Author and British expat in Normandy, Philip Cahill talks about how to fit in when you move to France…
I’ve spent years trying to fit in, in France. I’ve lost weight. I’ve smartened myself up. I’ve even learned to speak French. However, nothing seemed to work and I couldn’t understand why. It couldn’t just be the hint of West London in my accent. I was beginning to accept the fact that I would always be an exotic foreigner to the French. Then, as I walked aimlessly around my neighbourhood, desperately trying to look like Alain Delon, the answer came to me. I didn’t have a dog. I needed to out-Frenchy the Frenchies. I needed to get a poodle. Yes, it had to be a poodle. No one would take my Frenchness seriously if I acquired a Bulldog, a Pekinese or a German Shepherd.
Apparently poodles were originally bred as hunting dogs. In French they’re called caniche, which is a reference to the fact that they were used in hunting les canards (ducks).
To his dog, ever man is Napoleon – Aldous Huxley
I decided to go for a miniature poodle on the grounds that I live in a small house, drive a small car and I have a diminutive wife. After much exhaustingly, painstaking research I tracked down a poodle breeder half-an-hours’ drive from where I live.
She was tall, thin and resembled an aged Katherine Hepburn. She also looked crazed from living too long among dogs. When she started talking I could tell she was an expert in all things poodle and she definitely preferred them to people.
The breeder led my wife to a cage-full of barking fur-balls who rapidly formed a scrum by the gate of the cage. There was one dog that held back from the scrum. A black four-month old male with a white beard that covered his throat. They came back with this little thing and plonked him on my lap. He looked like a homeless teddy bear in desperate need of smartening up. I’d never had a dog sitting on my lap before, so I didn’t know what to do. I concentrated on not dropping him and I realised he wasn’t used to sitting on people either. He looked up at me, his tiny eyes lost in his fur-filled face. I had a heart-stopping endorphin rush. A coup de foudre. Quigley had come into my life.
He came home a few days later. He was frightened. Until he’d met us, all he’d ever known was a fenced-off compound with lots of other dogs. He’d never had a collar on. He’d never walked with someone whilst on a lead. He’d never been in a car before. He’d never seen the world outside his kennel.
He’s a very intelligent dog and he’s completely bilingual. If he’s bugging me I can respond in either French or English. I can say ‘arrête, s’il te plaît’ or ‘bugger off’ and he understands exactly what I’m saying. Compliance is a different matter. He is capable of ignoring me in two languages.
One of the many perks of living in Normandy is the fact that you’re never too far from a beach. The beaches are spectacular and they are perfect for walking a dog. There are no cyclists, scooter-riders or runners on the beach.
He’s changed our lives. The house is full of his toys, his various sleeping cushions and mats. Our phones are full of photos and videos of him lazing about, playing, stealing slippers, running around the garden, ambling along a beach …
Has it worked? Do the neighbours think I’m a left-bank intellectual or just an old foreign bloke with a poodle? I strongly suspect the latter.
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.