Saturday 4th January 2020.
I thought I’d write a blog… well. I say a blog, but really I’m hoping that it will be spotted by a sharp-eyed editor at a tiny publishing house in, I don’t know, Suffolk or the Lake District, who will ring me to say how much they liked it and had I thought about turning it into a “sort of epistolary novel” for which they will pay me hardly any advance but which will turn out to be one of the unexpected hits of the year, so much so, in fact, that an American company will offer a very generous sum for the film rights, but when the film is made I will be horrified to find that they’ve moved the story from Poitiers to Wyoming and given me two zany teenage kids and an irascible grandmother, leading me to disown it in a bitter interview in the Guardian, who will follow it up with a piece about other book-to-film problems and then get readers’ letters, most of which accuse me of being either ungrateful or stupid for not having read the small print in the contract. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself…
There are sixty-seven million people in France, of whom six million are in Nouvelle Aquitaine and ninety thousand here in the city of Poitiers. I’ve worked out that there are about a hundred people in our street, but only my wife and I live at no 19. She is in bed downstairs, so I am alone here in the top-floor room we facetiously call the Scriptorium. It’s where she works as a copy-editor and proofreader and I pretend to work on my PhD on John Banville.
It is 07.00. Before getting up, I’d been lying awake for a while listening to the wind and the heavy rain, which is still continuing. I learnt a new word for this yesterday, gluggavedur. It’s Icelandic and means “window-weather” – nice to observe from indoors but nasty to actually experience. All well and good but, as my wife will point out, I’m meant to be learning French.
We moved here 20 months ago. We had been thinking for some time about leaving England, and Brexit meant that we needed to make a decision. I have an Irish passport, but my Scottish wife has a UK one and foresaw possible difficulties if we wanted to settle here in the post-Brexit future.
Why did we leave? It’s complicated.
I was born in London of Irish parents. For most of my life I was happy enough to call myself London Irish. Then, ten years ago, for work reasons, we moved to Cambridgeshire and something odd happened. East Anglia is very English and I slowly began to realize that I wasn’t … English, that is. This is not to denigrate England or its people, merely to acknowledge a difference, or rather a number of infinitesimally small differences in behaviour, attitude and opinion, which passed largely unnoticed in the cosmopolitan melting pot that is London but came into much sharper focus in our new home. It’s certainly true that the national Brexit debate initiated in 2016 served to intensify this. When I discussed it with my wife I was relieved to find that she had similar feelings.
The idea of moving began to appeal to us, but where? Ireland and Scotland had their attractions but in the end, the climate in both countries was a major factor in deciding against them. At 67 I’m a lot warier of the cold and rain that I once scornfully disdained. I had spent five years teaching in Paris at the start of the new millennium and had been very taken with the French way of life. My wife, too, had greatly enjoyed time spent on many visits there, so we embarked on a period of research looking for a possible new home, ideally a medium-sized town or city with good rail connections (neither of us drives). We were keen to avoid places with large expat communities. If we were going to live in France we would do it properly. We would not be complaining (in English) about the lack of availability of HP Sauce. There were several contenders, but eventually Poitiers’ close proximity, and TGV links, to both Bordeaux and Paris meant that it just pipped Angers on points. Expecting to live in an apartment, we were delighted to find a house we could afford right in the centre of the city. The process of buying and moving turned out to be far less arduous than we had feared, and we arrived on 7th April last year.
There is an obvious irony here. A feeling of not being English has led to our coming to a country where we are, and will always be, far more clearly identifiable as outsiders. But for me there is something positive in this. In England, the feeling of being a misfit was starting to be mentally abrasive; here, I find that my outsider status suits me extremely well. There is something of this in Philip Larkin’s “The Importance of Elsewhere”, in which he describes his feeling of otherness while living and worked in Dublin:
… since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch.
We’re clearly something of a curiosity to people we meet here. At first most of them assume that we’re here temporarily, to teach or study at the university, and they’re surprised when we say that we have come to live here. Even more so when their “Pourquoi?” is greeted with a smile, a shrug, and a “Pourquoi pas?” Many seem oddly pleased by this, as if reflects well on Poitiers, and thus indirectly on them, that we have made this decision. Another positive aspect of our new status is how it brings a sense of novelty to mundane aspects of everyday life, a trip to the barber’s or buying a train ticket, for instance. No doubt this will gradually wear off, and sometimes misunderstandings can be frustrating, but for now I am enjoying it and trying to continue wearing my “outsider’s spectacles” for as long as possible.
I’ve kept both a diary and a commonplace book for many years. This blog is intended to be an extension of both of these. An attempt to record what it is like for an elderly outsider coming to live in a medium-size French city. I want to learn as much as I can about Poitiers’, and thus France’s, history, its people and its everyday life. Committing to writing a blog is, I suppose, a way of keeping me at it, keeping me focused. At this stage I have only a very vague idea as to how to structure the blog and it will no doubt change shape over time. There will be many rambling digressions. I don’t think this matters too much. I am uneasily aware that it is an infinitesimally small brick in the internet Tower of Babel, but at the very least it might help wean me off the afternoon Maigret repeats on C8.