France and Me: An Unrequited Something Or Other

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My first sight of Le Tour Eiffel, September 1976

Last week, during an episode of the interminable soap opera that is Brexit – nothing quite defines us as our inability to leave – President Macron of France apparently stood out against 26 other EU nations and said, loosely translated but I think within the spirit of his sentiment: ‘Bugger Britain’. He didn’t quite but he made the point that has been made oh so many times down the years: we may be close, neighbours even but give one the chance to do a little light shitting on the other and, well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?

Often was the time I’d watch France play England at rugby, sometimes with Dad next to me, sometimes debriefing the game at the end of 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 other nations, Wales especially, 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. Maybe these days he would have been depressed by that essential loss of Frenchness, but he would live in hope. A lot about him and France was based on hope rather than experience.

Indeed 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 Blogger’s Bash nickname ‘Geoffle’ (one my daughter now uses) 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 several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. 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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42 Responses to France and Me: An Unrequited Something Or Other

  1. Ritu says:

    Hera hear His Geoffleship!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As odd as it sounds, I have both Catholic and Huguenot ancestry on my mom’s side. I am ardent Francophile (I thank my high school French teacher for that), but also see your points so well … because visiting London is like seeing an old friend, but visiting Paris is like seeing an exotic lover who doesn’t keep in touch very well.

    Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. willowdot21 says:

    I really enjoyed this Geoff, we often visit France, we always have. Even Ruby likes visiting there…not sure if her passport will be valid after Brexit….if or when .
    I always try my hardest to speak french when there, Germans, Italians, and Swiss can understand my French …so why not the French. 🤭.
    I really enjoyed all the information you always write an interesting and humours account of life …with so much I can associate with. Thanks for the smile 💜

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Interesting and wonderfully written!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I decided long ago after several trips to Franc that the country is lovely, the cities inspiring, and the people frustrating.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Elizabeth says:

    My paternal grandmother was French even sixty years after living in Canada and the U.S. For her everything was better in France. I am interested that the same fuss exists between the English and the French that exists here between different ethnicities. We sure are more tribal than is useful in modern times.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. We are complex folk and egoism and nationalism has much to answer for – a bit like organised religion really – I like to think that beneath all the banter that goes on between our nearest and non-dearest, we really do understand we are all just folk doing our best. I remember travelling through Europe at the time of the 50th anniversary of WWII. The Italians made jokes about the French and Germans, the French made jokes about the Italians and English, The English made jokes about everyone. I was envious, everyone had at least two other countries to poke fun at. Here we just have the Aussies.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. JT Twissel says:

    I have friends who are Francophiles and can’t wait to get over there and practice french and eat french food and they tell me how superior it all is but I lived close to France and knew many french people – stayed at their homes, etc and they’re just like most humans (except, don’t tell them that)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Wise, wise words, oh Lion Pard. I especially laughed at “I was, am, as English as scones and sarcasm, roast beef and righteous indignation.” I was born in America, as were my parents and grandparents, yet my last name is Wight, and I’m as English as you are (at least regarding the scones and righteous indignation – for me, I’d add as English as flowery wallpaper and roses.” The first time I visited Paris I was in in my early 20s and stayed with a 25-year-old woman who had been a foreign exchange student at our little NJ town. Anyway, she was quite embarrassed of me. I looked so …. American! She wouldn’t take me to any of the Parisian sites – too touristy, so I toured the Notre Dame on my own. Ah, what majesty.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Solveig says:

    Oh, this is just brilliant. I think people these days like forgetting that they are human. Keeping the other out is so much fun… Well, having moved a bit, I can say that even if we seem different, we are mostly the same, when we aren’t then it is our weird sides coming through.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. That’s about how I feel about France: wish they’d be different, but keep coming back. I can’t squash my francophilia. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Very entertaining, Geoff. I think you know that when in France I watched the rugby with the French I claimed that I could not lose – I had a home in each country

    Liked by 1 person

  13. George says:

    I remember attending a conference in Washington DC, where every taxi driver, waiter, concierge and shop assistant gave you a broad smile and bid you “have a good day”.

    The next one was in Paris, where we tried to get into a taxi. There were three of us so one opened the front door, the driver had a file and some books on the front passenger seat. There was a slight stand off where she looked defiantly at my friend then got it to a huff and begrudgingly made room for him. She then sulked the whole way there, giving us no more than a grunt of acknowledgement when we paid the fair. After the saccharine Stepford-esque customer-service-training instilled bonhomie of the USA, I decided I vastly preferred the French approach.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. This is such a finely-wrought (but still funny!) essay, Geoff. Just loved this! And I hear you about growing up with a funny last name. (Ahem, Moon. But I would always say, hey, maybe I’m related distantly to Keith Moon, which would be alright.) Oh, the longing to belong when we don’t, and to stand out when we’re just one of the crowd! We humans are nuts.

    Liked by 2 people

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