We like to think that after 5 or 6 years we are gently assimilating ourselves into the locality and that we no longer stick out quite so clearly as the much disdained [though economically vital] 'touristes' who usually only spend an afternoon breaking their journeys to Brittany.
We like to think that we know a bit about our town and its surroundings, about its indigenous population and its industries and cultural pastimes.
It's true that we know that at the bottom of our street lie the remains of the cathedral where Henry II did penance for the murder-by-proxy of Thomas a Beckett. It's true too that we know that most of Avranches was destroyed during WW2 by the advancing Allied forces and that what you see now is a clever but contemporary illusion of an old town. Nearly all the buildings are post-war. It is also true that Madame la Patronne of the best restaurant in town, The Littre, kissed us on her retirement from the hard labour that was running a restaurant day-in, day-out for a good many years, morning, noon and night. That must signify something although I suspect she was de-mob happy and slightly inebriated. It is true that we know our neighbour slightly and that the olive seller in the Saturday market [a very good market incidentally] recognises us now. But really who are we trying to kid?
It is far more than a few miles of sea which separates us. First there is language. We try very hard to speak French. I was brought up knowing that 'making the effort’ would pay dividends and that the French would be delighted to converse with you if you tried to speak to them using their language. I have found that despite A-levels in foreign languages that a] even after 5 years my French simply isn’t good enough and b] they prefer to practise their English on us. The consequence is that though I now have more access to France than I have ever had, my French is getting worse! I’ve also discovered that Norman French is quite hard to understand. So not much assimilation there.
Secondly, there is that peculiar feeling that there is still resentment borne of the suffering of two world wars. The population is predominantly agricultural and elderly, especially in the market. How can we possibly understand and be assimilated into a region of a country which saw itself decimated twice in 30 years by obscene trench-battles and by the indescribable carnage of pre-emptive bombing raids. The resentment is not spoken. It is probably not even conscious. But it’s in the eyes and hearts of the population and almost certainly predates the Great War by a number of centuries. We can but guess at what it really feels like to see the spawn of the liberator-aggressors wandering around the reconstructed streets of the once proud medieval town. Not much assimilation here either.
Lastly, and this is key, the whole approach to life is theirs and not ours. The relative importance of time, aesthetic, philosophy, wine and undeniably labyrinthine bureaucracy distinguishes the French from the Brits. We, inspired to some extent by the more thrusting culture of America, want to be seen to be vital, enthusiastic, skilful and without parallel. It is my suspicion that the French believe that they are already all of those things, it’s just that it doesn’t really matter to them whether anyone else realises it or not.
Thus in order to be properly assimilated you probably have to be properly French …