Looking back at life in France so far, Neil Spoonley recalls how he and his wife slowly fitted into the community by attending, among other things, village dinners and dances
Starting school, moving to a new one, getting a new job, changing your job, or moving house. All of these require an element of fitting in, and so does moving house and country when people relocate to France.
Of course, not everyone wants to fit in but most wish to enjoy many aspects of French life, and that demands a certain element of intégration as the French would say. An additional aspect is when you move generations, from teens to adult and then to silver-top oldies or les aînés.
Such was our dilemma when we moved permanently to France to a small rural commune, as we never really do feel old, and have never been inspired to join a local old folks’ club.
We did have one advantage, however, which was that we both spoke fluent French and that does make fitting in somewhat easier.
Then, through the mail, came the invitation to the oldies’ free lunch with the members of the local council. What should we do? One of us was well past the 65-year starting block, while the other was moving towards it.
We decided to accept and with some apprehension waited as the days drew nearer to when we should be faced with the unknown. Sadly, a parent died the day before in England and we did not feel like a long afternoon as we had to get to the UK the next day. We decided to at least make a token effort and we went, letting the maire know that we would only stay for a short while.
Thus we downed the starter soup, Perles du Japon, which tasted of well-used water, and then the next course. This was enough time for me to be regaled with a lecture from my neighbour at the table on the legal status of mistletoe on apple trees. Fascinating?
Land of a thousand dances
The next year we did make it properly, but made the mistake of agreeing that some French friends would call round to see us at six o’clock. It was hard to believe that all these old people who had started out at midday were still at it, and had not had their dessert when we had to leave. What impressive stamina!
The food was passable, but the afternoon dragged on interminably with a few couples dancing between each course to the sound of an accordionist. The ladies sitting across the floor brought back memories of my first school dance at the end of term hop.
With great trepidation I walked across the dance floor to all the sitting young ladies.
“May I have this dance please,” I said to one of them.
“Of course,” she said, and stood up. She was about a foot taller than I was and I had to endure the whole dance with my nose at the level of her developing bosom. That day I learnt that unless you’re seven foot tall, don’t ask a sitting lady to dance.
We failed to make it the following year as we were snowed in and had to call to say we could not get there. We made up something at home, but an hour later the maire called to say that he wanted to send a tractor for us, but by then, with the warm fire and having already eaten we stayed put. Some days later we were delighted to find one of the local councillors on the doorstep with a box of goodies, wine and pâté which is given to all eligible couples who do not make the lunch.
Two by two to tango
We missed a year as we were away and then came the next invitation. We hesitated but finally there was a feeling of it being a duty as we were the only foreigners ever to attend. So we went. The traiteur (caterer) had changed and suddenly the food was much more acceptable, but the dancing continued.
Should we dance, or sit it out? We are not great dancers but it seemed that neither were most of the others on the floor. Eventually we decided we would get off our bums.
We waited until the floor was a bit more crowded, and our inabilities could be well hidden, and then hesitatingly began to spin around each other and around the floor. It is rather like the way planets spin around themselves and then around the sun. Rather pagan in a funny way.
We made it around once and then suddenly changer les partenaires was called out. Before we had absorbed what that was all about I was grabbed into the arms of an aging woman and hurled around the floor. She must have been the local straw-bale throwing champion, or trained in Mongolian wrestling.
Changer les partenaires: phew that’s better, much more sedate, but what else could I expect from our young maire’s partner? Changer les partenaires: I asked this next little old lady if she had ever been in the arms of an English man, and she said “Non!”. Something for her to boast about at her next sewing circle meeting. Changer les partenaires: oh dear, I was afraid the next lady would not make it to the edge of the floor, never mind around it.
Changer les partenaires: is it possible to have shoulderblades that could cut into the palm of your hand? Well this thin lady was in that group; I could have played a tune on her vertebrae. And then it was all over, and I returned to my chair.
I had, of course, over the shoulder of all these ladies, seen my wife being flung from man to man, but she returned smiling like a Cheshire cat, as one of the men had complimented her on her dancing. No one did that to me.
