Monday, June 02, 2008

We’re the only English in the village!

We live in a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere, and yet there are ten English families living near us. When we lived here seven years ago the only English I bumped into were retired couples who lived in their summer houses or eccentric hippies looking for a different lifestyle. I used to meet them at the recycling depot or wandering hopelessly around the supermarket looking for ginger biscuits.

Now we have an influx of young families. Many choose remote rural areas, with houses they can renovate. Families who move out here take a huge risk, the country life can be lonely and there is no English-language school available. It’s hard for the children, thrown into the strict French educational system. The parents are optimistic and keen to immerse the family in French cultural life. Before signing the papers to their houses they imagine chatting over the fence to their French neighbours and speaking perfect French in just a few months with their new friends over an aperitif.

In reality, their best friends tend to be English. The numbers of English residents has sky-rocketed in five years. There are estimated to be around 400,000 British families in France. In the English café in the local town I browse the monthly newsletters offering English plumbers, carpenters, gardeners…A whole community has materialized to meet their needs. The supermarket has an International section now (baked beans, HP sauce, Tetley’s tea-bags…) and the staff speak English these days.

In the local village school Marc and Nina attend (four classes, three teachers and sixty-six pupils) there are seven English kids. That’s nearly 10%. The seven kids naturally talk English together, even though they are all bilingual. Except in class where English in banned. So far, the linguistic balance is working and the seven English-speaking kids make efforts to play with the French children and integrate through after-school activities. Marc and Nina have friends from both cultures and translate when needed. But in the secondary school I hear that 20% of the kids are English. They have become a separate group and rarely socialize with French kids.

What do the locals think about it? French mothers are happy for their kids to play with the English kids after school (free language lessons!) But furious at the prices the English pay for a country house. There is a distinct feeling that the numbers are getting too high and anti-English comments can be heard all around. The teachers hate teaching English as a Second Language (part of the curriculum) to the English kids, who laugh at their pronunciation.

On the English side some of the parents were rather annoyed to have yet another ‘English’ family join the class when we arrived. One mother, who has been living in our village for four years, was furious to have lost her status as the Only Brit in the Village. There’s the unspoken fear that the English kids will not bother learning French or make any French friends if there are too many of them. This is the case in many countries where, once numbers get too large, an internal community is formed.

Who do you want to win?

We are not a sporting family, but there are some major sporting events, like the World Cup or the Olympics, where you can’t help wanting your country to win. But being a dual-nationality family we are sometimes split on which team we support. When I hear the British anthem being sung, or see Prince William and Henry in the crowd, I can’t help but join in with the chorus of God save the Queen! Seeing the England team run out makes me want to get out the English flag. Jacques has the same effect when he hears the patriotic La Marseillaise.

Which team should our children support? Mummy’s or Papa’s country? It’s tense in our house when it’s an England v France game. There’s always someone who asks the children who do you want to win? England and France are often come head-to-head in the last few matches of an international tournament. In general, Marc and Nina support France, while Gabriel and I are cheering for England (this could be linked to Gabriel having an England football strip that he wears for all sporting events). Should I feel let-down that two of my children don’t support my country? Sport is, after all, about bonding and feeling part of a team or a nation. They live in France now and at school hear kids talking about famous French sporting celebrities.

Luckily there are some players who are admired by both countries. David Beckham. Eric Cantona. Thierry Henry. The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, and five players (who are French, so Marc informs me). French rugby player, Sébastien Chabal, plays for a club in England, even though he cried in public when England beat France in the semi-finals of the Six Nations competition.

Even though we play to win we’ll happily swap sides when our team is knocked out of the game. At the recent Rugby competition last October, when England famously kicked out France in the semi-finals, we all cheered for England in the following match. I would have done the same for France. I was weepy when France lost to Italy in the 2006 World Cup.

That leaves the intriguing question – if one or more of our children was really talented at a sport which country would they play for?