Monday, 10 November 2008

Spot the Anglo Saxon

Sometimes, particularly in the supermarket, or sitting on a café terrace, we indulge in a little game playing, our favourite being the politically incorrect but entertaining 'Spot the Brit'. I remember exactly when we got hooked into this one: we were at Rhodes airport, sitting out a seven hour flight delay in the café overlooking the main departure concourse. There were lines and lines of people waiting in check-in queues for flights to the UK, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Russia ... but we found that without even looking at the destination boards we could tell just by looking at the passengers which ones were British. It's hard to quantify how exactly, but I think it's something to do with a particular way we Brits tend to have of carrying ourselves, of being in ourselves: slightly apologetic, with a vague air of discomfort about being in the world.

Having said that, here in France I often get taken for a Belgian, apparently something to do with my French accent (which was honed in Switzerland many years ago - complicated or what?). Not exactly a compliment, given that the Belgians are the butt of ethnic jokes by the French in the same way as the Irish are in England. I recently shared a lift (as in thing that goes up and down) with two people, one of whom was acting a little strangely to say the least with the effect that we all ended up after ten minutes back precisely where we had started. When the offending person finally disembarked, the other guy yelled after her "T'es Belge ou quoi?" (Are you Belgian or what?). Then he looked at me and said, rather sheepishly "Ben, vous n'êtes pas Belge, madame ...?" (Er - you're not Belgian, are you?). I laughed, said I wasn't and made some innocuous comment about our 'adventure'. In pure John Cleese style he covered his face with his hands, bent over double and said "Merde - vous êtes Belge - je suis desolé ..." (Shit - you are Belgian - I'm really sorry ...").

There is, however, one sure fire way of spotting the Anglo Saxon in France, or indeed in any other southern European country. The Anglo Saxon is the one that gets their kit off whenever the sun shines, even if it is November. I guess that to those of us who've grown up in a country in which grey skies are the order of most days and strappy tee shirt days can be counted on the fingers of one hand, it's perfectly natural to want to 'profit from', as the French say, the warm sunny days that we get throughout the year. So, for example, I've spent the last three beautifully sunny afternoons working in the garden in shorts'n'strappy. For me, c'est normale; it was a good 20 degrees, maybe 10 degrees more in the sun - a pretty nice English summer's day. For our neighbours down in the valley though, who are the same ages as us and pretty alternative in other ways, it's verging on insanity, as is our habit of eating outside several times a week even in winter.

One of the great things about living in the far south of France is that there's real heat in the sun even in the depths of winter, but go to the market or a fête or foire on a sunny day and it's easy to spot the blow-ins; we're the ones in tee shirts, while everyone else is huddled in jumpers and jackets and ponchos and hats. There are exceptions, of course: a sunny restaurant terrace on a Sunday lunchtime seems to offer some kind of implicit permission to break the normal rules, and I've even seen people (and yes, they were French) in bikinis on the Languedoc beaches in January. But on the whole, as soon as summer's over - and that means September - arms and legs are put away for another eight months.

Integration's all well and good, but there are some ways in which I'll always be the token Brit.

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