We returned home to watch Strictly Come Dancing, marvelling at their antics and wondering why we hadn’t tried some of them on the dance floor. I have often longed to throw my wife up into the air, spin her around and place her gently back. For some reason she’s not that keen.
So we fitted in, and of course as we now bump into people there are many more bonjours and even bisous, even if we can never remember their names. But in one particular way fitting in is difficult. As we looked around the hall at the faces of all these older people we realised that many of them had been adults during the period of German control in World War II, when some 47 youths were massacred in our village and many fought in Algeria. What stories they have hidden in their hearts. These experiences are still vivid in their memories but are like a closed book to us.
Most were farmers as we live in a very rural area, but that is no problem as we can talk about gardens. Above all we can talk about food. If you can do that, even if you dance badly, you can always fit in in France!
Dance to a French tune
Many families fall in love with France and wish to move permanently… but why? Some believe that they will be more content in France than where they are and think that integration into the local community will enhance that feeling.
A community is not a homogenous entity: it is made up of many sub-communities defined by age, politics, interests, country of origin, traditions. So when one talks of integration it is not as simple as one might imagine.
No doubt each family will have its own views of integration. Some may not wish to integrate at all and yet be perfectly happy to enjoy some aspects of French life, living almost isolated from the French community. Others want to become more involved and see their integration in terms of one or more chosen sub-communities, and be content to not go much further. Then there are those who wish to immerse themselves much more across the communities, and finally there are those who almost become French.
By considering these different levels it is possible to identify different paths to integration, with the opportunity to evolve from one level to another. Almost everyone will agree that learning French is an absolute must to enable full integration, but it may not be so necessary for a family that pursues selected integration. Clearly, everyone will pick up those obvious phrases and words for shopping and minimal conversation, but they can integrate perfectly well with the English- speaking community, and some of the communities defined by interests.
As soon as you look towards a greater level of integration, an increasing fluency in French is almost a necessity, but it is no guarantee of successful integration. Some French families moving to our department of Corrèze have found it very difficult to achieve the full integration that they desired despite their language capability and have left, simply because of the barriers of tradition and suspicion of outsiders.
Learning French is not easy, even in France as there are few teachers of conversational French and very few immersion courses. The availability will depend to some extent where you live, but in rural areas there is almost nothing available close by.
Can anyone give meaningful advice? It is not easy, as families and their objectives differ so much, but here are some simple actions:
• Learn about the local council, meet the maire, and use the office of the mairie from time to time, even if you have to invent reasons, like making photocopies. Pick up a copy of the annual bulletins at the local mairies which tell you about local activities.
• Call on the tourist office and ask for information about local events and activities.
• Register to vote at the mairie. This puts you on the EU electoral roll and some mairies use these lists for issuing invitations to events.
• Regardless of your French fluency, accept all invitations to New Year drinks, helping to plant flowers in the village, or other events and fêtes. You will be surprised how many people do actually speak some English.
• Shop locally on a frequent basis, not just once a week, use those few phrases you know as often as possible and visit your local market.
• When entering small shops it is courteous to greet everyone there with a muttered, “bonjour messieurs, dames”.
• Look for opportunities to contribute, like planting public areas, making cakes for sales.
• Seek out interest groups such as bridge, gardening, dance, collecting, rugby, walking.
• Follow any local websites, both English and French, for news and activities.
• Use local French tradespeople, and ask for their recommendations if you need others.
• Beware of negative rumours spread by other expats, and seek other opinions.
Save the last dance
Can you know if you are integrated? Possibly not with any certainty, but there are some indications and the obvious one is when people from the communities within which you wish to integrate tell you that you are! An alternative is to follow the increase in waves across the street, the handshakes, and the invitations, all of which are indicators of acceptance and integration.
Above all, it is important to recognise that it is up to each individual to seek integration. There is little motivation for the communities to encourage it, and hence it will not happen unless you want it to, have patience and are prepared to take actions to make it happen.