Me and France: a tale of a label and a mirror

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My first sight of Le Tour Eiffel, September 1976

On Saturday last I sat watching another instalment in the long running ‘war without weapons’ that are sporting engagements with France. France won. Deservedly so. As it was rugby the final whistle is always tinged with a frisson of regret: Dad was passionate about rugby so as soon as any match involving one of France, Wales or New Zealand, three special rivals, he would be on the phone: ‘Well, boy, what did you think?’ This was the first of many rhetorical questions posed in the next 30 minutes as he de-constructed the game. With Wales, after long years of losses, he was gleeful in victory, morose in defeat. With New Zealand he was ecstatic in victory and resigned, bordering on the accepting, in defeat. With France he was…. still in love. Sure he wanted to win but he adored the way the French went about trying to win. It was so …. French.

That about summed up his relationship with France. Frustrated lovers. He’d spend hours trying to perfect his French; he looked forward to all his many holidays there. But when he arrived he despaired of the Gallic shrug, the condescension, the bureaucracy, the stubborn insistence that the French way was the only way. A bit like their rugby. He wanted them different but at times, not so different.

And yet he could never get enough of France; he simply adored the place. Perhaps it was the way a holiday there seemed to transport him back to Cambridgeshire circa 1938, when he holidayed with his aunts – the slower pace; the dominance of all things agricultural; the endemic rule breaking behind suffocating respectability. I think because he could never break rules himself he admired those who could and in the French friends he made in the twinned village of Yervil in Normandy he had a wide selection of such types.

His father would have been surprised. My grandfather spent the best part of four years in France as many of his generation did in 1914-18. He was in the Cavalry at the start, training in Ireland before arriving in France in early 1915. By then the days of horse borne warfare were clearly nearing their end and his war took a more functional turn in the trenches. I know little of my grandfather’s war, unlike my other grandfather and that is something I must remedy. I do know that, to Grandfather, foreign started well short of Calais and he had no inclination to visit it again. I suppose, given the horrors, the futility, that is hardly surprising.

And possibly part of that antipathy is in the family lore, handed down over generations. You see, my name is French – you may have noticed. Le Pard. What is a pard? Well…

Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

This is from the Seven Ages of Man speech in Shakespeare.

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The sculpture near Blackfriars in London depicting the Seven Ages. The soldier is the bearded one

Pard is an old word for Leopard – someone added the Latin for lion on the front and it stuck. It suggests a certain ferocity somewhere in my genes.

My ancestry is Huguenot. The Huguenots were Protestants in France whose freedom to practice their religion was enshrined in French law by the Edict of Nantes at the end of the 16th Century. When revoked nearly  100 years later in 1685, a mass exodus of Protestants began and continued into the 18th Century. Historically the Wars of Religion during and up to this period and the turmoil in Europe are both fascinating and still reverberating today. But on a human level it gave my family a distinctive name and an enemy – the French.

As a child I can well recall that dichotomy: on the one hand I was clearly allied to the French in the name my family proudly carried; on the other my ancestors, my family, were persecuted by the French, thrown out of France and made to find a new life in England. In my childlike mind, I was therefore ‘against’ all things French. And cross and not a little embarrassed when it was assumed I could speak French or was French. It may have been one of the earliest of external labels applied to me, this link to France. In our little corner of suburbia it made us just a smidgen exotic.

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Flea market, Tours, 1976 – love the flares!

My first foreign holiday, inevitably, was to France, when at 19, I visited with friends in an old Ford Escort as we camped our way around Northern France, ending up in Paris. I loved it and found it maddening. That has remained my reaction every time I cross the channel. The French and the English are friendly but not friends, business partners not life partners. We’ve been allies for more than a century and fought wars cheek by jowl to maintain our ways of life and yet if there’s one nation in Europe that sniggers at our ineptitudes it is France. And vice versa.

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Ah a pissoire! I so wanted to see one of these, Rouen, 1976. Those jeans peeking out the bottom? Yup!

On that first trip I felt at home but it was a parallel home. It looked much the same: the countryside, the animals and birds, the crops being grown. It smelt and sounded similar and yet there was always something just a little off.

And in the background the root of these problem was that label. I was, am, as English as scones and sarcasm, roast beef and righteous indignation, yet that bloody name screamed ‘foreign’. My French masters expected me to speak the language like a native, everyone needed me to spell it out and almost invariably failed to split the ‘Le’ form the ‘Pard’. That disconnect still causes people an issue as my new Blogger’s Bash nickname ‘Geoffle’ testifies. I like this one, it was donated to me with love and affection but the son of a bitch who corrupted it to come up with ‘Lardy’ when I was about ten needs to burn in somewhere dark and long lasting.

In my own small way I have experienced the prejudice, assumptions and stereotyping  that come with being something different. I suffered barely at all – I’m white, male, middle class and have an accent that makes me a perfect 1980s Hollywood villain, hardly the epitome of English underclass – but I still remember enough incidents for it to have hurt at the time and to resonate still.

