All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The black gang is with us

2007-12-04 Walpole Park, Men At Work, Laying T...Image by that_james via Flickr

Determinative sign of the penetration of the British into French life.....the Irish tinkers find it worthwhile coming over to perpetrate the tarmac scam.
The gendarmerie are investigating the case of a person who agreed to have his drive know how it starts.
'Good morning to you. We are working in the area and we're just finishing up and we have a bit of tarmac left....then we noticed your drive could, not being rude, you understand, do with a bit of improvement, and as we have the tarmac it won't cost you much...'
Well, the client agreed, the drive was not laid with tarmac but with what was described intiguingly as 'British gravel' and the whole thing cost a fortune. The disgruntled client legged it to the gendarmerie and, amazingly, it was open and they agreed to accept the complaint. Other rumours, had, it appeared, come to their ears of the activities of the black gang running under the name of reported...'Construction Dany O'Donaghue'. Typo, or an attempt to transcribe Danny with an Irish accent?
I think I can save the gendarmerie a lot of time - just check the 'Irish' pubs in the region.....the ones where they set fire to the bar at the end of the evening..... as the usual habit of the black gangs is to make a killing and not return to work until the killing has been, in the best sense of the word, liquidated.
A further sign of the recognition of the British presence. Those awaiting the flight from Poitiers to Stansted were astonished to see a light aircraft buzzing the airfield and releasing lots of leaflets. These proved to contain disapproving comments on Segolene Royal...Socialist party candidate at the last Presidential elections...and Martine Aubry, General Secretary of the same party. I know that Royal is President of the Poitou Charente regional council...thus Poitiers and its' busy airport is a prime target...but wouldn't you think it might occur to 'cellule sdf75', the supposed originators of the stunt, that most of the people waiting for a flight to the U.K. would be British and, for the most part, ignorant both of French language and French politics?
The indignant and maligned can form a line on the right.....I'm just thinking about most of the expats I encounter.

The resistance of the expat to the French language is quite astonishing. Local authorities set up courses, some of which are amazingly good and some of which degenerate into gossip shops, but it always strikes me that the average expat has no real motivation to improve. There are enough British in France now to allow people to form a social life independent of French, and a lot of people thankfully do just that. I think lack of confidence in learning languages is at the bottom of it, rather than the old imperial attitude of speaking English very loudly, and the age of some of the people coming over is another factor. I am not a good language learner at the best of times and when the brain is poised on its' skis for the downhill slalom it is not the best of times for new acquisitions. I notice that a few services have been set up to deal with your French paperwork and sort out your problems generally, so even that imperative to learn French has been removed. Whether they are any good is anyone's guess...I don't use them so I don't know...but I've seen a few self styled translators in my time and the results would make your flesh creep.
There has always been the exploitative expat around. It started with estate agents and carries on these days through financial advisors and service providers.
The next queue for the indignant and maligned may form on the left. There are reputable people doing all of the above and there are the others. It is of the others I speak.

