“Oh, I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien, I'm a Frenchman in London...” Great track, no reason for me to carry on assassinating it. I am close to the 15th anniversary of my arrival in London (to be honest, I don't remember the exact date. I remember it was raining, but that doesn't tell me much about the date). 1997. What a time it was to be a fresh faced 25 year old, slightly naïve, a bit lost at first, exploring the multi cultural city that is London. It's fair to say that I did a fair amount of growing up here. In those 15 years, I think I got a pretty good grasp of what it's like to be a foreigner in England. Not any foreigner, mind. A Frenchman.
And my love-hate relationship with London might be inspired by another, famous, love-hate relationship. Also known as l'entente cordiale (by the way, it's in French so that the French can also understand. Plus it sounds better). The England – France relationship. Or rivalry. Sometimes.
It's fair to say that the English speak about the French a lot. And rarely in glowing terms. I have read these books, and behind their casually racists titles, they are, in fact, perfect examples not only of British humour at its best, but also of the deep respect the Brits, and particularly the English, have towards the French. As a counterpart, these books also exist (for the record, I have not read any of these books. I do not need to know how to act French. Bizarrement.). And to me these two sides exactly represent the English attitude towards the French : “We'll take any cheap shots we can at you (all in good humour, what what), because quite frankly, we're jealous.”
There, I said it. The English are jealous of the French. Or at least, they're jealous of the image they have of the French. And that's very different. It's only an image. I'm not talking about the stripy shirt, rusty old bike, string of onions one, obviously, but the better lifestyle, better food, and altogether classier image. You know, the famous French flair?
As I said I did recently spend two years in France. And hated it. Oh sure, we still eat well. If you can afford it. Better lifestyle? Not so different than the one here, to be honest. People in London complain of the cost of living, but it is higher in Paris. Paris is the seventh most expensive city in the world, London is seventeenth. French flair is expensive!
I love watching those shows where Brits move abroad, and particularly when they move to France. I love seeing them struggle, I can't help it. First of all, of course, is the language barrier. French is especially engineered so that we're the only ones who can speak it correctly. And boy, do we enjoy mocking those who try! Beyond that, there is the cultural barrier. An even tougher one to overcome.
Very quickly, when living in France, you'll have to deal with the French administration (the government workers). And you're entering a world of pain. A world. Of PAIN! Imagine having to deal with someone who actively hates you (nothing personal, mind, they hate everybody equally). A person who seems to get up every day on the wrong side of the bed, then fall down the stairs. Head first. Into a table. A person that is always in a bad mood. A very, very, very angry person. Only taking it out on you can make their life slightly less miserable (to be honest, if after my 35h week I only had 7 weeks holidays, I'd probably be pissing with rage too). The fonctionnaires (French for jobsworth) will very quickly make your life hell in France. No amount of steak frites can make up for that... And I stupidly started a business there. I was happy to be back in England after that, if only for the drastic reduction in paperwork (paperwork is a religion in France).
Don't get me wrong, I'm still immensely proud of my nationality, and even more of my culture. But in the last 15 years, I seem to have become more and more anglicised. I still have the ebullient French character lurking in the background, so it is a bit of a weird and dangerous (and slightly unstable) mix.
When I arrived in England, I saw myself as, maybe not an ambassador, but at least a representative of my country and culture. Over the years I have not always be successful in giving a positive view of it, but in general, I think I've done quite well. I hope I still do, in a way. And in a weird twist, I have also found myself to be an English ambassador in France (on top of being the translator!). Ok, most of the times, I had to defend English cuisine (it's no accident it's a French word, though). It's the first subject that comes up when talking about England. Actually, it's usually the first subject that comes up in any French conversation. It's either food or sex. And I'll respect l'entente cordiale, I will avoid talking about sex in England...
It's fair to say that we do not have the same sort of jealousy towards the English. In fact, we have no jealousy towards anybody, because, you know, we're the best... The French sense of humour is very self depreciating (my favourite French joke: Why do we have the cockerel as our emblem? Because it still sings while being knee deep in shit), but only we are allowed to do so. Try this : denigrate France in front of a Frenchman or woman (for extra added fun, add one of the clichés, like “Don't get your stringed onions in a twist”. We love that). Then run. You do not insulte la belle France, rosbif! We might say our country is shit, but it's still way better than all the others. I mean, come on, when we do revolutions, for example, we do them right : England went all industrial, we went all royalty heady choppy! Which one do you prefer?
I am sensing this post is going the way I feel at the moment. It started brightly, I had all intentions of talking about life in London as a Frenchman, and I end up talking about, hating and then defending France. No wonder I'm confused! And I am. After all this time here, I don't really know what I am anymore. If I have a love-hate relationship, it's not with London, it's not with England, it's with my country, and to a greater extent, my cultural identity. Proud of my French culture, but I have spent most of my adult life in England. I love London despite all its flaws, and yet I regularly go back to France, under the pretence of “shopping” (which I do), but in all honesty, it's to get the English smell off my skin and bathe in Frenchness. My passport says I'm French. My accent, even though diluted by now, says I'm French. Yet I can't deny I have absorbed a lot of Englishness in my (nearly) 15 years here. Am I a mix of the two? A Frenglish? An Englench?I'll let an
“I am not an Athenian, nor a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”