Mais C'est Normal

Dearly Beloved, as a prelude to this week’s sermon – on this sad weekend when the ‘chan-toosse’, Etta James, took the celestial elevator to the penthouse suite, there to serenade the wing-ed throng with renditions of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and ‘Tell Mama’ – I must mention something rather splendid.

I popped into Cash Converter in Brive on Saturday morning for a quick rootle through the music and found a double retrospective of Dillinger’s career – the Jamaican ‘toaster’ and not the gangster. I would have paid the derisory asking price for the title alone: Natty BSc. Isn’t that marvellous? The idea of Dillinger, in full dreadlocks with mortarboard and gown, receiving his diploma in one hand, with a huge spliff in the other…

I saw Dillinger back in the distant days when I was a postgraduate student in Brighton. I remember very little about the concert other than the audience singing along to Dillinger’s hit of the time, ‘Cocaine’ (‘running around in my brain…’). I suspect it didn’t occur to me at the time, but now I can only think in contrasting terms of a cinema audience, during the Blitz perhaps, cheerily following the bouncing ball as they sing out with gusto, ‘Run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run…’ How, I wonder, did society evolve from singing about a running animal to a running hard-drug in 30 years or so?

Maybe I should ask a policeman for his or take on such a conundrum. The police wouldn’t approve of Dillinger and I don’t generally approve of the police. The French police, in particular, scare the living daylights out of me. They don’t ever smile and don’t even appear to be human. But… I met a very pleasant and personable gendarme this weekend.

He and his wife are based in the extreme north west of Brittany, but they have just bought an apartment in the chateau I look after as one of my day-jobs. Like me, this gendarme experienced a coup de coeur on seeing the countryside here for the first time. We both told ourselves that we wanted somehow to spend our days here. He managed to get himself a job for nearly ten years as a sports coach at the big School for Gendarmes in Tulle. Now he’s back in Brittany, but together they have made a first step towards a ‘re-implantation’ in the area.

The three of us sat in their new kitchen amongst all the unpacked clutter that they brought with them in a hired van. We sat drinking tisanes and nibbling on delicate chocolate biscuits and exchanging life-histories. They asked me all the stock questions, but with sincere interest: what brought us to France, how do we cope without our families, do we ever feel like moving back to the U.K., what do we do to earn a living and so on? I quite forgot that I was talking to a gendarme. Normally I would feel much more guarded than I did, fearful of revealing anything incriminating lest I end up in some dank dungeon deep within the Château d’If. (I suppose the experience might at least test my ability to grow a long beard.)

Anyway, at the end of our ‘interview’, the gendarme’s charming wife presented me with a carrier bag full of edible delicacies from the Land of the Bretons. Cider, crêpes, biscuits – that kind of thing. But what was this for, I protested? It was for having the keys cut for them and responding to all their e-mails so promptly and generally giving the impression that someone was looking after their interests. ‘Mais, c’est normal,’ I protested some more, in the time-honoured fashion that I have learnt over here. And it was. After all, it’s part of my job: to look after the occupants and their best interests.

As we emptied out the carrier bag together later, Debs and I talked of other such acts of kindness we have experienced since we have lived over here. And we wondered why acts that we, and most Britischers, would indeed consider quite normal should apparently be taken as tokens of abnormal gentillesse. We could only conclude – based on our own experience – that French people are staggered when someone they don’t necessarily know does something for them that they say they will do.

When I think about it, I don’t think I have ever known an artisan or an office clerk or a shop assistant or a fonctionnaire phone me back when they said they would. So if someone asks me on the phone now for my contact details, I always punctuate my response with something like, ‘But will you be sure to phone me back?’ I’m not sure why I bother, because I know that they won’t. It has become one of the Top Five frustrating aspects of life in France that we have simply learned to accept: the administration, the inability to say sorry, the refusal to specify a time for receiving goods, the failure to listen to you, particularly once you’ve been twigged as a foreigner, and… the impossibility of returning a call.

We also recalled an old woman in the village where we used to live, who would also ply us with (homemade) goods in return for acts of quite normal consideration. With the insights she’s gained over years of dealing with clients’ convoluted psychological processes, my wife also thinks that it could be symptomatic of country people’s fear of histoires. As in, ‘je ne veux pas d’histoires…’ That is, a fear that, if they don’t return like with like, all those acts of ‘normal’ kindness might stack up in the ‘Debt’ column of the accounts book until one day you pay them a visit, Mafia-style, to call in the accumulated debt. ‘Madame, you remember that troublesome tax inspector I mentioned the other day?’ (Unwraps the bundle held in left hand to reveal a pistol…) ‘Well, Madame, this here is a Magnum .45 – the most powerful handgun in the whole world. It can blow your head clean off etc. etc.’

Maybe. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is, we were both very touched by the gesture and we enjoyed our Breton crêpes for breakfast. But as for unravelling the intricate patterns of the national psychology, you’d need a BSc for that. Even a ‘natty BSc’.