On holiday last week, I tried to describe to my new French neighbour where we live in England. In the end I opted for south of London and north of Brighton - hoping his abilities with UK geography ran to knowing the whereabouts of a large English seaside resort.
My explanation became just as vague when I tried to explain what I did as Leader of Horsham District Council. I think he finally got the picture that I wasn’t like one of those seemingly all powerful French mayors!
Our neighbour then decided I would like to hear his view of the British. This centred on our dreadful food and cuisine, the fact that it is apparently always raining in England and that we are a real obstacle to the development of a political EU (which my neighbour wants).
His opinion seemed to be based on a childhood exchange visit to England, where the host family apparently lived on little other than tinned spaghetti on toast and when it rained most of the time. His daughter and her husband, who were also there, however, disagreed with his stereotypical views.
In return, I offered a stereotypical British view of the French really to try to show him how stereotypes and reality can differ greatly. Then I got round to pointing out to his great surprise that London is the city with a larger French population than Bordeaux. In fact it is the city with the sixth biggest French population in the world - so over 300,000 French people find living in London to be to their liking.
It was actually in many ways more interesting to hear the views of the younger members of the family since from my experience they see Britain in a totally different light. True, they had not experienced the delights of tinned spaghetti but they have been to England, the husband several times - twice very recently on business, and his wife for one long and two short holidays during the last three years.
They would apparently both be happy to live in England and love the wealth of cuisine they find available, from Indian food through to fish and chips, and eating steak and kidney pie in a local pub was a particular pleasure. Even chilled ready meals from M&S were mentioned since there is nothing really like them available in France.
They especially like the openness and tolerance of the British, their willingness to change, and find them friendly and welcoming.
They added that the sun does actually appear from time to time! They also remarked on the current difference in confidence in the future that they find exists in Britain where they rather feel that France has lost its way.
This last point is certainly one that has struck me too this year. While in Britain we are now seeing strong signs of economic recovery and increased confidence, in France the news bulletins still frequently refer to ‘la crise’ (the crisis), very high unemployment and mention that restaurants and shops in holiday areas are all reporting poor sales.
None of this is helped by a President who promised the French something other than austerity but is now forced to take desperate measures to try to reduce the national debt.
For me the big difference is that while over the last four years the British seem to have woken up to the fact that their country has to pay its way and the government doesn’t have a big stockpile of money to spend, here in France there is undoubtedly still a huge feeling of entitlement to a short working week or retirement at 60 as the norm. And if you don’t get it you arrange a demonstration!
I have been coming to France for many years now and often wondered how France seemed to somehow defy economic reality and have wonderful roads, high speed trains, a superb health service, high pensions and most people working only a 35 hour week.
I think now for maybe the first time reality may be dawning but we shall have to see.
Anyway, my neighbours’ children are going to take them on an autumn break to England to put them right, including a visit out of London to see us in our beautiful West Sussex!
As for my view... Vive la difference and long may it remain!