During my first trip to New York, in the days when I would have been classified as a ‘young man’, I watched a fair bit of telly in the hotel room I stayed in at a special bargain-basement student rate. It was a nice hotel near the Empire State building and I didn’t feel the need to barricade myself in, as I’d done the first night in a dive near Times Square. I was fascinated by the news and the weather forecasts and the ‘messages’ from sponsors and everything that they revealed about the light and the dark sides of American culture. Up until that time I had never realised, for example, that ‘ring around the collar’ was a social affliction quite as grave as bad breath.
I remember being temporarily bemused by an item about ‘entreppanners’. Who were these strange characters, blessed apparently with so much laudable get-up-and-go? Eventually, it dawned on me. Entrepreneurs: a subject I discussed last Friday night mit meinem Amerikanische freund, Steve, from North Carolina. One of the dictionary’s definitions of an entrepreneur is ‘one who undertakes a business or enterprise, with chance of profit or loss’. By that definition, Steve must be a quintessential entrepreneur.
Ever since he and his wife arrived in France about as long ago as we did, both Steve and Jessica have lived by their wits, courting every ‘chance of profit or loss’. As underpaid glass blowers together, they would de-camp from their house every summer so they could rent it out to British holidaymakers. They have bought and done up ruins. Jessica became an estate agent, while Steve turned to plumbing for a while. Now he imports old guitars and classic cars that he locates primarily on the internet and ships to France in containers. In short, the very models of modern expatriate entrepreneurs, prepared to hustle to survive and just to do whatever it takes.
Although the French presumably invented the word and the idea, they appear to be as bemused by the whole notion as I was momentarily in New York. The mere fact that until recently there was a taxe professionelle to penalise anyone with the gumption to set up their own business underlines the fact that the idea of going out on a commercial limb is fairly alien to a society that mollycoddles its functionaries. Yes, of course, there are plenty of artisans and bakers and restaurateurs and cleaners and so forth, but there’s a sense that these are all well-worn paths, almost social services in themselves. Natives who indulge in the kind of multifarious and more imaginative self-employment activities that seem to be second nature to ex-pats are probably associated with marginals who wear dreadlocks and harem pants.
There are degrees of entrepreneurship, of course. After 15 years in England as a civil servant, a profession libérale doesn’t come nearly as easily to me as it does, say, to my wife. She was working in the back office of a bookie’s at 16 or 17 to subsidise her A-levels at the local Tech, then touring Scandinavia and Italy as part of an acting troupe before metamorphosing into a therapist. As we both gasped in wonder in Steve’s barn at the latest collection of vehicles awaiting collectors, I marvelled at the sheer logistics of the undertaking: to locate and transport a first-generation Chevrolet Camaro and a Ford Mustang, and a Chrysler De Soto to die for, so immaculate that it looked like it had just driven in off the set of Sunset Boulevard, and a huge Harley Davidson, which scared a wuss like me just to sit astride it, let alone daring to fire up the beast. !(upload://wkdQ329iwEbo1qu6LjxioWc7ZqR.jpg)
Even assuming that you had the idea of doing something similar, where on earth would you start? First you have to find them at a price good enough to allow a decent profit margin. Then you have to ship them here, deal with the American and the French authorities, bring them four hours or more inland, find someone prepared to buy each one, negotiate the sale, complete the necessary paperwork and so on. That’s not even to mention the marketing and publicity needed to attract potential collectors.
Anyway, he does it and presumably makes enough of a living to carry on doing it. We talked over dinner of just what it involves as an expatriate and the degree of lateral thinking necessary to find your niche in the French market. Yet why was it, someone asked, that French entrepreneurs seem so anomalous? The spirit must be there somewhere. After all, London is now the sixth largest French city or something, in terms of natives who have settled there. Most of them, it seems, profess to be there for the duration, often because they love the sense of freedom they have found.
Is it simply that? A matter of freedom – or rather the lack of it. Is it that the indigenous entrepreneurial spirit has been quashed by the prevalent fear of competition, by the professional taxes, stigmas and other assorted disincentives, and by a rigid nanny state that maps out the correct way of doing things in the little black book issued to every French man and woman at birth, Comment Etre Francais?
We didn’t come to any proper conclusion, but agreed that it was probably true and certainly peculiar that the French don’t seem to do entrepreneurship. With the rain pouring down, the conversation turned inevitably to the weather and this disappointing summer, which is at least a notch above what they are experiencing in the UK. Steve and his friend Steve speculated whether their gig would be rained off the next night. The Three Steves were due to be playing on the terrace of a restaurant in Brive – because when Steve’s not being www.jacksonsdreammachines.com, he’s doubling up on guitar and double bass in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
It’s all in the day of the life of an expatriate entreppanner. There’s nothing particularly noble about it. It’s just a fact of life. Earning a crust in a foreign land isn’t easy. You have to use your imagination – and act upon it. Me, I would do most anything legal and harmless to stay on here. Although if it came down to telesales or cleaning car windscreens at busy intersections, then I think I would probably sell up and go back home.