50 years of France and change through the eyes of old friends

During the Easter holiday 1966, despite A levels forthcoming, I managed to persuade my parents to let me go to France on the school's exchange scheme. It was a bit of a name (of a school) out of a hat business with those of us who went being distributed far and wide, possibly for the protection of the French people, throughout France. I drew St Emilion. The partner school arranged for me to stay with Jean-Marie's family for two weeks, he came for two weeks after that.

We are still friends. He came for breakfast and coffee this morning. He is on his way to visit one of his daughters in Barcelona, so flew into Bordeaux got a car from somebody in the family, visited his ancient parents then set off for Spain, via here. He 'announced' our 50 years of knowing each other next Easter would be celebrated. I will hear in time, until then it is all secret but for a few bare details.

We talked about change and he was terribly critical. Firstly, over the half century his life has given him his insights. After the 1966 trip he fell in love with London. He wanted to be a rock musician, not that his guitar playing was that good, but London was a dream for him. His family were in the wine business, so whilst learning that trade he went back and forth, played with a couple of bands but wanted more and more to live in London. He celebrated qualifying in the wine business at the end of 1968 by spending Christmas with me in Cambridge. He met one of my fellow students who said he should meet his family. The friend was related to Ahmed Pochee who started Oddbins. So, on the way home via London he went to meet some of that family. He met a cousin newly arrived from India and fell in love with her on the spot. They married in 1970, he eventually became an independent wine trader after being in the trade (probably linked to Oddbins).

Now he is known as John, rarely Jean-Marie, has a Surrey accent (the rural one that just about hangs on in a few bits of that county) and lives just near Godalming. He is an absolute Anglophile, except that despite 66 years age he still has that je ne sais quoi that gave French men a certain style some years ago. An ageing Belmondo type in a way.

He was looking at France as it has changed. He has never given up loving France and contact has been maintained through family at all times. Yet he was terribly critical. His starting point was food. He was saying that the small, rural places that used to be fantastic are now dying but perhaps the reason why is that they do not cater to contemporary tastes or offer the excellence they once did. Variety is gone. When one finds a great restaurant then too many are overpriced for what they offer and then they are also inconsistent. Good this time, forget it next visit. But then he was saying how he finds that people are no longer cooking at home as they did. His cousins, nieces and nephews use so much out of packets or the freezer he cannot believe it. He particularly finds that having seen the UK change from a culinary nightmare to endless variety and high quality that France has had the opportunity to diversify which it has missed and has seemingly lost the incentive to excel.

He then moved to clothes. He was a real style man at 17, took one look at youth in the UK and shuddered. Now he shudders here. He shook his head saying how the concierge of the small hotel they stayed at for the last two nights wears trainers with a shabby suit. Yet the place has very good ratings. Perhaps he is a bit of a snob, but he is also comparing with how things were. But that moved him on to the hotel room not being as clean as it was a decade ago when they were there, despite changes of personnel it has got worse. So it went on...

He seems to feel France has lost some of what made it different. For him the romance of the country that used to strike people he brought here for the first time is tarnished. Neera, his wife, has been here many, many times but added that she no longer enjoys it as she once did. Fifty years is a long time and of course I can see change, not as he does, but perhaps I am either accustomed or resigned to it. I still find French manners good, he finds them all but gone and that a handshake or bisou is nothing compared to what there was.

The celebration next year will be in England, no protests accepted, a place near Guildford where the food is better than here. He is paying for his parents to take their housekeeper since they were my hosts - to which they gave a firm promise to outlive next spring in order to make it. Jean-Marie, oops sorry, John knows he could do it in France but feels the risk of being let down is higher here. The country has changed so much, he feels the trust he once had has turned 180% on its head and now he is more confident in England. I suggested that it is because he is such an Anglophile and has lived there so long. His view on that is that when he got there as much as he loved London, the rest of the country left him cold, but it has changed and now too is also beginning to lose a lot of what it became at one time, probably the late 1980s or early 1990s. France, he felt, does not know how to change, therefore because things have in fact changed something has been lost. I am not sure what he really means, but perhaps he is right.

Therefore, our discussion fresh in my mind I am putting it to you all, especially people who have longer real experience of France than I do. Has France changed as he thinks, were we just skirting on the negative side of things rather than seeing many good things or is it all just his nostalgia in particular asking the impossible?

There is nostalgia and Nostalgia....some things happened in my life in London ....very few of you

will believe and I know that there are others with stories that are crazy and riddled with adventure.

I have met some amazing characters in my life and for some reason it all seems to carry on here to.

Some are French and eccentric ....but others carry their memories in a suit case journeyed from UK to here.

With a little guidance SF members could become a part of collection of people with stories and heading for a certain publishing house in Hammersmith London W6.

Great idea. It would have to be semi-fictionalised and made anonymous in case people felt embarrassed, often with very good reason, to make it a good read. A talented fiction writer with an ability to document would help. There is a quite famous one in this area, I don't know him but I know people who do. He is not an SFN member, but then I don't think he wants to be. I wonder if one of the people I know could tempt him?

I totally agree Barbara! In fact I'm thinking of writing one myself - only problem is I'm struggling with the title - after all I don't want to put people off buying it! :-)

I was at another fête locale last night - a Paella evening with entertainment by Nighteck Animation! Worthy of a whole chapter to itself....;-)

Very nice, evocative piece Brian. I agree with your friend about the food, but I agree with you about manners. Apart from the appalling road manners, I generally find that people here are still courteous and considerate and appreciate that (admittedly cursory) Messieurs/Dames you get when someone enters the bakery or post office or whatever. The trouble is that we've lost so much in 50 years anyway, we're bound to think in that nostalgic way about the past.

