types

The four types of Expats are divided into two super classes called Integrators and Floaters.

Integrators have a semi messianic view that they should be as close to the local population as possible, for either moral or self preservation motivations. They work assiduously to emulate the local populace, however bizarre that may seem. Trying to understand the rules of boules is one thing, attempting a tolerant appreciation of the French approach to commerce and its local manifestations is just bizarre. Well its really logically impossible.

Floaters, on the other hand, just want an easy time in pleasant surroundings and they undertake the minimum integration necessary to maintain such a life style. They are true pragmatists; probably that is why they get on so well with the French. The French bureaucrats harmless diversion is to invent rules so that the rest of the French population can ignore them. Floaters fit right in as they do not understand the rules in the first place and are unaware that they are ignoring them.

A straw poll would suggest that the invading populace is divided in a ratio of about 5% Integrators and 95% Floaters. This can be further subdivided into approximately 1% (of the total) as Deep Integrators, 4% as Good Integrators, 85% Flamboyant Floaters and 10% Reclusive Floaters.
The vast majority therefore are Flamboyant Floaters, drifting like flotsam on the pond of French rural society, serenely oblivious of the deep eddying currents beneath the surface.


Deep Integrators

Deep integrators have absorbed the local customs and can usually move equally well in both English and French cultures. It goes without saying that they can speak both languages fluently. Most have reached this much prized nirvanic state by some act of god, family or commerce. They have either married a native French speaker or business has pitched them into the francophone milieu. Both are good ways to get immersed, the pillow dictionary being particularly effective. It is usually much more pleasurable than book learning, interspersed as it is with other mind tingling experiences.
Few people become deep integrators without some such force majeure, that’s why there are not many of them.


Good Integrators

These are a bit like missionaries gone native. They will enthusiastically espouse all things Francophile, diving into the language and customs with uncritical fervour. Not to mix too many metaphors they are a strange amalgamation of a cultural sponge and a ‘Tabula Rosa’.
These are the guys who get to grade three in the local town’s language class and take on extra private lessons, which they keep up for more than the usual three month attention span of lesser mortals. They tend to have French television and have torn down the illegal Sky antennae that they inherited with the house, as it detracts from their immersion. They have all the enthusiasm of the girls’ premier hockey team at Rodean.
The ‘Good Integrators’ spend much of their time publicly putting down the ‘Flamboyant Floaters’ with exhibitions of their verbal fluency and knowledge of local habits, both social and regulatory.


Flamboyant Floaters

The flamboyant floater (FF) lives in a ‘Little England’[5] cocoon. This is constructed from a synthetic material which is totally culturally impervious. It is proof against all external influences no matter how deeply the occupant is immersed in them. In many ways he is an advanced pioneer of space station existence, able to survive in a potentially hostile environment with sustenance either brought from his home planet or converted from local materials to his very specific needs.

The FF single-mindedly selects his literary and social channels of intercourse with the outside world. Socially he is involved in a never ending, often wildly escalating, round of meals and visits with other English speaking Expats.  FF’s wife maintains a scoreboard of when and where they have been invited out to a meal by other FF’s. This record is maintained with all the accountancy fervour of a forensic auditor.

FF’s information comes from UK Sky TV, the day late British papers and if he is really adventurous, the English language French News paper. He may also occasionally sneak off to watch an American film with English subtitles at the Castillones cinema or some similar venue.

The truth is that the poor flamboyant floater is a linguistic cripple; he has a reasonable, if sometimes fading, grasp on his own language to which he clings to like a life raft. His external ‘foreign’ communication forays usually consist of speaking English words with an ‘Allo Allo’ French accent, or thumbing through the ‘How to purchase a beer’ section of his phrase book. Even then he manages to mangle the pronunciation, because he has never grasped the phonetic symbols contained therein; not that anyone else has either. The other pages of his phrase book are in pristine condition; an awaiting commercial opportunity for the second hand English booksellers[6] found in many local markets.

In his favour, the old colonial idea of shouting at the ‘natives’ in English if they do not seem to understand, is on the wane, although not entirely absent. Generally today, if our Flamboyant Floater is shouting at the populace in English he is probably deaf and can’t get a battery for his English hearing aid. Alternatively he may possibly be a member of the resident pseudo-country set, another of the transmogrifying effects of crossing the English Channel, which the French still perversely call ‘La Manche’. Mind you if you ‘faire la manche’, you pass the hat around for donations, so perhaps it is appropriate given the current state of the French Economy.

The locals are so used to the francophone constipation of their visitors that that they often congratulate Expats on their fluent French when they manage to inject their first verb into a sentence.
The linguistic capability in Expat FF couples is universally asymmetrical, One spouse rises to the dizzy heights of being able to buy a stamp, whilst the other languishes in the despond of not being able to pronounce his own name in French letters (of the spelling variety).Oddly it is usually the female of the species that reaches the highest communicative elevations.

