What is it about France that makes it so addictive? For some it’s the Eiffel Tower, or the old town of Nice, the wine, the cheese and cakes. Everyone has something that makes them fall head over heels for l’hexagone as it’s known. For writer Chris Poctor it’s many things, not least of all the people, croissant, culture and a whole lot more…
I spent much of last year writing a novel set in France. It was torture. Not the writing – that was good fun. Being a novelist is like being God. If you turn against a character, you can give him a black eye or a cardiac arrest. Anyone you take a fancy to can be awarded a new bathroom or a dressed lobster. That bit was fine. Being God is very pleasurable. In fact, should a vacancy occur, I shall certainly apply.
No, the trauma came from sitting in north London and thinking about the South of France. I’d be picturing a character setting out to help with the grape harvest, and look out of the window to discover a sky scowling at me, the colour of Gray’s Anatomy. I’d be imagining a sunny morning at a French market and remember I had to go to the dentist that afternoon. I’d be enjoying the company of eccentric and amusing ex-pats and be summoned to deal with an indolent plumber.
I didn’t want to be in London. I wanted to be in rural France with the characters in my book. I was filled with a yearning nostalgia for the Gallic life I wasn’t living. I wish someone had told me that developing a deep affection for France was addictive. I’d have thought twice about ever crossing the Channel. Maybe I’d have considered appreciating the attractions of Welsh industrial architecture instead. I began to develop withdrawal symptoms from a France-deprived existence; and the efforts I made to recapture the bliss met with little success.
I hunted out croissants with the verve of a pig pawing out a truffle. But back in my own kitchen I discovered that they might look like croissants, smell like croissants and even feel like croissants. But they were never the glazed brown Gallic crescents I craved. I even dug out my Breton beret, wrapped myself in a woollen tricolour and sipped an expresso at a metal table by the side of the road. It didn’t work. The cup was wrong. Or the bitterness was missing. The fact is, the location was faulty. A proper coffee needs Parisian paraphernalia, Alpine ambience or the scenery of the Sud.
Besides, the people who fetch your coffee order in England don’t cut the Dijon. In France, being a serveur is a superior calling, a noble art. I crave the flourish of a gent in a black waistcoat and his concerned inquiry of my needs. In London the norm is a disgruntled undergraduate with ripped jeans and a surly attitude asking, ‘What?’
And then there’s the music of French voices. I became desperate to hear those rich soft tones. I began to slip furtively down the bus to seize any eavesdropping opportunity if I heard a guttural Gaul aboard, rather than abroad. It is not uncommon to hear a French accent where I live in north London, as there are both a French nursery and a bilingual secondary school nearby. I took to haunting these establishments in the forlorn hope of exchanging a casual ‘ça va’ with an uninterested juvenile. But it wasn’t conversation.
I’m instinctively biased towards anything with a hint of French. Only this morning a rather ugly dog took to worrying my left leg and snapping malevolently as I walked over Hampstead Heath. I was on the point of issuing its owner with a well-honed tirade of foul language when I heard a voice with Parisian tones telling the hound to ‘arrête’. The owner was French! I was instantly transformed into a benevolent and understanding canine fancier, smiling tenderly at what had only moments before been a slobbering mutt, and was now, to my eyes, a rather handsome hound. An English person bumps into me in the street and I fire off a disdainful glance: a French tourist does the same thing and I apologise profusely, savouring my assertion that ‘C’était certainement ma faute’.
And how I missed rolling out my own version of French words. I am particularly partial to ‘romarin‘. I practice it as I gargle mouthwash. In that blessed land I go out of my way to discover dishes where I can ask if they have anything with a rosemary garnish. And ‘affreux’. I’m not even sure what it means but I love saying it. ‘Girophare’ is a prized item in my collection. I’ve driven miles in pursuit of a tractor with a flashing light just to comment upon it. Not to mention ‘in-croy-able’, a word I can stretch out to the time it takes an egg to boil.
Talking of which, who wouldn’t prefer ‘oeufs brouillés‘ to scrambled eggs? Or a ‘croque monsieur’ to cheese on toast? Even buying wine to drown my sorrows became a dispiriting experience. There may be rows of French wines in British supermarkets; but there’s never enough of them. It feels out of place for one thing, like buying Pont-l’Évêque cheese in Liverpool. Besides, I am used to shelves of claret reaching further than the eyes of a buzzard can focus; with a small bin at the end above which is a sign you can hardly make out for cobwebs, marked ‘vins étrangers’.
I found myself missing French names. They always sound much better than ours. Like the captain of the French football team used to be Laurent Blanc. I would have paid him scant attention had he been called Larry White. Not to mention Thierry Henry. If he’d been Terry Harry, he wouldn’t have got a game for a pub team. Even the names of French products have their own magic. I smile at the label on the jam on the table. How appealing is that title: Bonne Maman. If I’d seen the same product in a jar called Good Mummy I’d no more fetch it home than I would a tin of custard. Mind you, I’d probably have snatched at a tin of crème anglaise.
I began to show signs of severe deprivation phobias. I didn’t want to go into the London Underground: I wanted to descend into the Paris métro. I didn’t want sandwich spread: I wanted pâté de campagne. An oyster isn’t a patch on a huitre. And I don’t want the weather: I want the météo. I regularly found myself checking the weather outlook for Sarlat before wondering what was in store for me in London.
This constant thinking about France was reducing me as a human being. I am undoubtedly a more pleasant person on the other side of the Manche. I become a different person, suave and bursting with sangfroid. I become cultured. I seek out churches and galleries instead of betting shops and backstreet bars. I’m drawn to national monuments rather than my bed. I swagger in linen shirts in preference to hunching in frayed jogging pants.
In England I pass the National Gallery with its array of world renowned masterpieces without a second look; in France I make a beeline for a ill-assorted couple of watercolours in a provincial galerie d’art. Over here I don’t give a second look to a world heritage cathedral; over there I can’t pass a chapel without clogging up the memory of the camera of my phone. I look the other way as I speed past Kew Gardens or St James’ Park; while there’s not a chateau grounds in Aquitaine I don’t have to be dragged from at sunset.
Let this be a lesson to you, dear reader. Don’t get sucked into craving Francophilia. Only go there when snow is forecast. Take your own food. Restrict your French reading to obscure incomprehensible surrealists. Arm yourself with flasks of instant coffee. Seek therapy. Venture no further than the Gare du Nord.
And never write a novel about France if you’re not living there. Even if you’re God, the torture can be devilish.
By Chris Proctor, author of French Leave. See our review of French Leave