MANY people on SF have the material and the ability to establish a best selling


Ah yes I remember it well! 'Twas 1962 and I was returning from a British schools trip to the USSR which included a train voyage coming back stopping at Brest-Litovsk, Warsaw and East Berlin. As we approached the latter the train became slower and slower and the other track was blocked by dozens of trooop trains including tank carriers. As we dismounted to cross into West Berlin it became rapidly clear that there was a major problem. The wall had just been built and the eastern guards had shot an escapee and left him hanging on the wire. The Westies took umbrage and protested against the Soviets guarding the Allied War Memorial in West Berlin who were obliged to enter by Check Point Charlie which we were similarly forced to use. As we came hrough the British schoolboys were treated to the whole panoply of the international press corps. Unfortunately my camera had run out of film! Ever since I have loved Cold War spy stories- because I was there!Later that evening one of our party decided he must lose his virginity so we all went to an extremely seedy brothel in a bombed out sector worthy of The Third Man. Rounding plies of broken bricks we saw a light illuminating a broken door over which a large sign proclaimed "This Establishment is Strictly Forbidden to All Allied Troops". Inside the place was heaving with an impressive selection of mankin straight out of Rick's Bar. The Madame asked us politely what we were doing there, all aged 16. She was a kindly woman and provided the youngest, freshest girl for our friend who disappeared into a cubicle behind frayed curtains. The whole place went suddenly silent and after a very short while our friend emerged to general applause. Yes that was my Berlin!


It’s still a very open, green city compared to most.

No, reflecting on Berlin. Nice place, but too urban for me nowadays.

Turning this discussion into a bit of a bio-documentary Brian? :-)

My work meant that we had visits from Heinz Galinski who was perhaps more than most others responsible for people whose family had left or escaped in the 1930s returning, plus more than a few who had gone to the camps who went to Palestine or somewhere else after liberation returning. Large parts of the Berlin Jewish community have strong connections as a result.

Berlin bleibt doch Berlin Berlin bleibt doch Berlin da kannste nischt dran ändern! Für uns bleibt doch Berlin die Stadt von allen Ländern. Und wenn wir in Berlin durch unsre Strassen schlendern, was wir dann sehn, das find'n wir schön: Die alte Panke, die Krumme Lanke! Stets auf den Kien, sagen wir kühn: Berlin bleibt doch Berlin!

Which has nothing to do with France, but knowing the city so well for 45 years, 1989 perhaps influential but not all of it, change has been enormous. What has and has not changed at one and the same time is the creative/alternative scene that was long established before Weimar, re-established itself in the 1950s and was particularly present in the 1960s and 70s. It is still there but somewhat 'buried' under the façade of the modern capital. The gentrification of the old Kiez was inevitable and the dialect I adopted that Franz Biberkopf only scrapes the edges of is dying fast. Otherwise Berlin bleibt doch Berlin...

If I told you what I was doing in Berlin Barbara I would have to kill you. No that's a joke. Simply a study tour to look at apprenticeships in East and West Germany;

Thank you Theo. I can't see at the moment why the auch is redundant that"s just me with my lack of German. I know the song means that Berlin will always be Berlin but beyond that I have no idea. When I was in Berlin albeit for a very short time I thought that this post war Berlin with all these guys avoiding military service as residents of Berlin was a territoire with it's own rules and as such produced interesting ways of living. You don't like to say it but before and during th sixties Berlin was far more cool and experimental than London. I do worry that for the English there is a propensity to favour the French view of the world when it comes to the EU thus fighting the last two Europen civil wars again. What I did learn from both Western Germans and Ossis was never again. I do hope they're right;

Bravo David! just the 'auch' is not necessary, or I just imagine the saying 'Berlin bleibt doch Berlin', - too long ago. But the jewish community in Berlin is very active because there are Jewish people from all over the world and not hassle e.g. between those from Teheran and TelAviv....

In Freiburg, where the whole of the old town is cobbled, they have replaced cobbles in front of houses where people were deported with bronze cobbles with engraved names and dates, one for each person. Almost all of the city is post war building because it was completely destroyed in November 1944, only the cathedral was standing... I don't know when this was done, these cobbles certainly weren't there in the early 80s when I was a student.

So David what form of work associated you with your meetings in Berlin?

I had misplaced you as someone involved in education.

That was why we seem to get on so well together.

My instant and constant, non intentional bad spelling and tangoing with


Going off point once more.

Finding a mezuzah is not so unusual. The old tenants were 'rehoused' but nobody bothered much. In Kreuzberg where I lived there were a few I knew but in nearby Neukölln there were many. I wonder how many were forgotten when all the new building occurred? One of my friends whose parents both made it through WW2 unscathed (luck more than judgement, but a couple of thousand did) went out of his way to buy a whole tenement that had been entirely Jewish, everything but the people still intact.

A very curious place Berlin. I was there in around 1982. Went for supper with some German colleagues both berufsarbeiter employed by the Berlin City government. Apartment in one of those typical Berlin building built around a central court. Knocking on the door I noticed there was a mezuzah attached to the portal. Those little caches which hide a fragment of Torah. Clumsy old me I enquired whether I was in a Jewish household. No response. They had not even noticed its presence or significance." Berlin bleibt doch auch Berlin" not sure about the auch but I'm sure someone will correct my little German.

Of course Theo. I had 90% of my life until spring 1956 in Köln, then between 1970 and 88 around 30% of each year in Berlin. I was in Berlin last October, the changes are normal. The Kiez where I live is now gentrified so that where people of a certain class would never have dreamt of living except in nightmares , now queue to find apartments in the old Armenviertel in a Hinterhof where the sun never shines. Of course it all changes. People change for better and worse. Here in France my friend was certainly not looking at the positive things now. That is one of the problems with nostalgia. It tends to see the best of 'before' which might have become the worst now.