Jeremy Clarke

Hell is an expat dinner party

Whenever I go to one, the conversation seems to revolve around box-set one-upmanship

Text settings
Comments

I just don’t understand it. Emigrating from Britain to France is a big step. Shifting from one culture to another takes courage and enterprise. Especially if you are of maturer years. But let’s assume it’s now or never and you follow through with it. You look for a house in France, buy one, go through all the bureaucracy, the rigmarole. You put all your worldly goods into a high-top van and get someone to drive it down. You move in. You go through the further circle of French bureaucratic hell and get your family saloon reregistered.

At first you don’t know your way around. When you are driving, young and old French people tailgate you, hooting and giving you the finger. On foot, you can’t understand a word anyone is saying. You become discouraged. But you persevere: you’ve burnt your bridges and must like it or lump it. You sign up to a French mobile-phone company — robbing buggers — and for an internet account and an electricity account and you pay the taxe d’habitation. Now you are all legal.

Your new life comes slowly into focus. You get used to the eccentric opening hours. You know where in the Spar to find the Heinz baked beans and the Worcester sauce and the Rich Tea biscuits and you’ve gravitated to a congenial little inexpensive local restaurant and got to know the waiter and the menu. (Out of curiosity you once tried the tête de veau and know never to order it ever again.) Old M. Suzanne, the local indie garage mechanic, might be a paid-up fascist but he’s cheap and, moreover, honest. He doesn’t, for example, automatically double the bill because you are English or a woman. You cleave to this man gratefully, in spite of his abhorrent beliefs.

Then, after about six months, the ‘bonjour’ principle dawns on you with the force of revelation. The mystery of why barmen and shop assistants glower at you or ignore you completely is finally resolved. Thereafter you make the simple but necessary transition from mute British public reticence to courtly continental politeness. Now they gush delightedly at you as you step towards their counter throwing out pleasantries left and right. All you’ve done is acknowledge other people’s humanity and habituated yourself to saying hello to them and how’s it going and how’s your father and have a nice day. Nevertheless, you regard it as a remarkable breakthrough. You tell everyone about it. Your shopping pulse rate falls. You begin to feel chez vous.

You buy a dictionary of French idioms and study it profitably and now you are going about the place like some troubadour fop, exchanging gallantries with anyone who catches your eye. At the village bar you are even on nodding terms with some of the alcoholics who are still in touch with present realities. Yes, this is more like it.

Now that you are in a position to consider your new life in a calmer light, you realise that French village life is less depraved and a lot slower than you had hoped or imagined it might be — a lot slower. Meanwhile your alcohol intake is off the scale and you’ve started smoking again. Never mind though, because every morning you fling back the shutters and the sun is shining and reality is lit like it used to be when you were 11 years old. And your croissant is crispy. And there’s home-made apricot jam in the fridge and quince jelly and the Bialetti on the stove is having a fresh-coffee orgasm. For a moment you notice that you are almost happy. You take a photo of your sunny breakfast table with your smartphone and you post it on Instagram.

Yes, it’s been difficult. Yes, you have found that living in an uncomprehending, entropic limbo between two cultures isn’t conducive to mental health. But look! Here you are having breakfast outside on the terrace in December wearing only a thin merino wool sweater. And this is everything to an old and impotent and slightly deranged person like you. You haven’t any French friends yet. They are all retired English. You worry about that. Sometimes the word ghetto comes to mind. But all things considered, you’ve come through. You like it here. It’s been worth it.

And then what do you do? After doing all that? Well, I’ll tell you what they do. They sit on their fat arses in front of the telly and they watch sodding box sets. They all do. How do I know? Because whenever I go out to dinner, everyone talks competitively about the box sets they’ve watched, describing the twists and turns of the plots to each other as if they are actual events that have happened to real people. And they think they deserve a medal. I’m sorry, I just do not understand it.