Saturday, 29 November 2008

Les Anglais disent "bye bye".

Fortunately, nobody's asked me yet if we're 'living the dream' here in France. Clearly we move in the wrong circles, which is probably just as well, because both the phrase and the whole concept provoke in me the same kind of response that I have to tripe, or to chalk scraping on a blackboard, or to badly cooked aubergines. It conjures up an endless round of hot sunny days sitting on the terrace by the pool sipping wine, while drifting around in long flowing skirts and every so often popping a couple of hundred yards along the road to pick up just-baked baguettes and call in at the thriving and impossibly picturesque local café for coffee or pastis. Quite apart from the point that a life like that would have me swiftly joining the other 10 million plus French people supposedly reliant on anti-depressants, the facts are that I possess neither a pool nor a long flowing skirt; most local cafés here are more impossible than picturesque and are probably in their death throes anyway; and the boulangerie is 3km down (and up, and then down, and then up ...) the road. Oh, and - are you ready for this? - it rains here too.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because a couple of days ago our regional paper, La Depêche du Midi, ran a prominent article entitled 'Les Anglais disent bye-bye'. Because of the fall in the value of sterling, the increase in the cost of living and the effects of the financial crisis, the British are leaving France in droves: "For them, it's the end of a dream, the story of an attempt at integration messed up by the crisis". Apparently, one British immigrant in five goes back within the first three years - and it seems that not only is this figure is on the rise, but now, because of la crise, they are not being replaced by newcomers (to the great chagrin of the immobiliers, who have to some large degree traded off the British for the last few years).

La Depêche goes on to point out though that la crise is only partly responsible. With a touch of understated glee, it describes how the British can no longer afford to buy in the south-west, where property prices have risen sharply over recent years (although it stops - just - short of suggesting that they might now be hoist on their own petard). And, it says, "The British are also wheeler-dealers. They bought their houses when prices were low and expect to sell them at a profit, so that they can go off and buy cheaply somewhere else - in Croatia, for example".  There are other issues too: homesickness, isolation, boredom, difficulties of integration, disappointment with the winter climate ... in other words, the souring of the dream. 

We don't 'do', and can't be doing with, expat circles, so I don't really know how much this phenomenon comes close to home. There are other British people living in Ariège, and yes, we're even friends with some of them, but largely (and pretty much exclusively over in our 'bit' of the department) we're just people who've come to live an ordinary life, not a dream, in France, warts and all. We didn't come to be part of an expat community or to get away from an England that's 'going to the dogs' as have, I'm told, a number of Daily Heil reading settlers; nor are we about to go 'home' (sic) to get away from a country that is, now we've taken our Blytonian glasses off, even more unpalatable than the one we left in the first place. The only sizeable British community in Ariège is around Mirepoix: a very pretty and beautifully preserved small bastide town over on the far eastern border which has seen an extraordinary influx over the last few years - try and get a café table after the Monday market and you'll find almost every one jealously occupied by groups of British expats with golf club voices (sits back and waits for flak ...), plus there are English book groups, discussion groups, art classes and so on. But that's very much the exception here, thank heavens. 

So in spite of la crise and the weakness of sterling and the high cost of living; in spite of the fact that we're considerably poorer (in money terms, that is) than we were when we first came here; in spite of the fact that there are aspects of French life that are just as bizarre and frustrating as are parts of British life; in spite of the fact that so many things - like renovation! - take so long to happen; in spite of the fact that it rains; in spite of the fact that my Saturday night entertainment runs to sitting here writing this blog; even in spite of the fact that the Parti Socialiste has well and truly (and possibly terminally) shot itself in the foot and therefore that we'll have Sarko, or his look-alike, in power for the foreseeable future: in spite of all of that, we're going nowhere. These Anglais are definitely not saying bye bye.

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