Monday, June 16, 2008

Debunking the Myth

Today I had a social event! It was a Ladies Lunch at a splendid little place run by a jolly Belgian (or could be Dutch) couple who converted an old barn into a 'venue' where they run a series of themed lunches throughout the year. It's the only place you'll find Indonesian food in my neck of the woods.

The company was lovely, all bright, funny ladies who's company I enjoyed. We got onto the subject of the myriad books about 'living the Dream in France' and how totally divorced from reality most of them seem to be.

Much as I hate them I seem strangely drawn to them, rather like a lemming to a clifftop, and read them from cover to cover with much pooh poohing and rubbishing. They represent, to my mind, a totally false view of life in France for the average person and should be banned as they just lead to impressionable folk upping sticks and leaving their comfort zone for a rural French idyll that, frankly, doesn't exist except in the minds of a few deluded authors.

After all, if life in Provence was so wonderful, why did Peter Mayle only write about the first year? Maybe because after your talked about your builders, local cuisine and goat racing, there's not much else to write about!

John Burton Race wrote very prosaically about life in the Southwest but only stayed a year and Rosemary Baxter, who wrote the lovely 'Life in a Postcard' which heavily influenced me (OK, I admit it!) with her stories of renovating an old chapel in the Pyrenees and how much she loved the local village school, left after a few years when she discovered that a French education is very likely a blight on any child's life in the global world. Strangely, if you read her website, it appears that she is still happily residing in France but if you read the French version, there's a link to an article which tells of her eventual dissatisfaction and her decision to move back to the UK.

In almost all of them, the sun never ceased to shine, the shiny, happy locals are constantly on your doorstep with offerings of chutneys and jams, homemade pate and elderflower wine and life is just rosy.

The only one that came anywhere near the truth was by Susie Kelly who discovered that her neighbour in rural Charente was actually an international drug smuggler. Now that's more like it!!

I recently read a monthly newsletter by a reasonably local author who has just written a book. In it she talks about 'Glorious June' and the local town bustling people enjoying aperitifs in pavement cafes and bistros and I'm forced to ask if we are truly living in the same place.

So here's a bit of a reality check.

June has been far from glorious and has rained nearly every day, if not every day. Anyone eating outside would need at least thermal underwear if not a wet suit and name me one other time when you'd gladly sit and eat your lunch six feet from the exhaust fumes of a car! Anywhere but a pavement cafe in France and you'd be wearing breathing apparatus.

Markets are full to bursting of ripe, local fruit and vegetables but many are not so local unless Morocco and Spain are now part of France and all except the very few organic products (organic farming counts for less than 6% of all French fruit and vegetable) are liberally laced with pesticide residue. The heavy and consistent rains this year have decimated the plum crops and, despite this being 'cherry time' a blight has killed off most of the fruit this year. Deaths among French farmers from cancer are three times higher than the average population. This is believed to be due to the cocktail of pesticides, herbicides and other 'cides' that are sprayed on the fields. In my area, 80% of the food crops are believed to be contaminated by the vast amount of GM crops planted here.

When you ask people why they moved to France you often get the same reasons.

Easier pace of life - well I have to get up at 6.30am to get DS up to the village to get the school bus, then back home to get DD ready, then drive her to school. Even the simplest job is made more difficult by the fact that the shops shut for hours at lunchtime. If I had a euro for every time I had to leave before I finished all the jobs I had to do I'd be living in a chateau! It may be easier for those who are retired, who's life isn't dictated by catching the school bus and the school timetable, but for me, well I find it just as hard, if not harder.

No crime - WHAT? Crime in France is no different to the UK. When I read our regional paper there is usually a couple of murders, plenty of anti-social behaviour, burglary aplenty. Domestic violence in France is appalling as is child murder. My theory is that most English people that move to France speak very little French and so can't read the local papers or understand the radio so they live in blissful ignorance of the realities of crime here.

Good schools, firm discipline - wrong again. The French school system is deeply lost in the 1950s with a curriculum which is totally unsuited to life in the global world of the 2000s. IT isn't even a core subject and is not even taught in many schools. DS's college has numerous computers which have been broken for the past 2 years and he hasn't had a single computing lesson since he arrived in France. DS refers to it as 'death by worksheet' as most of the time he is expected to fill in countless worksheets and as for having an opinion on anything, that's a no-no. If teachers are sick the classes are cancelled and they strike at the drop of a hat.The education system seems designed to produce a nation of followers to do the bidding of the ruling elite who go to the Grand Ecoles in preparation for taking over the country. The government even pours in double the amount of euros to these elitist schools that it provides to the rest of the state education system.

France is also seeing a dumbing down of exams to make pass rates higher and this year many students haven't even finished the syllabus because they've spent half the year on strike. Never mind though, special dispensation will be given to all those who manned the barricades and blockaded their schools. Will the same dispensation be offered to those law abiding students who were prevented from attending classes by their more radical classmates I wonder?

Striking is a national sport, as is driving badly and fiddling your taxes according to the French press.

As for behaviour, in 2006, the last year for when figures are available, there were over 80,000 serious incidents in French schools. These include incidences of bullying, physical violence both to teachers and other pupils and theft as well as, worryingly, unauthorised people in the school grounds.

But children have so much more freedom... Would you let your child wander around the empty countryside in the UK? Why would you do it in France then? Children are abducted on an almost weekly basis here and children are nearly twice as likely to be murdered in France than in the UK.

And yes, French teenagers binge drink too. In fact, the problem is now so bad that the government is bringing in measures to help deal with it.

French country life is very different from English country life. French villages don't just appear to be dead, they really are! With the exception of a couple of months in the summer, you might never even see your neighbour. Most have no shops or cafes, no French version of the WI, in fact, absolutely nothing goes on. You also have to accept that you are living in a cultural desert where an old man playing an accordion is considered entertainment! And soft drug usage is as common as smoking a Gaulois.