Culturally most FF’s know that English (? Normans) once owned much of Aquitaine and cannot understand why things should have changed over the last 600 years. In fact, as the second invasion is buying Eleanor’s[7] legacy back piecemeal, perhaps it hasn’t. They are normally convinced that the average Aquitainian still really understands English and is perversely just pretending not to be able to speak that language. That is despite the reality that most of the original Norman overlords had about the same level of fluency in Saxon languages as the neo-Aquitainian has with French.

Of course there are always exceptions that prove the rule. There are a few FF’s, usually raving myopic extroverts, who manage to combine a complete ignorance of the French language with close provincial paisan camaraderie. In these rare circumstances communication between the disparate groups is undertaken in a welter of wild gestures, mimes and a generous supply of alcohol. Comprehension invariably being sacrificed on the altar of bleary eyed sentiment. Inevitably such intercourse takes place in the local bar during rugby finals. Strangely football seems to invoke a different, much more combative interaction.

All FF’s are pathologically terrified of official missives. Mainly because they do not have a clue as to what the communiqué is requesting, offering or more importantly demanding? The first FF defence to such epistles is to ignore them. This rarely works as the French bureaucrat, although surprised at such an affront to his god given right to respect, authority and dignity, has a range of invasive measures at his disposal to bring the recalcitrant into line. Eventually the FF either throws himself upon the mercy of a friendly English stuttering French functionnaire, a rare breed because few are friendly and even fewer admit to speaking English. This extreme measure is usually undertaken more in hope than expectation. Alternatively he pawns his pride and grovels to enlist the aid of one of the various grades of supercilious Expat Deep Integrators.

Unfortunately such actions are usually taken far to late due to the linguistically and culturally induced tardiness. This encourages the French Bureaucrats to gleefully impose a financial penalty in a vain attempt to bolster the ever dwindling French coffers. Locally this is referred to as the 'language tax'.


Reclusive Floaters

Reclusive Floaters are similar to Flamboyant floaters, except that they do not go out of doors, other than to collect the essentials of life; even then they undertake this foray infrequently. They construct a physical barricade around the standard issue culturally impermeable FF membrane. These two barriers are mutually re-enforcing to an extent that the RF might as well be on a desert island, in fact most of them think that they are.

Normally RFs can be found living in isolated partial renovations in the middle of ancient farmland or a thick wood far away from the nearest hamlet They have a wary relationship with their immediate French neighbours, inevitably occurring when the local farmers, turned hunters for the day, march purposefully through their back yard, shotgun at the high port, as French hunters do. Chasseurs have an absolute right to roam the countryside armed to the teeth looking like Che Guevara’s remnant army, usually doing more damage to themselves than the hapless beasts of the field.

The RF’s sole social contact is with their offspring in the UK, conducted via one of the new cheap telephone companies, or increasingly via emails. Skype has also been a great economic boon to those technical enough to have found it and patient enough to wait for a response from the help line.
The main body of the Expat society, made up of FF’s, only know of the RF’s existence by vague rumour and the jungle telephone. Occasionally they come to light when an RF falls down the stairs and is forced out into the limelight of the real world as the Sapeurs-Pompiers[8] come to cart them off to hospital. To be fair in such circumstances the Expat society usually rallies around to help, impelled by a mixture of compassion and prying curiosity in equal measure.

I was once struck by a depiction of the medieval society of Britain and France after the Norman Conquest. The narrator said that the English aristocracy at that time had more intercourse and common bonds with the French Aristocracy over the other side of the channel than they had with their own subjects who lived one hundred yards away.

Rien ne change jamais

[1] Politically Correct
[2] European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (Perhaps you should not to mention this as its perilously close the the EU/UK rebate!)
[3] A relatively organic pesticide used on vines.
[4] This is the recovery of ‘lost’ EU contribution monies organised by Maggie Thatcher. Even with it the English pay two and a half times more into the EU than the French. Any suggestion that we could phase it out in parallel with the gross EU CAP subsidies paid to inefficient French farmers is a hanging offence in Aquitaine. Well guillotining actually.
[5] Read The Little Englanders Handbook. A Xenophobic guide to Europe and Johnny Foreigner. By Major Oswald Kitchener.
[6] I suppose that this really should be rendered as ‘English sellers of English Books’ n’est pas?
[7] Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II about 1152 and thereby brought her French lands under some degree of English hegemony.
[8] Local Firemen. They operate the ambulance service in remote rural areas.

The Picture at the top of the page is the view looking down on our farmhouse and buildings near Bergerac.


(c) John Hulbert 2002

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