With dotage looming larger by the week, talk in this house has inevitably turned to the future. Do we want to stay in this country for the rest of our days? Should we consider moving back to the UK? And if so, where?
With summers here getting hotter and hotter, we’ve discussed cooler climes. I would move back to some rural enclave of Norn Iron like a shot (despite strong reservations about the lunatic fringe, who wave their red-hand-of-Ulster flags with no hint of irony nor the lessons of history), but the Good Wife is not so keen. Understandably: she’s never lived there nor had any direct dealings with the people of the province, other than a few delightful friends. So we’ve talked about a return to Yorkshire, where they refreshingly call a spade a spade. Or maybe further afield, like Scotland. The Dame was born near the border and spent her first years in the Lowlands, so she feels about Scotland as I do about Norn Iron. I’m not quite so sure; the Scots hate the English after all, and when all’s said and done I am an Englishman at heart, for all my dual nationality and Northern Irish posturing.
The trouble is, neither of us wants to leave this house. We built it and shaped it with our own hands and it’s the most comfortable accommodation we could imagine. If we could lift it up by helicopter and drop it somewhere in the UK and preferably near the sea, then maybe we would. A couple of things during and after the Christmas hullabaloo have underlined the gulf between our native land and our adoptive country.
Every year at around the end of February – ever since the tsunami in fact, way back in 2004 or whenever it was – a bunch of us, expatriates and natives, have put on a cabaret to raise money for a nominated worthy cause. So I wrote a short piece for three people: a very dark satire on the way people abandon their pets come holiday time, mixed with a dig at the way that old women can treat their husbands when they’ve outlived their usefulness (if ever, that is, they were useful in the first place).
I called it SPH, Société pour la Protection des Hommes, a play on the SPA, Société pour la Protection des Animaux. A woman, perhaps played by my radiant wife, brings her husband to a refuge that’s bursting at the seams with abandoned husbands. He’s an old Corrézian type and she’s up to here with his endless talk about the weather, his kitchen garden or his DIY tools. After failing to persuade her at least to swap him for a long-term resident who’s a little quirky but very handy, the SPH official leads the abandoned husband off stage to introduce him to all the other inmates and to try to make him as comfortable as possible until the right taker comes along.
I sent it to a chap I know who’d talked about doing something with me – to highlight the contrast between his French-ness and my English-ness. I thought he’d make a good abandoned husband: someone whose slightly lugubrious, shambling physical presence would surely win the sympathy of an audience. I reckoned he’d be game enough for a laugh to enter into the spirit of the piece. So I sent him the script. I heard nothing in reply. Then, maybe a fortnight later, which suggested that he had thought carefully about his reply, I heard from him by e-mail. He was shocked and insulted and didn’t find it at all funny. I wrote back apologetically, explaining as best I could in my written French about the dark British sense of humour and so forth, while making a mental note: Why continue to bang my head against a brick wall when it could be swaddled by a soft pillow? Just let it lie. I should have known better of course; my quips and asides have regularly gone down in native company like deflated balloons. Admittedly it’s still hard to express myself clearly in a foreign language, but when it comes to humour never the twain shall meet.
Someone, perhaps my wife, suggested that my intended abandoned husband might have been less insulted had the idea come from a Frenchman. A fair point, although the idea of a French man or woman conceiving of such a scenario in the first place is as unlikely as snow is now in winter here.
I’ve also proposed, fruitlessly, that an animal charity might benefit from our annual cabaret. Fat chance. Another case of banging my head against an immovable object. There's a cultural chasm in this respect, too. The other Sunday, for example, we were invited out to eat with friends from Coleraine, Northern Ireland. Bring Daphne along, our hostess gaily suggested. We did, thinking it would be a sit-down affair with a handful of people – only to discover that it was a full-blown party. Amy had done her bit for the entente cordiale by inviting all her French neighbours, who promptly turned up an hour early. She invited them all in for a drink and sent SOS texts to expatriate friends who could speak at least a little French.
Anyway, it wasn’t the best context for a greedy dog, with low-lying snacks dotted around the house. But she wandered around sniffing legs and things and didn't disgrace herself. My personable wife and I chatted to the French neighbours in our customary diplomatic fashion. It helps to boost the score of Brits in France if the natives perceive that some expatriates can actually speak their language. A couple asked the name of our dog. ‘Daphne,’ I replied. ‘Gafny?’ ‘No, Daphne.’ ‘Kafny?’ ‘Daphne.’ ‘Baphne?’ ‘No, Daphne. With a D.’ Eventually, they got it. I don’t think they were hard of hearing or my pronunciation was at fault, but simply that the French don’t grasp our propensity to call pets by regular first names. It’s more common to give a dog the name of a fruit or a nut. Provided it begins with the decreed letter for that particular year (which is actually a useful way of remembering your pet's age).
They tend to think of animals differently to us. Not that I believe entirely that the British are a nation of animal lovers. Nevertheless, there is some truth in the old cliché. It hurts me to walk our dog past the compound where a local farmer incarcerates his hunting dogs on concrete inside wire fencing. Prune, their border collie, is allowed out on good behaviour to help with the chores. She’s a lovely dog, who likes to run up to us both and say hello – only to be commanded to heel by her masters. I try to suggest that she and Daphne like to have a little play, but it’s another case of head-banging. What I really want to say is something like, ‘Wise up, you ignorant tossers!’
The other day, Daphne and I encountered the hermit-daughter of the old be-whiskered hermit-woman, who live together in a sad, dark bungalow piled with an incredible miscellany of clobber outside on their porch. The shutters stay shut night and day. God knows what goes on within. They seem to care for their cats and dog, however. Said daughter was out walking the miniature Sasha, who’s no bigger than a fluffy pyjama case. We walked together in the direction of their house of anything-but-mirth, exchanging pleasantries and inanities. While Daphne trotted on ahead, at liberty to sniff and generally dilly-dally, poor benighted Sasha was tugged back by her mistress every time she wanted to wander off the bitumen for a bit of olfactory exploration. This was accompanied by a petulant complaint and an insistence that the miniature beast should obey the two-legged beast holding the leash. I bit my tongue, but what I wanted to say was, ‘Wise up, you ignorant tosserina. Why don’t you let that poor creature off the lead and let it do what the Spirit in the Sky intended? Get a life, woman, and in the process give your poor dog a life, too.’
I didn’t. But living among heathens sometimes triggers these home thoughts from abroad. The thought of enriching our lives with a bit of culture – and a culture that’s not alien to us – is very tempting. We’re not getting any younger and feeling more acutely the need for a more sociable existence. But where to go? Yorkshire? Scotland? Morecambe Bay? North Devon? West Cork! Now there’s an idea. That seemed like a surprisingly international place. But the boffins still haven't invented the kind of heavy-duty, military-style heli-porter capable of picking up and deposing a large straw-bale house. Until that day...