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Fitting in with France … and those French Women!!!

December 3, 2012

Géraldine Lepère, in a recent article in the Telegraph, assures us that French women are not perfect, nor intimidating.  I live in France and I beg to differ!

Although there are many women in France who are not catwalk-thin, and whose children are impeccable in neither appearance nor behaviour, if you want to get on in France, you’d better set your sights higher.  It’s the “perfect” people who have the edge, and people all around are constantly striving to improve.  However, being perfect isn’t all about being primped and preened.  Two French women have given me an insight into what it really does take to be one of the girls.  I will call them Mrs Perfect, and “Noelle”, the French lady with British neighbours.

The Image of Mrs Perfect

My French husband, in a bid to see me settle in to the gallic way of life, put me in touch with someone who, he said, could help, whatever that means!.  Having told my doctor husband that she “loves to receive visitors at home”,  she accorded me (not a doctor) an audience in the safe and sterile environment of a shopping centre coffee shop.  When I saw the immaculately-turned out woman coming towards me, a formal smile spread across her perfect face and a discreetly manicured hand stiffly outstretched, I knew my husband’s idea of “friendly help” to a foreigner was different to mine. Far from being an Englishwoman in France, as he’d said, she turned out to be very much French, and she certainly checked all the boxes in the stereotype!

Immaculately turned-out, she had previously had a successful international career, but was now marooned in Brittany, like me, because her children are young and, well, what’s the point of having children if you don’t spend time with them?  I got the distinct impression that she considers being a mother another quest for perfection, a goal that she pretty much has in her sights.  I also got the impression that my husband had let her know that I could do with some help in this direction.  Not liking smoke and mirrors much, I asked her outright, and she confirmed this.  Oh well, fair enough….  Look, those reading this are probably wondering why I let all and sundry tell me I’m a failure, and then publish this on the internet, in the UK national press, and what-have-you…. but I don’t think I’m alone and I want anyone reading this who thinks they’re the only one to be in this situation to think again – you’re not, and you can survive it!

By the way, I’d also ilke to point out that my husband didn’t mean to intimidate me, he genuinely thought she was English, and that she could offer me some tips on how to have a successful career in rural France.  But here’s the thing: she’s as lost as anyone else is here.  Her appearance gives the impression of a successful career woman, but that’s just what it is, a carefully orchestrated appearance.  I don’t mean to denigrate either her efforts or her actual achievements – she writes articles about eye-wateringly expensive houses and gardens for the sort of glossy lifestyle magazines whose cover price would tell you whether or not there’s any point in your so much as taking a peek inside.  So her career is still going, and she is in the enviable position of being able to balance this with her home life.  However, her domain is completely different to mine, so she didn’t have much concrete advice to give.

I should add that I am in just as good a position as she is, especially considering the shorter time that I have been here and the fact that my French has only been up to a respectable standard for less than a year!!!

She had one piece of advice for me: to ask my husband to “get me a contract” at the hospital where he works for English teaching or some other what-have-you.  We had a laugh, my husband and I, about that later that day.  I mean, really – I’ve been in France a fraction of the time she has, yet even I know that a doctor can’t just “get a contract” for his wife “because he’s a doctor”!  This is the French public sector (i.e. quite similar to the British NHS in this context) – not Ewing Oil!!!

The French lady with British neighbours

Having been recommended to take advice from someone who’s so out of touch with the real France, I decided to listen, instead, to those who are genuinely part of life in our corner of Brittany.  For instance, a lady who had come to me for English lessons and who introduced me to a British couple living nearby – who she promptly fell out with.  This lady, I’ll call her Noelle, has a small cleaning business.

I was recently in a position to ask Noelle why she’d suddenly given up on her erstwhile friends.  Suffice to say that it was really cultural – to the extent that without understanding each culture one wouldn’t understand the reasons even if they were presented in black and white.

To write about the story of those three and their ill-fated friendship would take a while, so I’ll sum it up by saying that initially Noelle was fascinated by her English neighbours, and they were glad of a friendly face among the rest in the area, who were rather conservative and not very open to people from elsewhere.  Unfortunately, though, Noelle turned out to be a rather needy and high-maintenance friend, who took umbrage at a few misunderstandings over invitations to days out, coffee, and such things.  All this could have been sorted out though – and I did try to play mediator on this because all three are good people who had previously got a lot out of their friendship – but it turned out that Noelle found her neighbours’ attitude to her “help” in “fitting in” was churlish – because they hadn’t taken her advice.  Worst of all was – wait for it – that the woman in the couple doesn’t work!  What business is it of anyone else’s, you might ask, if someone decides to lead a life of leisure?  Well you might ask this question, unless you live in France, in which case you would never ask that question in the first place.

There are a few cultural differences at play here that are difficult to explain, but I will do later, when I have worked out how best to commit them to paper.  So here, instead, are some brief pointers based upon the advice of two French women:

▪          Forget sophisticated beauty routines, there’s no point in being pretentious or trying to look “French”, in the unlikely event that you succeed, people will just think you’re from Paris (a big no-no!)  What matters is looking respectable.  French people change their clothes after feeding the animals, even if it’s just to do the school run.

▪          If you don’t work, expect to be treated with anything ranging from bewilderment to downright suspicion.  Whether or not you have enough equity in your house in the UK to purchase a house outright, and a nest egg squirreled away to give you an income, you have a moral obligation, as far as they’re concerned, to take an active role in the community.  By that, we’re not talking about running the WI or volunteering with the local youth football team, we’re talking about 35 hours’ graft every week – the voluntary work’s extra!

▪          If you’re doing home renovations or improvements, use the local accepted choices of floor coverings (NOT carpets) – think compatible with the daily mop and bucket (also compulsory items in the home).  Ditto for the render on the house.  You are only a temporary installation in the area, the house “belongs” to its local community, regardless of whose name’s on the title deeds.  Ignore these rules and your house will be difficult to sell (as well as your life being more difficult while you’re there!)

Accept any “hints” on how to fit in as practically compulsory.  Conformity is very important.  If you think they’re only teasing and they love you as you are, really, you’re in for a rude awakening!!!  The fact that you are here makes you an enigma, and being such is not a good thing.  Most french people would not put themselves in such a position of perceived weakness, and they expect you to feel beholden to them not to be an outsider.  The British penchant for breaking the mould looks, to them, like anarchy, and anarchists are a threat to their security… hence the “unfriendly” attitude towards people who choose to do as they choose saying “It’s a free country”.  Some countries are freer than others!

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2 Comments
  1. December 4, 2012 1:09 am

    You love your sweeping generalisations dont you Emily?! Doesnt your description of the above also apply to women in California? Or perhaps just Beverly Hills?

    But you are spot on right about some countries being freer than others. Compared to both France and USA the free-est country is England. Vive la difference….

  2. December 4, 2012 11:39 am

    Hi MC

    Well what would personal blogs be without the opinion of the blogger! But point taken, should I want this kind of article to be accepted next time by a broadsheet instead of finding itself relegated to my blog a day later like the last 3, I need to be more balanced. Difficult to do when trying to write quickly in reaction to a story that was published yesterday (without taking til next week to write it). A skill you published writers have honed and that I’ve yet to master!

    You know, perhaps that should’ve been my point – about people in Brittany acting like they live in Beverley Hills!

    And yes, the UK is the real land of the free. I hope that all who live there appreciate this point!

    E

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