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An Englishman remembers his first year in France

Cobbled street lined with half timbered houses in Caen, Brittany

The year started on, Friday, 30 August 2001 as I drove off the car ferry at Caen Ouistreham in an old Fiat Punto. The car was crammed with boxes of books, a mattress, a dismantled kitchen table and a couple of chairs. I’d crossed the Western Channel on a £15, 24-hour-return, ticket as this was cheaper than the single fare. It was also before the days when Brittany Ferries would charge you extra if you didn’t come back.

In terms of physical distance, I’d travelled just over 100 miles. I didn’t realise it at the time but in cultural and linguistic terms, the distance I’d travelled was immense. I hadn’t come to France as a tourist. I’d come to work as a lecturer in a business school in Caen. It was an international school. They’d advertised for someone who could teach finance in English. My classes were designed to prepare French students for their mandatory year of study overseas. I also started running a one-year, top-up, degree program for foreign students. Foreign now meant, not French.

I was now, most definitely, Foreign. Outside of the Anglophone bubble of the school, I couldn’t understand what anyone said and I couldn’t speak to anybody. It’s one thing being a tourist in France and benefiting from the highly efficient tourist infrastructure, living daily life in a country where you don’t really speak the language is quite another thing.

My wife decided to stay in the UK as she had a job and we weren’t sure how the job in France would work out. As we both lived near a cross-channel ferry port we decided to make sea crossings on alternate weekends. At first this was fun but, as the year wore on, the Western Channel lost much of its appeal.

The first place I lived in France was a 50 square-metre, first-floor, flat about 10 minutes’ walk from the centre of Caen and about a five-minute-drive from the school where I worked. The flat was in a block called the Residence Matignon II. The block was not quite as luxurious as its namesake in Paris (the Prime Minister’s residence) but it was clean, comfortable and relatively quiet.

I’d rented the flat unfurnished so all the furniture I had was the stuff I’d crammed into the Punto. The book-boxes doubled as seats in the lounge but I had to buy a kettle and a small electric oven. I rarely cooked because I had my main meal of the day in the school canteen or in a supermarket restaurant in the centre commercial at Caen, Cote de Nacre. My evening meal, I’m ashamed to say, was, normally, a bottle of wine and a baguette.

Talking of food. You often see articles in the Anglophone press, even now, that talk about the French paradox. The French eat fatty cheese, meats of all kinds drowned in, artery-clogging, sauce and elaborate pastries, all washed down with gallons of red wine. The paradox is that they all look like Alain Delon or Catherine Deneuve. Whilst many of the French do resemble film stars, there is no paradox. It’s just that the French are discerning and disciplined consumers of the produce of their gastronomic wonderland. In other words, they are completely unlike me. I was cast adrift in paradise without the steadying influence of my wife. In a very short time I came to resemble someone about to give birth.

It turned out that my assessment of my physical appearance was shared by my boss. The school principal was a bit of a joker. He would go around and shake hands with everybody at the start of each day. I waddled past him one morning, carrying a particularly large stomach. He approached me and, with his open palms, placed his hands on either side of my abdomen and asked me when the baby was due.

I think there were two main reasons why I’d transformed myself from Michelangelo’s David into Rubens’ Bacchus; an early evening pain au raisin before my twice-weekly, French language classes and Thursday nights. Two nights a week I went to the local University for a French language course run for foreigners. The classes would start at six so I’d pop into a bakery and buy a pain au raisin or two, beforehand.

In calorific terms, my Thursday night bacchanalian excesses were probably more significant. Thursday night was party night for people like me and students who would leave the city for the weekend. After a couple of beers, I’d drift down to a wonderful bar in the Place Saint-Sauveur near the centre of Caen. History buffs will tell you that this is one of the oldest squares in the city. It’s been in existence since the Middle Ages but most of the current buildings around the square were erected in the 18th century. It largely escaped being bombed in the Second World War. At its centre there’s a statue of Louis 14th dressed as a Roman Emperor, that dates from the nineteenth century.

I didn’t go for the history, I’d go to a large bar-brasserie on the south side of the square. In those days it was called, Au Bureau. Here, I’d have 25cl or sometimes 50cl of wine before I’d go on to a restaurant. Over dinner I’d have a half-bottle of wine before setting off home, for a few digestifs.

In my defence, I need to point out that I wasn’t the only fêtard in town. Compared to some of my fellow revellers, my excesses were modest.  Close to the northern end of the square there was a small brasserie. One night I thought I’d try it. They served a traditional French dinner menu in the restaurant section of the establishment. The menu was really good value-for-money, also the wine was exceptionally cheap. I managed to get a bottle of red for €4. At that time of the evening I’d had quite a few drinks already so I didn’t notice the quality of the wine until I’d gotten halfway down the bottle. It was so awful I had to leave the other half.

I think it was the cheap booze that brought in the clients. The other part of the brasserie was crowded with people who were drinking without the slightest moderation. At the end of my meal, I was probably the only person in the place with a functioning brain. I remember seeing a guy walking towards the toilets. He was so drunk that he could barely stand. Halfway towards his destination he paused and held onto the wall for support. He stayed there until one of his friends came along, detached him from the wall and supported him while he continued to navigate unsteadily towards the toilets. I only ever went there once.

I needed to find somewhere new. I found a brasserie close to the Eglise St Pierre, the epicentre of Thursday nightlife. They had some really comfortable wooden booths on a mezzanine floor right at the back of the dining area. This place was finely tuned to serve people who were in a hurry. The first course would arrive within minutes of placing the order and the main course would arrive just as the entrée was being finished. As I have taste buds that work best when food and drink is moving past them at high speed, this suited me fine. I think the other reason why the service was so fast was because the place seemed to have only one waiter. He was a big guy who looked like he liked to eat. He wore a skin-tight dinner jacket and bow tie. He had a practised professionalism which didn’t allow much chit-chat with the punters but he could really move. I’ve seen few people so obviously well-fed move that fast.

As the year drew to a close it was clear that my job was going to work out and the bi-weekly cross-channel trips became un peu too much. I managed to persuade my wife to come over, for the start of the second year. She got a job straight away teaching English in one of the commercial language schools. That was the easy bit. There was, however, a bit of friction on the domestic front because I’d become a weekday bachelor.

I’d been in the flat, mainly on my own, for about a year. The arrival of my wife meant that I needed to get some better furniture and a fridge. It was put to me that I needed to drink less and going out on my own was a no-no. What was most peculiar was that, despite the fact that we’d been married since 1980, when my wife joined me it was like having a stranger moving in. We jostled for space in the built-in-wardrobe and in the bathroom cabinet. The flat was smaller than our first house but, fortunately, good sense prevailed.

There are some periods in life that stay in the memory. For me, my first year in France was the start of one of the greatest adventures of my life. I’ve still got the unused half of my 24-hour-return ticket. I really must throw it away.

Philip Cahill is a retired accounting academic living in Caen, Normandy. In 2020 he published his first novel ‘Noystria’, an account of life in 26th century Normandy.

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