Inspired by Twitter’s top philosopher (or top Twitter philosopher) @guylongworth, this post is.
A few years ago, I used to think about retiring to France and worried about missing a few things from the UK. Over time, that list of things-I’d-miss has grown shorter and shorter. Packing for our summer visits would often involve compensating for those items in various ways, but things have changed.
Let’s arbitrarily say, fifteen years ago my list of missable concerns (when based in France) would be as follows:
- The BBC
- British television in general
- Decent tea
- Fish and chips
- Cosmopolitan cuisine
- The internet
- Not having to kiss people to say hello and goodbye
I used to consider the BBC a great jewel in the UK’s crown. French television was and remains more or less terrible, and I’d compensate for our absence by programming my PVR to record a shit-load of stuff every time we were away. Our visits, 15 years ago, were usually about two weeks, and our PVR allowed programming up to 14 days in advance.
How have things changed? I barely watch anything on the BBC now – not only that, but I’ve been sickened by its toadying to the current and previous governments, its infiltration by Agents of Murdoch, and its chronic bias towards a right-wing news agenda. As to my TV watching: it’s all on-demand, streaming, virtually none of it live. I barely use my Freeview PVR when I’m in the country and never bother to programme it when I go away. I’ve grown used to the idea that, should I move here permanently, I’d be able to find various ways of compensating (pointing a satellite dish at the right place in the sky; subscribing to Netflix/Amazon Prime; or just hitting the Fnac and buying a boxed set). So the first two items have been crossed off my list.
A decent cup of tea is still an issue. For our now 6-week summer and other visits, we pack a lot of Yorkshire Tea. French supermarkets serve us poorly (fucking Liptons), so future me would still need the odd tea-based care package or dash across the channel to Kent Sainsbury’s. It’s no wonder tea isn’t popular when you can’t buy the proper stuff and the supermarket shelves are groaning with yucky fruit teas and insipid Liptons.
Fish and chips is also still an issue, but it’s just as big an issue in the UK, where the corporate interests have been allowed to dictate fishing policy over decades, meaning that most fish stocks are unsustainable. Of all the things the EU might have achieved on our behalf, controlling over-fishing was crucial. And of course, every attempt was met with a UK media narrative about interference and rights and freedoms, all based on the short-term economic interests of the profit takers and not the people who pay the tax. Still, it remains the case that if you want decent fish and chips in France, you have to roll your own. I’m unlikely to bother much, and I’ve resigned myself to giving it up like the bad habit it is, or eating friture de (farmed) carpe and liking it.
Cosmopolitan cuisine. An odd thing to say about France, but their strong gastronomic tradition means that, beyond (usually poor) Italian food, you can’t really get international foods here – certainly not a good curry or other Asian food. Maybe in Paris, but we’re a long way from there. Considering the French history in Vietnam, I’m especially surprised that there aren’t Vietnamese restaurants on every hight street. You can, in the bigger cities, find North African and sometimes Spanish food, but France is quite unlike Germany, the Netherlands, and other European centres. I don’t particularly like the French style of food (summed up as: fatty meat with a fancy sauce), so I do miss the options. I’m so often disappointed in the French take on pizza that I’m better off making my own. I think jars of curry paste and other oriental ingredients would have to go on the care package list, along with tea.
The next item on my old list, the internet, has been less of an issue since the Three network introduced their Feel at Home scheme, which gives you your UK contract even while roaming, in selected countries – including France. The speeds are throttled, but it’s okay for Twitter and (usually) Instagram. This summer, I’ve gone even further and (expensively) hired a home wifi dongle that allows you to share a 3G+ (or 4G) connection amongst up to 10 devices. This gives us the level of 3G we’d get if we had bought French sims, as we did for a couple of years. It’s only 3GB a day (so-called “unlimited”) before it gets throttled, but the speed is okay. And when I move here, I guess we’ll get an actual hard-wired internet connection.
Over the years, the list of food items I find it hard to do without has grown. English cheddar cheese is hard to find in France (so much for the single fucking market) and irreplaceable for certain things. The French make a lot of cheese, but they do nothing to match the sharp tangy taste and meltability of cheddar. French sausages tend to be too salty and nowhere near as tasty as the best British sausages. And good bacon is similarly hard to find. All of these things get added to the care package/cross channel Saino’s list. Actually, there’s a small business there: the potential to disrupt the high prices charged by supermarkets for the likes of Marmite and baked beans.
Mainly, these days, when we spend 6 weeks in France, I miss having a useable oven in my kitchen. I do most things on the barbecue and the stove top, but if/when I retire here, I’ll have to get a proper, modern oven to replace this propane-fuelled piece of shit that tends to leave things raw on top and burnt on the bottom.
Culturally, the biggest problem I have over here is that you can’t just say hello to people: you have to kiss-kiss or shake hands both to say hello and goodbye, even when on a short visit. It’s lucky I’m not a germophobe, but it’s enough to turn you into one. At the wedding last week, I was forced to kiss-kiss and shake hands with an astonishing number of people I’d never met (and will never meet again), and leaving a social occasion can take half an hour, depending on the number involved. Just once, I’d like to be able to enter a room, wave my hand, and be done.
As to the rest of British culture: the small (island)-mindedness; the celebration of ignorance; the dominance of the right wing press; the monarchy; the dominance of media and arts by public school educated Oxford/Cambridge graduates; the arrogance; the sense of entitlement; the delusions of grandeur; I’ll miss none of it.