Years ago, when the trickle started to become a flood, French estate agents used to 'employ' British negotiators to deal with their compatriots. Employ was always a misnomer...they were not employed and worked on do many to this day....nor were they registered with the professional bodies. Not that being registered is any guarantee of honesty or competence, it's just that French estate agents are warier these days and like to shrug as much responsibility as possible off onto their subordinates. Some of these first negotiators were well meaning people anxious to earn a bit on the side while some had ambitions.
There was one very amiable gentleman operating in my area in those days, when estate agents had a habit of dropping a bunch of keys and vague directions into your hands and letting you loose on their properties. He reformed all this. He accompanied all the foreign clients and took a mental inventory of the contents of the empty properties.....he never had to buy wood for winter, he emptied the wood stores of the properties on the firm's books. Choice furniture and ornaments would likewise be transferred to his, you must remember that French and British aesthetics differ, so while the family would have removed anything of interest to them, that left quite a lot of scope for the British collector.
His best coup came on the sale of a rural property which featured a run down house for renovation, stone outbuildings and a large Dutch barn at the back of the property. The client liked it, but, having used up his holiday entitlement, left a 'procuration', a power of attorney, with the agent to represent him in the sale process. Not a problem with the purchase, but when the proud owner came over on his next holiday, he found that he was no longer the proud owner of the Dutch barn. It had disappeared.
He eventually tracked it down to the yard of a local farmer, who seemed intent on covering his entire farm with metal structures. The farmer had bought it from the negotiator, who, when upbraided by the client, explained that he thought that the Dutch barn spoiled the property and was an eyesore, so he had got rid of it.
Not a penny of compenation was forthcoming.
There was a lot more going on than met the eye with this chap. A lot of clients seemed to have entrusted money to him for reasons which they were never keen to divulge when eventually, the gendarmerie were goaded into taking an interest in his activities and it appeared that very little of this was ever recovered, but the victims stayed quiet. I still wonder what all that was about!
Another pair had a different style. They left the card for their holiday cottages in the estate agents' offices, paid a little commission for recommendations, and had the victims to themselves, offering help as long term residents...well, longer term than the victims, anyway....guiding them to likely properties where another commission would be generated for the successful introduction, and, over drinks in the evening, as if by chance, the local builder, plumber and Uncle Tom Cobley and all would drop in, preparing the ground for the renovation contracts, when yet another commission would change hands.
There were any amount of these chancers about, but, how, I ask, as an innocent potential buyer, would you have avoided their toils? Watch out for your friendly neighbourhood expat exploiter is not one of the warnings I have read in the books preparing you for your move to France.

These days there is some protection in that a lot of people buy near friends or family and have a readymade back up system in realising their dreams of starting a new life outside the U.K., together with, as I say, the readymade social life to cushion the shock of change. The danger is that it cushions it so well that they may never really get to know the country in which they have chosen to live.
Sometimes, when I open the post, I think that that might not be such a bad idea!

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  1. You know what's funny, ok, not ha-ha funny, but you'll get the drift. We had the coup-de-foudre for the house & region, bought it, moved in & then began the long journey to get to know the neighbours, the area...the life. We didn't know a soul. Best thing we ever did. Every aspect of life forces us to live up to the challenge, and when we succeed it is all the sweeter. I couldn't imagine living here and not learning the language-seriously, how is it done? Every day is a lesson and it's our mantra! They just don't know what they're missing...and it ain't the rain! :)

  2. L.R. M-J, yes, me too. I wish I still had the energy of the early years, though.
    It can be fascinating when shopping hearing one expat instructing a newer expat on life in all seems to centre round their own expat groups!
    Then you listen to them ordering something at the cheese counter - I'm not being iffy, we've all been through this stage of language learning, but the contrast between their mastery of French and their mastery of life in France is......magisterial.

  3. "Watch out for your friendly neighbourhood expat exploiter is not one of the warnings I have read in the books preparing you for your move to France."

    Oh we've had plenty of them here too. Despicable characters. Although it never ceases to amaze me how gullible people are when buying a property in a foreign country. They think nothing of handing over their cash and power of attorney to a perfect stranger.

  4. Ayak, the problem is that the buyers are normal people who wouldn't dream of crooking anyone else, so don't imagine it can happen to them.

  5. It's curious, isn't it, to see the English abroad doing exactly what so many criticise in immigrant communities in the UK (not learning the language, living in self-created ghettos, not assimilating or integrating, exploiting their fellow compatriots, etc, etc).

  6. Pueblo girl, I'm probably too critical, but it is such a shame that people come to France just to recreate the life that they think has disappeared in the U.K..
    I get very fed up with France as it is now, but at least I know something of what's going on, as do my friends, while the majority expat groups just go swanning on, oblivious to everything.

  7. Fascinating post. I've lived in Paris for 17 years and I struggled with the language in the early days despite doing "A" level French at school. I went to Alliance Française and other classes, all of which helped.

    I have one distinct advantage in living here in that my wife is French and she can deal with the bureaucracy.

    In fairness to many Brit expats, French is a difficult language to master despite so many words being similar. My French is far from perfect as I work in English and speak English at home so my kids can be bilingual (they are). I'm fluent although I have an English accent that amuses my children. Funny daddy.

    P.S. The beer is Shepherd Neame; you almost spelt it correctly. I know because, many moons ago, I lived in Faversham that has a Sheps brewery which as a journalist on The Faversham Times I would get to tour once a year and sample their wares free. Happy days!