Public transport is non-existent which does of course help to keep the teenage binge drinkers off the streets as they can't get to the towns so they do it in the privacy of their own homes. Local cuisine is generally duck, duck and more duck, beef is more suited to resoling your shoes, pizza is as exotic as it gets and French chic doesn't exist outside Paris. I still fly back to the UK to get my hair cut as I live in fear of ending up henna red or aubergine, or like the woman in our local supermarket, with leopard-spotted hair!

The local electricity supply is likely to be pretty unreliable and many people struggle to run a tumble dryer and boil a kettle at the same time. I even met someone who couldn't use her electric sewing machine and turn on a light at the same time. And this from a country that exports 60% of it's electricity production. Perhaps they could cut it to 55% so I could use my hairdryer and turn the iron on at the same time!

The ADSL connection is on and off like a bride's nightie (a quote I've plagiarised from one of my lunchmates today) and that's assuming you get it in the first place.

And the French, are they really so shiny and happy? Probably not. Unemployment is 10% countrywide, nearer 20% in the country and up to 60% for the under 25s in the banlieus of the large towns and cities. The French are the European leaders in the consumption of Prozac and have the either the highest or one of the highest incidences of suicide across all age groups in the world!

Alcoholism among the 'expats' because of course that's what we are, not economic migrants like the Eastern Europeans who go to the UK, is very high. Is it really the cheap wine or is it, more likely, the realisation that the 'French Dream' doesn't really exist?

On the plus side though, I live in stunningly beautiful area which takes my breath away on the odd days recently I can see it through the rain. The heathcare system is very good, although time will tell how long that will last, the croissants are delicious and my children are bilingual, which must surely be some benefit in the future.

So, if you are considering a move to France just remember that the grass may be greener but that's probably because it's liberally laced with pesticides and genetically modified!


Lehners in France said...

Very well summed up. What are French Markets all about? Brits on holiday rave about them! Over priced and happy to take your money. Let's hope July is better. Debs x

(Very) Lost in France said...

Hi Debs, welcome back. Totally agree about the markets. Can't people see they are being ripped off? July can't be any worse can it? VLiF

family affairs said...

I think maybe it's time you came back then....bloody hell, thanks for the reality check - v interesting. Thanks for leaving a comment and I'm sorry to hear about your brother Lx

Sandi McBride said...

I'm still laughing at your descriptions of living favorite saying is the grass is always greener over the septic tank, lol...thanks for coming in to see me, I'll be back to see you're very funny you know

sarah said...

Blimey, were you having a bad day! Time to stop the diet and eat again! Hopefully I'll see you later but please be nice to me! I'll put the kettle on....

(Very) Lost in France said...

FA - you never know!

Sandi - thanks for popping in. Hope to see you here again. I'll drop in on you again soon.

Sarah - me, I'm always nice to you! Today was a good day so imagine what I'd write on a bad one!

Lehners in France said...

I also forgot to say as regards to crime, eightenn months again someone tried to bundle an eight year old boy into a car in Naussannes. He failed by the same car was spotted later following a school bus in Bergerac. Two boys were abducted here nine years ago.

This bubble is a great place to live when you don't speak the language or have to earn a living. It's even better when you have someone else to speak the language for you. Debs x
P.S. Sorry about the rant, but these ex-pats p*ss me of!

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Hi VLiF - thanks for blogrolling me. It's really interesting what you are saying because we have thought 10,000 times about moving across to France (something always holds me back though!) I can speak French, Italian and Spanish. I've lived in Spain a fair bit, Egypt, Italy a bit and worked for a French Bank (Credit Lyonnais) in London (for my sins). I love being "on the continent" and speaking those languages. I love the better weather (?), the wine , the food and so on but I just have this idea that there is always going to be that cultural gap/gulf between me and the other nation. I applaud you for having taken the leap and trying it out. As you say...there are some benefits and for your children to be bilingual - that is fantastic. Giving them an idea of how another country lives that is great too. I shall enjoy reading your blog avidly. We pass through Grenoble and Lyon on our way back from our holiday in Italy soon. I shall think of you when I splutter/kickstart my rusty French!
A bientot et bon chance! Hadriana x

Anonymous said...


Just wanted to know that I have just quoted you in my latest blog, basically quoting some of the best comments from my readers.

I hope you don't mind but I was especially bowled over by readers such as yourself who made reference to my writing skills.

Your comment of 8 June 2008 now appears:

(1) down the right hand side of my web page; and

(2) in my latest blog today:

If you object to me using your comment in this self-publicising way, just let me know, either in a comment or e-mail and I will remove yours and leave the others.

Thanks + best wishes,

(Very) Lost in France said...

GTAF - not the slightest objection. You go girl! VLiF

blogthatmama said...

VLIF thanks for the visit to mine and what a laugh I've had on a rainy afternoon in North Yorks reading your blog. Fantastic! When we lived in London I used to dream of country cottages, now we're here reality strikes. I'll be back, as Arnie would say..

blogthatmama said...

VLIF have had a great laugh this afternoon in v rainy North Yorks reading your blog. When we lived in London I daydreamed a lot about country living - the reality is definitely somewhat different. Will be back! blogthatmamax

(Very) Lost in France said...

Hadriana - I think it's very easy to underestimate how difficult it can be living in a different culture how ever much you may love the idea. France is only separated from the UK by the Channel, but sometimes I think it might just as well be the Pacific Ocean, we are so far apart in the way we think. Have a wonderful holidaym, shame you aren't passing nearer, you could have popped in for a cuppa. VLiF

(Very) Lost in France said...

Blogthatmama, thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. I really enjoyed reading your blog too. May I blogroll you? VLiF