French Letter: Pub talk is the great divide between England and France

One of the more obvious characteristics of expat communities in France is that they are, for the most part, retired. While there are certainly some young strivers, who have learned French and found “real” jobs, the majority live off their pensions, augmented by cash left over from the sale of their former homes in the UK. They don’t mix much with the French; their use of the language is confined to bonjour and merci and they interact with the economy almost exclusively by way of direct debits and credit cards. 

Oddly, it seems to work. There is no animosity that I am aware of. When the annual community lunch for the elderly came round in our local village, a special table was set for the English delegation, and when the commune’s quarterly magazine is published it includes a section in English, as if in braille, for those who in other circumstances might be dubbed the disadvantaged.

Another feature of the setup, which I’m sure is replicated across France, is that the English are from all over the place, so that conversation in the local pub is frequently conducted in the accents of Yorkshire, Wiltshire, Kent, Devon, Birmingham … and Angus. Given that the average age of the participants is 70, with one or two in their eighties, hearing is an issue, so that much that is said has to be repeated in a loud voice lest it be received with a polite smile that bridges a gulf of misunderstanding. 

Humour is the glue that holds everything together. Brits like to laugh at themselves, so that it is not uncommon for the locals, seated at their own table on a Sunday afternoon, to look round, mystified, as the anglais next to them are suddenly convulsed by a put-down that in France would be seen as an insult but which the Brits regard as bracing. 

I had previously observed this in New York, where I used to live. Americans in a bar can be noisy, but there is not a lot of laughter. They take themselves too seriously for that. Jokes are made at the expense of others with whom they disagree or who, more likely, they despise, but not about themselves. In much the same way, the French drink in convivial fashion – especially if it is a family outing, with Mamie and Papi in tow – but without stagecraft. There is no imagined spotlight. Unlike in England, an evening out is not performance art. 

Bretons are not performers. Even their music and dance is strictly choreographed. They are a broody people, not much given to uproar. In old age, they tend to melancholy. Suicide is not uncommon – usually by hanging. This is not to say that they lack a sense of humour, just that it is not deployed casually or wantonly. I suspect that in this sense they envy the English, who seem to get more out of life than they do and have faces marked by laughlines more than jowls. 

Once a month at our local, Les Fous (the very name – the Fools – a statement of Englishness), a large group of musicians and singers turns up from all parts of the late queen’s realm, forming what I like to refer to as the Guitar Orchestra of Great Britain. For some reason that I have never understood, most of the songs are sung in a standard folk accent, with its origins somewhere between Taunton and Stow-on-the-Wold, possibly Cirencester. Those of us who are not folkies listen politely, applauding where appropriate, but the French, I have noticed, seem barely aware of the intrusion. Their conversations continue uninterrupted even as the final chorus of The Sloop John B threatens to bring the roof down. 

Vive la difference, I suppose. But maybe they just block it out. 

I mentioned Wiltshire earlier, and here I must acknowledge the death of one of our most liked, and admired, Fousiens, Mike Garbutt, who has died aged 75. Mike was not, in fact, a fully paid-up expat. He and his wife Trina lived full-time in Devizes, where Mike ran a transport business that he had built up since 1968 to become a highly respected market leader. But they had owned a house on the outskirts of the village since 2003 and were regular visitors. 

Their neighbour, Hérvé – a one-time Onion Johnny – spoke good English and looked to Mike to fix his farm machinery and even to drive his tractor and trailer on various errands when he was otherwise occupied. This didn’t stop his cows from relieving themselves on their way past his friend’s front door, but the two were genuinely at ease in each others’ company, which was always nice to see: an entente cordiale in action. 

Mike was old-school. He wasn’t engaged in “logistics”, he once told me. His business was transport: picking up goods from one place and delivering them to another. But he kept up with the times. His 40-tonne trucks were Volvos of the latest kind, with sleeping quarters and computerised trackers. He could look at his smartphone in the pub and tell you exactly where his drivers where, right down to where they were having lunch. He could probably have told you if they were eating chips or mash. His sons, Stephen and Cameron, will now take over the business, with Trina as the matriarch, and I wish them well. 

Death did not come easily for Mike. He was looking forward to a move south, to the Charente, where he and Trina had bought a new place next to the river, not far from the fabled Chateau de Rochefoucauld. But it was not to be. We raised a glass to his memory the evening after hearing that he had passed and will do so again on the day of his funeral. He will be missed.

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