Sunday, September 2, 2007

The British Are Coming, The British Are Coming

Nancy and I fell into an interesting conversation a couple of nights ago at the final Marche Nocturne Leran. We were at a table in the middle of the street and Nancy was sitting next to some French people. I was sitting on her other side and next to some British friends. I remember getting a flute (loaf of bread) from the baker and coming back to the table and setting the bread in the middle of our group who were about to partake of some warm, melted brie. I set it down, apparently upside down. The Frenchman next to us felt strongly enough about that to reach out and turn the loaf right side up. We shared a smile at my ignorance.

The next thing I knew, Nancy was engaged in conversation with the first Frenchman’s buddy. After awhile I drifted over to listen in because the conversation seemed to be getting very interesting. As I began to listen, Nancy was telling the French group that we were from Utah and they were surprised we were not British. One gentleman had realized that he had seen our petit camionette in Mirepoix, and remembered the Utah plates and the “Worst President Ever” sticker.

We talked for awhile, a little in French, mostly in English. They were very curious about us. They wondered where Utah was exactly. They thought it was in the Midwest, confusing it with Iowa, I suppose. We talked about our parts in the Spectacular, as the first Americans to participate in it, and they remarked on my memorable and challenging role as a monk. That brought up this rather amusing exchange and we had a great laugh all around.

“I remember you from the Leran Spectacular. You were a most excellent clergyman. Mon ami, you are no longer an American. Now you are a French monkey.”
“Monsieur, I am not sure if you are aware of the difference between the English words for monk and monkey?”
“Ah, mon dieu, I am sorry if I have called you a French monkey, je suis desole.”
“Pas de problem, Monsieur.”

I am a little fuzzy about the flow of conversation, but two points stood out for both Nancy and I. First, they asked why we were in Leran. We have been asked this before by French people in social situations. They are very curious about what we are doing here and why.

We are not sure how to interpret this question. Is the question; “Why are you here in Leran?”, or “Why did you choose Leran out of all the villages in France?”, or “Why did you choose to live in France and not Italy or Spain?”, or “Why did you leave the United States?”. We are also not sure why they are asking this question. Is it because they want to make a huge profit and sell their house to a foreigner, or do they want to figure out some way to make their village much less attractive to these foreign house buyers, or do they want to figure out why everyone loves France so much? Or some other reason.

So, naturally, we are unsure of how to answer the question they have asked. Our answer tends to be along the lines of , “Well, France is beautiful, the people are warm and friendly and the wine and cheese are excellent and the weather is good.”

I think the question is perhaps a mixture of all of the above. As you may or may not know, France is experiencing a wave of in-migration from, among others, the British. We’ve had many conversations with our British friends here and we are curious why so many have made the big leap across the channel, or have bought second homes. There are a number of reasons for the out migration from England and some of the rationale we have heard are: personal security, congestion, weather, cheaper and more land, cheaper housing, and a general dislike of the political and cultural situation in Great Britain. And this brings us to the second half of “THE CONVERSATION”.

Sometime after learning that we were American the exchange drifted to the differences the French feel for Americans as opposed to the British. There was some talk of history; Lafayette and the French contribution to the Rebellion during the Revolution, the constant warfare between the British and French and the hard feelings that still seem to exist between the two groups, the kinship Americans and French feel for each other due to our revolutions and our wars with the British. We talked some more about those strong French/American feelings and conversely, Nancy and I told him how Americans feel a great kinship toward the British because of a common language (sort of), the gift of a great legal system, our common ancestry and the culture we inherited and share.

But then the conversation got kind of weird. The Frenchman with the best English began expressing his resentment about the sheer numbers of English migrating to France and the problems he sees as a result. (Believe me, I’ve had this conversation before. Change a few names of nationalities and the nature of the problems, and I believe we’ve all had this conversation before.) This gentleman was from Mirepoix, but I believe the situation is similar in other parts of France. The gentleman was very pointed in exempting us Americans as part of the problem and perhaps revealed a little of his anger at the situation. I’m not sure what his problem is but it could be the cost of housing in this region has escalated, or that he feels surrounded by foreigners, or that he has heard some unkind things said. He did not bring up the fact that more French are now residing in England than the other way around. (Apparently, many young French head for London for good jobs they can’t find at home.)