Back then I wanted to differentiate myself from all things French. But that leads to another lesson. There is no difference or at least none that matters between peoples. It is that similarity I didn’t want to accept and many others, on both sides of the Channel, can’t really abide. We know we are so different to them and them to us. We have to be. We make bread differently from the same flour; ditto butter and cheese from the same milk. We create distinctive clothes from the same raw materials, distinctive houses from the same timbers. Our beers are better than theirs; our wine… well maybe not yet. We have different spirits and, of course we both sneer at the other’s cooking. As my mother, staunch English woman to the last, once said, “Of course they make good sauces; they have no idea how to keep meat so they need something to cover the foul taste.” Hmm, not sure about that Mum.

It’s like one of those fairground mirrors where you are distorted by the curved glass. You stand there and your friends snigger and hoot at how short and fat, tall and skinny, twisted and crushed you look. And you do; you are the quintessential figure of fun. But all the time, however the glass remoulds you, you are still you and you can see that only too clearly.

That’s us and the French, my family and the French nation, me and my name; giggling at how odd and distorted they are yet fully conscious of the fact that close to the surface, beyond those superficial differences we are really one and the same.

And that is true of all differences we try and create even when it is easier to find difference – in skin colour, ethnicity, affluence, accent, religion. They are all still superficial, not real. I’m no more French for my name than the French are for their place of birth. We’re all just human.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published three books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars and Salisbury Square. In addition I published an anthology of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand this summer. A fourth book will be out soon. This started life as a novel in a week on this blog and will follow later this year. I blog about all sorts at geofflepard.com and welcome all comments. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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21 Responses to Me and France: a tale of a label and a mirror

  1. Entertaining and profound, Geoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. the Gallic shrug, the condescension, the bureaucracy, the stubborn insistence that the French way was the only way.” … “the slower pace; the dominance of all things agricultural; the endemic rule breaking behind suffocating respectability
    After more than nine years living in the depths (or heights – we’re at 562m) of the Auvergne, I think can attest to the veracity of the old adage “Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil”. To love it and at the same time find it maddening seems to be a perfectly rational response.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. colinandray says:

    It is interesting that during my time in the UK (1946-1975), there was a distinct distrust of the French which apparently went back to Napoleon. Given the fighting history of both countries, and having only 22 miles of water separating them probably contributes to it however, I was surprised at the opposition to the construction of the channel tunnel on the basis of “You can’t trust them froggies!” I am assuming that the distrust was (still is?) mutual. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ali Isaac says:

    I think its a great name. Although when I first ‘met’ you I kept reading ‘Deaf Leopard’ for some reason! 😁

    The Geoffle moniker has kind of stuck, though, hasn’t it? Sorry about that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. davidprosser says:

    A fascinating read Geoff.You won’t mind if I send a couple of morons to burn in the same place as your name tormentor will you.
    The Huguenots brought great skills over when they came and integrated well, more than we tend to do if we head for France.
    You’re right of course that we’re all just human and I wish we could make the effort to get on with each other but knowing how even families argue I don’t have high hopes of it happening soon.
    Hugs

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jools says:

    Isn’t it strange how things converge? Last night I watched actor Derek Jacobi explore his Huguenot ancestry on Who Do You Thin You Are, and this morning, I’m reading that you share the same heritage. Having been a history dodger in my education years, I knew little of the Huguenots’ flight from Catholic France and their presence in London’s East End (the poorer weavers) and Soho (the richer lawyers and financiers) – until now!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Autism Mom says:

    Very interesting my friend. I thought the tension between England and France went back to the Normans (my French ancestry) and so after 1000 years kinda just “is.” It is also interesting how my assumptions are made based on accents and names.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      You are right; we’ve fought them for nearly ever, though our last real scrapes were 19th century.And of course we are accent based in our assumptions, though class has a lot to do with that.

      Like

  8. trifflepudling says:

    ‘Flea Market, Tours’ – please tell me that is you on the left with the man-bag?! Or is it a camera?
    My grandmother-in-law loathed the French and she said it dated back to attitudes during the Napoleonic Wars. I suppose her own grandparents may well have had grandparents of their own who were alive at that time!
    Re. dichotomy, mine (and I suspect that of millions of other Brits too) is between Englishness and Scottish forebears. It makes loyalties very difficult at times! Can I not be both English and British?!
    Really enjoyed reading: thanks.

    Like

  9. jan says:

    When I first went to Europe the US was still in Vietnam and boy, did I get told off for that! Most Americans are such a hodge-podge of other nationalities that the snipping between the French and English seems odd considering there’s been so much channel hopping over the centuries! But we in the Western US are fond of making fun of the Midwesterners. You’re right – we’re all human (unless… well, let’s not forget all those ancient visitors) Lovely post, Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post Geoff, I did feel for you that, because of your name you were expected to be brilliant at French! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. noelleg44 says:

    I have a love-hate relationship with the French – I AM partly French (French Canadian) but the one time I went to France (Paris), I was cheated out of several francs by a guy selling ice cream on the street and my husband and I were hit by a car (the guy was going too fast around a corner and we were just putting our feet on the curb when he swerved and hit us. He left the scene but late came back. My husband ended up in the hospital and the guy’s sister called to find out if we’d been killed. Other than that, nothing. Our immediate hospital bills were paid by the driver, but we were advised NOT to seek compensation for all of my husband’s medical bills when we returned to the US (he has a permanent disability), because the French court wouldn’t find in our favor. If I ever go back, it won’t be to Paris!

    Like

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