Do the new invaders know what to expect when they arrive in rural Aquitaine, South West France.
The problem is that Brits often move to rural France in an ethereal daze brought upon them by warm afternoons in a bar or roaming amongst nodding fields of Sunflowers. They see a new idyllic life stretching into a halcyon future and gloss over the dramatic changes of circumstance and culture that this will entail.
People moving permanently to France or indeed any other country are not just undertaking one life changing endeavour but usually four, if not more.
- Many realise that they are moving to a location where the national culture and approaches are different; as emphasised by a foreign language in which they can just stammer enough to buy a cup of coffee.
- Most Expats were also urban dwellers in the UK, but with a compulsion that would make lemmings seem individualistic; they rush headlong into a rural society they do not even remotely comprehend. They would notice a culture shock if they moved to Cornwall. That shock is even more evident in the Aquitaine where social values are still in the 1930’s or maybe the 1830’s.
- The majority of these couples are newly retired. They may think that they have jointly led a long life of marital harmony but in reality many have never really met. At least, they have never spent 24/7 together. The sudden onset of such intense togetherness often leads to less than attractive conditions of marital harmony.
- Quite a number were budding DIY enthusiasts at home, but in Aquitaine they take on building projects that would make Arthur McAlpine’s eyes water. All in a commercial situation they imperfectly understand and following regulations and approaches which are deliberately impenetrable due to the French government’s dual love of bureaucracy and screwing up the common man.
These factors often lead to frequent pandemics of domestic inquietude sweeping along the banks of the Dordogne.
The denizens of Aquitaine ExPatdom are a strange assorted bunch. There is a strong skew towards the latter end of servitude on this mortal coil. Many have had colourful and eventful lives in the UK and indeed throughout the world. Most have greater than average energy and enthusiasm. In some cases this is engendered by natural vigour and in others by a compulsion to escape past complications. The evidence that they have made that leap across the English Channel, in itself sets them apart from their more quiescent brethren who remained behind.
One problem is that they often arrive in Calais as different people to those who left Dover, which makes for a very fluid and sometimes perplexing social scene. This is further complicated by the fact that a noteworthy minority seem to swap their original ‘significant other’ somewhere in that transmogrifying region just south of the Dogger Bank. Not that that prevents supplementary matrimonial changes insitu, but that is the subject of comment in a later chapter.
The resulting social cauldron is further convoluted by the fact that its construction is more like a pressure cooker than a potwallopers utensil. My categorisation of the majority of Expats as Flamboyant floaters, who speak little French (See the Chapter on integration); tends to mean that most of them form a virtual ghetto. Their most meaningful conversations, when they have any, are in their own language and therefore necessarily with other native English speakers. The Bergerac Triangle is like a geographically extended village where everyone knows each others’ business and gossips about it.
This warped and pressurised environment has generated a new genus of Homo sapiens known generically as ‘Eymet Man’.
Eymet Man (EM) has been the subject of many television programmes, mostly French and therefore mildly derogatory, but some English of the ‘Come and join us the water is lovely’ genre. In fact a major danger of living in the Bergerac Triangle is running into Amanda Lamb or Jasmin Harman doing yet another ‘Paradise in the sun’ type TV programme. Your passage will be blocked or you will trampled underfoot by film crews busily interviewing Expat wannabes who have not yet arrived and know nothing of the area or local experts who mainly seem to be estate agents (realtors) and whose objectivity is patently skewed by the need to move a pile of Aquitaine rocks.
The active viewer of such programmes eventually becomes an Eymet Man. He is typically 67, retired and married, with 2.4 grown up kids who descend with their families upon the region for free holidays each year. He is either married to his second wife or seriously thinking of arranging such a situation to mitigate the boredom. He has enrolled in the local French language course, but has been in the debutants loop for the last five years. He can just about order a beer in French and only shops at locations which have a visible cost display on the cash register as he cannot understand the numbers.
He has probably led an interesting and semi successful commercial life with enough pension contributions to live comfortably in the locality. Rather the funds would be sufficient if only he was not trying to resurrect a French pile of stones into an improbable conception of its former glory.
EM is never seen alone. This is because he has elected to live in an isolated location outside of the town. Each time he makes a move towards any form of transport, his ‘significant other’ interrogates him about where he is going; then demands to accompany him. They eventually become joined at the hip and he will not be recognised if glimpsed alone.
He has only two subjects of conversation. The renovation of old stone houses and the virtues of the local restaurants.
The renovation fixation is engendered by the fact that he and his wife have bought a rambling and seriously ruined stone farmhouse, whose restoration absorbs most of his waking hours. These edifices have barns and outhouses which lure prospective renovators like adolescents to a sex shop. Nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum is mild to that of Eymet man; in his eyes every barn and chicken hutch is a prospective Gite.