In any case, this is the first time we’ve been made to feel uncomfortable here, or anything less than a welcome addition to Belle France. I have sympathy for the French gentleman. Some, but not much. Nancy and I felt the invasion of newly minted millionaire Californians after living a long time in Montana. I suspect this is what the Frenchman is feeling, because the British migrating to France come with some disposable income from the high price of property in England and the strong Pound Sterling against the Euro. But to my way of thinking, the British I’ve met here are going to be some of France’s best citizens. They are educated, working hard, spending money, learning the language, paying their taxes and most aren’t robbing banks, and none that I know of are hopped up on crank, beating their wives or stressing the social service sector very much. Every country should wish for an in-migration like that.

Indeed, it was an interesting conversation. I hope that I’ve related it properly and with all due respect to everyone. It is an important topic for discussion and serious thought. We who are visitors or new-comers to France should be aware there is some animosity out there.


Anonymous said...

Very guys are starting to get to the point where you are beginning to understand the cultural complexities that exist in your new home. That is a place any Anthrolpologist hopes to arrive at and go beyond. I know that France has "suffered" a huge influx of migration, most of it from North Africa. I'm sure you hit the nail on the head when you said that property values were being driven up by the British, which is,as we Westerners know a double-edged sword, it cuts both ways- you just have to be on the right side of it if you don't want to get hurt. The bottom line is that it is great that you are beginning to have the kinds of conversations that open up these hot topics, I hope you stay open to hearing what all sides have to say, it will only add to your future book...
Au Revoir, Amy

leslie said...

What I love about it is the opportunity you two are having discussions that go beyond the usual surface things, hi, where are you from and so on. I see the co-mingling as the begining of an assimilation of sorts, where the earth's inhabitants are able to move freely from one spot to another. You recognized the unpleasant part of it in Montana, the same thing is happening on Vashon, it's getting very expensive to live here, but the pleasant part I think you are also experiencing, the opportunity to learn about another culture, another lanaguage, history etc. Some people will be interested in who you are, others will only be interested in how your presence will effect them. Nice people and icky people everywhere. Carry on, you are both fine examples of the right way to spend time in a foreign country. Leslie

Anonymous said...

Luke found your commentary quite interesting...especially the difference in how the British are viewed in France compared to the "Americains". Apparently, "immigration" is a topic of heated conversation in many parts of the world.

I think the friction between the "native-born" and the "new-comers" is a nearly unavoidable phenomemon...and unfortunately, the influx of "illegal" immigrants in America makes it so much more virulent here in the States.

For hundreds of years, Britain ruled the seas (and big chunks of the world as well!) and France was a leader in politics on the continent (and owned a few chunks of the world as well!)...every country wants to be "top dog" in the world (Vladimir Putin will attest to that!)and the Brits and the French have "duked it out" many times for the power and control they "old habits die hard" and it's hard to stop feeling that "old enmity"...even though both contries have spent time as allies.

I guess there are certain "nationalistic" tendancies exhibited by people regardless of the countries's everywhere...and I don't think it's likely to's bred into us.

Now that I'm feeling "historically depressed"...I shall say "adios"...just to show "I'm ever-so-liberal! HA! HA!

Noah said...

Noah thinks this is interesting.
I feel like you have arrived. Having someone engage you like this is a much more sophisticated interaction than the typical "oh its the americans, have some wine ha ha ha" kind of thing. Do you know what I mean? It's like sitting at the adult table for the first time at thankgiving where the adults treat you with enough respect to allow you to have your own opinion and stand up for it rather than dismissing you as a child (or a visitor in your case.) I think its great.