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.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Paris and the provinces

VezelayImage by cbertel via Flickr
 I was reading a pleasant article...though I have now forgotten a chap who had been visiting Paris and was surprised how friendly everyone was which was contary to its reputation and his expectations.
I don't often go to Paris....usually crossing it is enough for me, from one station to the other....but I have only twice met with rudeness there in over twenty years of intermittent visits. On both occasions it was from a person safely esconced behind a counter and a glass wall.

As a tourist, I used to go occasionally to Paris, staying in the cheap hotels round the Gare du Nord. Now, if I have to go for any reason, I stay in the slightly more upmarket hotels in the same area...the ones with bathrooms. Then as now, the hotel staff are Algerian. The local shops are Algerian. The little cafes where I look for lunch or supper do not have maitre d's..they have Italian waiters who are kindness itself.

There must be another Paris which I do not have enough money to frequent.

I have met only one other rude Parisian, and I met her in London. She was trying to find the School of African and Oriental Studies of London University and was clearly lost. From her question as to directions, it was clear that she was French, from Paris and that her English was not up to much, so I thought I would help by replying in French. She looked rather as if I had just slapped her between the eyes with a wet fish, then, eyeing me with a contempt that was palpable, she continued in her execrable English.
I am afraid I directed her to Kings Cross where I thought she would feel more at home.

Seeking approval, the British who buy a house in the French countryside are delighted to be told by  local people that they would prefer to have foreigners - well (unspoken) white non-muslim foreigners - than Parisians as neighbours.
I think this is a sort of back handed compliment, and long observation leads me to believe that this is because the Parisian is far more wary and on the lookout for rural craftiness than the starry eyed British immigrant looking for a dream.

There has long been an urban/rural split in France.
When I was househunting all those years ago, it was long before the days when every gite and bed and breakfast was being run by a beaming Brit, and I stayed mostly with urban French who had retired to the country.
To a man they were scathing about their rural neighbours.

'Watch out when they smile at means they've got one over on you.'
'Off to church every Sunday...from what they get up to they should be on their knees in there all day every day.'
'Keep your hens locked up.'
'Count your fingers.'

This view is not new.
'Ignorant, full of prejudices, they have no scruples in craft or in deceit.' Thus an officer speaking of the country people around Le Mans in the 1860s.(1)

Country people were held - by the urbanites - to be uncouth savages, ignorant and cunning.

Well, from some of the stories I have been told about youth and growing up in the French countryside between the wars here, it was a damned hard life if you were on the bottom of the heap, so what it had been like in earlier centuries passes the powers of imagination. Lack of education, superstition, bigotry and poverty are not the best feeding grounds for ethics and morality.

However, the old habits linger.
The village feuds carry on down the years - luckily, as foreigners, we are excused boots in this regard.
The delight in getting one over on someone we are the perfect targets as not being part of the fabric of the feuds so lessening the chances of retribution.
The avidity for land which leads to endless boundary disputes.
The jealousy. Monsieur X might have three centimes...he begrudges Monsieur Y one.

It is far from universal. There are many kind hearted and helpful people in the countryside, but they are not generally the ones wielding any power.

Book after book and blog after blog relate tales of crafty maires trying to put something over on a foreigner and it is all laughed off as being part of the rich experience and privilege of living in rural France.

It is nothing of the sort. The rose coloured spectacles should be lifted to admit that these guys are taking advantage of the lack of experience and lack of language of foreigners moving into their communes. People who pay taxes.
I have posted earlier here about public and private enterprise in the matter of land and boundaries. You can bet anyone's boots that these shenanigans would not have been tried on a Parisian.
There is a Paris based judge with a holiday home near St. Ragondin. He is deeply unpopular with his farming neighbours for refusing them permission to use a ditch which crosses his land for farm waste.
It wouldn't surprise me if the dafter type of Brit would be persuaded it was his civic duty and evidence of his willingness to integrate to accept.

So, if you're moving to the provinces, make friends with your Parisian neighbour. He has suspicion built into his genes and might well save you from a host of problems.

(1). I am indebted to Eugene Weber's 'Peasants into Frenchmen: the Modernisation of Rural France 1870 - 1914' for the quote.
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