  8. I've met a few of these expat "consultants" too and have come across some of their imaginative schemes for multiple commissions. Still, you've got to admire the commercial accumen of some these people.

    I find the children provide my incentive for continually improving my French. I may never get anywhere near their accents (I've given up trying to sound even remotely French and have decided instead to model my manner of speaking on that of Etno Polino of Les Zinzins de l'Espace), nor the subtly of usage they can achieve, but I'm damned if the day will ever come when I can't understand them.

    Yet I meet people who seem to be perfectly happy to be ignorant of what their own offspring are saying, to revel in it even. Curious.

  9. Dumdad...brewery tours! Bliss was it then to be alive! I was never a good language student at school, but had to get to grips with French for work and then for living in the backwoods of rural France, so I did, with a lot of help from kind neighbours and the friends I made. It will never be perfect, and what astonishes me is that while no one detects a Scots accent when I speak English, most French detect it when I speak French!

    Jon, you're right..if you have kids then you have every incentive to keep up with the language! They have so many ways of making one feel inferior that the least one can do is to keep language off that list!
    Being ' as nosy as a peacock' translate Didier's phrase, I could not bear not to know what is going on about me and, like you, I cannot understand people who just let it all slide over their heads.
    As for the 'consultants' it strikes me as a good subject for a sociologist the way that these people can cheat client after client and still show their faces at social search of more victims. What is wrong with people that they don't ostracise these sharks?

  10. I just got back from my two weeks in France and I can say that the best thing I did before going was work on learning more French using Rosetta Stone. It was just amazing how even using a few lines made people respond. And we spent the last part of our trip meeting French people who spoke little English.
    I remember going through airport security my husband dropped our passports. "Il est fatigue" I commented and got a great smile from the man. I think that trying to speak French puts you in a different category from the regular tourist who doesn't even try. I received many smiles from waiters and waitresses and managed to understand the French people I met. Also trying to speak French makes the French people not as afraid to try their English so you meet in the middle.
    I did however, have my three French student friends to help out as translators once we got to St. Nazaire. But I will continue my studies for a hopeful next visit.
    I'd say learning some French is the single best thing a traveler to France could do.

  11. Zuleme, you got him to leave the weeding then....
    How one can travel without a word of the language, and get much out of the experience, I don't know. I'm not a linguist, but I did make an attempt to get some basic words together before travelling to Turkey and to Egypt - very basic, I'm afraid - but just as happened to you, people would meet you half way. And meeting people is more interesting than some of the monuments.
    But how can you live in a country - full time - and manage not to learn the language? It must take more will power than I have.
    I hope you enjoyed your sounded great, going from Provence up to Brittany.

  12. Meeting people is much more fun than meeting monuments! One of our best experiences was sitting at a cafe on market day with French friends and meeting others who came by. We met a painter who we immediately liked, went to his house, bought a painting and exchanged mutual open house invitations. And I hope he and his wife do come.
    We loved the trip and have over a thousand photos. We are videographers so we hauled along a Canon professional camera and Olof has put together a photo book as a gift for the friends who rented the house in the Luberon and invited us. I'm thinking about asking him to do one for the families in St. Nazaire and Nantes too.
    My husband is Swedish and grew up taking vacations in France so going there is familiar to him. We had argued about taking the TGV or driving from Paris and the train won and it was a great choice. We used the high tech camera to make friends on the train too. Olof would shoot a little movie with it and then pass the camera around.
    I think there will be more French friends coming to New Hampshire since we invited everyone we liked! We have a nifty guest suite here which is private and comfortable.
    We've been invited back and offered several places to stay. We were also invited to have lunch with the mayor which I would love to do next time with better French.
    My only problem is leaving my beloved cats and we are taking care of parents also. We had a full time house sitter for both and if I can get her again I'm all set.
    And one of our friends is a notaire.

  13. Zuleme, finally, a notaire in a white hat! He has to be fine if you like him!
    Your trip sounds so full of fun...and the filming must certainly have broken any ice around.
    I agree, the point of travel is learning through meeting people...but some super scenery is a plus as well. I am so glad you made so many contacts..people you want to meet again, people who want to meet you too...good job your good man forewent his weeding, wasn't it?