Tuesday, 5 August 2008

On living in France

Anyone who travels to France cannot fail to be astonished at the number of British people there. We visited one small town where in the centre literally one in three people seemed to be British. It wasn’t just holidaymakers either: the cafes were run by Brits and there was even a fish and chip shop. Many shops had either advertisements that were either bilingual or in English alone.

Which raises the question: what is so attractive about France to Brits? The answer seems to be that it is no single thing. An almost universal attraction is that the weather is so much better. And here one can sympathise: for instance in Swansea we have had heavy rain for the last two days with not a glimpse of the sun. Other people like the food and the cheap wine.

Still others relish the fact that you can buy a large property relatively cheaply. Certainly it seems to be a cheaper place to live than the UK. There are other things: for people of my age and older it is the still largely rural nature of France that is attractive. It has widely scattered, quiet villages, rustic hamlets, hedgerows, tree-lined lanes, vast rolling woodlands, abundant wildlife, dark starlit night skies and the absence of the eternal roar of roads that is almost universal in most of Britain. The irony here is that the attraction of France is not because it is France but because it is like a long lost Britain.

I haven’t heard that many people go to France because they like the French. In fact the quite revealing fact is that most Britons buy up country properties out of the towns. They say it’s because they want the peace and quiet; I have a niggling suspicion that, in some cases at least, it’s so that they don’t have to deal with the locals. In some places the Brits were trying to create an alternative community of English-speaking shops, hairdressers, electricians and plumbers so that you wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of a) learning French b) having to be nice to Pierre and Sylvie. Once or twice we had to insist that people spoke to us in French rather than English. They seemed grateful for our efforts.

Let me hear make two Christian points. After all I suspect that something equivalent to France occurs in most countries. From what I gather, California or Florida often seems to have the same role in the northern US.

The first point is that there is a real danger that you see in this France or its equivalent, paradise. It is the place where, finally, everything will go right; the place where joy will be yours eternally. And of course expressed like that, you see the fallacy of the argument: there is no paradise other than God’s paradise and we are separated from that by more than the English Channel. (Indeed from passing comments, we heard much of France can often be bitterly cold in winter. The bureaucracy is often impenetrable. The inner cities have dreadful problems. The state is bankrupt. And in the rural areas over winter you find large numbers of people traipsing around blasting little birds to bits in the course of la chasse. I get the impression from a few of the expats we talked to that disillusionment can set in very quickly.)

The second point is that we cannot – and should not – divorce ourselves from people. There is probably a whole theology that centres on the incarnation about getting involved with local life.

Anyway I’ll make no bones about it. If I could sell the film rights I would very seriously and prayerfully consider moving to France where I would continue to write and my wife would continue editing by e-mail. With the fast rail and plane links we properly wouldn’t be too far away from aged parents. But on the one hand we would be under no expectation of paradise and on the other, we would make every effort to get involved with the local community and especially that rarest things, a French evangelical fellowship. Anyway, it’s all a fancy at the moment. But cannot a man dream? Especially a fantasy writer?

I hope to get back to a regular Friday pattern as soon as possible. Oh, and no news on the baby front yet.