I have just returned from a visit to the UK. People often ask me what I miss about England, having left 13 years ago. I can happily live without most things, but there are three features of English life I sometimes hanker after.
The first is English country pubs. You know the sort, with beams and roaring log fires and picturesque local characters propping up the bar and telling their life stories in exchange for a pint. I’m told that country pubs are dying out, so they might only be a rosy memory for everyone within a few years.
The French have cafés and bars, which have their own charm, but they are not the same. The French ritual of taking an apéritif after work is nothing like the English ritual of going to the pub before Sunday lunch. And it’s not common for women in rural France to go into a bar.
No doubt, I am remembering English pubs as they used to be, not as they now are. Nowadays, it seems, all pubs feel the need to be ‘gastropubs’, offering international tucker, such as risotto with sundried tomatoes and Thai green curry. Whatever happened to good old steak and kidney pie?
The second thing I miss is browsing in English bookshops. I don’t find the French versions as appealing. I don’t think it’s because of the language. While my French will never be perfect, I feel quite comfortable reading novels in French. It’s partly because of the décor: French bookshops around here just don’t seem as inviting (they might be better in Paris or big cities). It’s also partly owing to the way the books look. I find English books more attractively designed than French ones, despite the French penchant for the avant-garde.
The third thing is the English sense of humour. This is inevitable. Humour is deeply rooted in cultural background and upbringing. Not having been brought up in France, I simply don’t understand some of their humour. We have tried watching French stand-up comedians on TV, but just get lost, while the French studio audience is clearly rolling in the aisles. We don’t share the same background; so we don’t understand the allusions; so we don’t get the punchline.
[An aside: the word comédien(ne) in French means actor; the word for a comedian is un comique. Another example of words that look the same but mean different things.]
English humour is based on an acute sense of the absurd (Monty Python, for example) and an ability to ridicule oneself – something the French don’t generally do (although we have a couple of friends who are exceptions). The French are keen on slapstick and political satire. There are some points of overlap. The French adore Mr Bean, for example, but that is exportable because it’s mostly visual humour with very little dialogue, like Marcel Marceau.
The ability to quip and banter is a hallmark of English humour. If you see a group of business people laughing uproariously in an airport lounge, for example, you can put money on them being English. And you can be sure they are taking the mickey out of themselves and each other. A group of French business people would never behave like that. French people feel it’s not bien élevé to make a lot of noise in public. And French company hierarchies are more rigid than English ones; you would never find a French employee gently mocking his/her boss.
I’m not saying that English humour is superior to the French equivalent; it’s just different. And because I haven’t been brought up to appreciate the French variety, I will always feel less comfortable with it.
So, although I feel I will be in France for the duration, a few things about England are part of my cultural DNA. But wouldn’t it be dull if we were all the same? Les différences are partly why we moved here and why we still find so many new things to marvel at, even after 13 years.
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