His days are spent toiling to convert enough accommodation to simultaneously house the last six generations of his family, despite the fact that only he and the current spouse are in permanent residence. (There is a scurrilous rumour that the French are just waiting for the Brits to renovate the last stone house in the Dordogne and then they will throw them all out). This may be a conspiracy theory, but remember the President is still Jaques Chirac.
Eymet man’s car has a magical robotic system that automatically turns into all builders’ merchants or DIY shops without any manual intervention on his part. If you notice a large lump above his heart it is because he has had his wallet artificially enlarged to carry not only his English Credit cards but fidelity documents for Mr Bricolage, BricoMarche, Loisiers 2000 and a host of other DIY emporia.
He normally is not too good at DIY, but that does not deter him, He employs English systems in contravention of all French regulations on the increasingly dilapidated constructions that he erects.
Eymet man’s main relaxation activity is eating and drinking, probably in inverse order. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of local refreshment establishments and the meals that he and his family have consumed in them over the last five years, unfortunately he will dump this personalised Egon Ronay information on anyone who is dim enough to evince the slightest interest, and not just once!
Eymet Man’s wife also has also just two subjects of conversation, but they are different you will initially be glad to know, but experience may change your mind.
These are her garden and other people’s houses.
She is God’s gift to the burgeoning local Garden centres. The low cost of French land means that she will fill up vast expanses of otherwise excellent rural pastureland with a mass of inappropriate vegetation to the detriment of the countryside and at a considerable drain on the familial purse. Usually this is accomplished with scant finesse and no overall vision. Eymet woman’s gardens continue to expand like aerosol insulation foam, until they take over all available time, most of the income; and fill every crevice of the owner’s existence.
Other people’s houses are really a status thing. The absence of a verifiable history for most expats means that social position is defined by the excellence of one’s abode and its contents, at least by the mentally febrile.
Eymet lady has an encompassing knowledge of all local Expat houses with a detailed and costed inventory of their contents. In this way she can calculate her net standing in the social structure. Unfortunately only denizens of the same genus are interested in her orotund pontifications, leading to a considerable degree of personal discombobulation when she is ignored. Hierarchies only exist when you believe in them. However she is in the majority in this little pond.
Eymet woman does have a third occupation or perhaps we should call it an obsession. That is ensuring that Eymet Man is fully occupied and that his idle hands do not get up to any unauthorised mischief. Eymet women seem to have been inducted into a Calvinistic theocracy wherein leisure is considered unnatural. Perhaps all wives are like that!
This is exacerbated by an anthropological anomaly. In our ancestral past, when men went out to gain the family fare by hunting a woolly mammoth, woman only had to have two categories of male. Children or providers. Usually the head of the house-hold did not achieve a third state as he was knocked off this mortal coil by a sabre toothed tiger or his wife’s cooking. Now that we have begun to achieve a position of post (overt) provision, the situation needed to be reclassified in the female mind. Rather than invent another category, male retirees have been re-designated as ‘children’.
The aberrant condition of Eymet Man’s retirement and the emergent threat of his potential relaxation, induced in EW a high degree of cognitive dissonance, not to say mental angst. However she is tough and resourceful. EW invented the concept of ‘progress’ as a hoop through which EM has to jump each day. Academics might argue that this concept of progress lacks a little intellectual rigour, like it has no ultimate goal. However that is to miss the real point of the exercise. This ‘progress’ is not intended to go anywhere, its target is the process which keeps Eymet Man busy and out of harms way. In a way EW is a creature of her time, most companies that clock their workers in and out have similarly confused process with progress.
EW aka ‘She who must be obeyed’ achieves the subjugation of EM with a hydra like list (chop one off and you get six more heads). So spare a thought for poor Eymet Man when you see him toiling away from the Thursday market under the load of two shopping bags, mentally ticking off ‘progress’ on the day’s assigned domestic and social chores. His only solace is that the next generation of EW’s will automate the process and be adding the list items onto their Blackberries.
Eymet Man and Eymet woman are flamboyant floaters (FFs- See Integration Chapter). They live in a ‘Little England’ 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 or she is an advanced pioneer of space station existence, able to survive in a potentially hostile environment with sustenance either brought from their home planet or converted from local materials to their very specific needs.
The Eymet families single-mindedly select their literary and social channels of intercourse with the outside world. Socially they are involved in a never ending, often wildly escalating, round of meals and visits with other English speaking Expats. Eymet woman 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 corporate balance sheet.
This cocoon severely moderates the Eymet family’s understanding of events in the wider French Society. In fact many of them forget that they are in France and think that they are on a desert island. France could undergo another revolution, the Government could fall and the first that Eymet man would know was when his Tax foncière went up. Many think that Mitterrand is still President and that Mayor Chirac is anxiously waiting for the Huissiers (bailiffs) to appear. If only!