Citizen of Going Nowhere
There’s an expression in France, to ‘pédaler dans la semoule’, to cycle through semolina. Actually, there are variants on semolina, you could also be cycling through cous-cous, yoghurt or Chou croute, depending on who you’re talking to, but the meaning’s the same. You’re going nowhere fast. And the fact that the French have four alternatives to that idiom tells you exactly why that is.
It’s been a hell of a week.
La Rentrée is a full on, stressful business anyway. The boys all went back to school, three different schools that is, in three different towns. Natalie started in her full-time, fully qualified teaching post. One of the dogs had apparently developed mange and I had my citizenship interview, a TV interview in French, a meeting with a French accountant, a battery of blood tests, a convocation about a school trip and a stressful visit to the vets with a canine leper.
Anybody who says that they’ve never felt like running away from their responsibilities is a liar and a cad, and I started the week nervously and ended it wanting to pack it all in. I wouldn’t be the first. A year ago I stood on the manicured lawns of the British Embassy in Paris and listened to Trade Minister Lord Price say how Brexit was ‘an opportunity’ and that France and the UK had been trading for centuries and that ‘wasn’t something that was going to disappear overnight’. Well, Lord Price had so little belief in his own words that a year later he’s no longer a Trade Minister, but plain old Mark Price and has written a children’s book about chess. You can’t blame him. Brexit at any cost is the mantra for some and they have the ear of a terrified, weak and visionless government. During a radio phone-in this week for the James O’Brien show, a pro-Brexit caller apparently exhorted people to ‘buy British.’ Name a British washing machine manufacturer the host asked, ‘they should wash by hand then!’ the caller retorted, clearly a few turns short of a full spin cycle. Elsewhere Conservative MEP Charles Tannock is so ‘ashamed to be British’ he’s taken out Irish citizenship and Nigel Farage addressed a neo-Nazi conference in Germany.
In short, we’re all making contingency plans to cope with the wishes of a minority of lunatics. Mine, the stated ambition when I started this thing, is to take French citizenship and this week’s Citizenship interview was the bell that should herald the final lap. I had prepared. The research suggested that the interview could last anything from five minutes to an hour and that I should be ready to answer questions on the Revolution, the constitution, history, sociology, laïcité, berets, Presidents, geography, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens of France, Overseas Territories and show that I’d assimilated into French society well enough to knock up a quick Crème Brulée. To say I was nervous would be underplaying it, the only high point as far as I could tell was that if the thing went over forty minutes then according to Article 22 of the above declaration of rights, I was entitled to a small pichet of rosé.
As with my language test, also now nearly a year ago, I prepared as if it was a gig. Not, hit them with a cheeky knob gag and segue into Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, but dress as if on stage, don’t eat and take some drugs. Well, not really drugs, beta blocker type things to take the edge off any adrenalin. I’d planned to wear a stage suit too but decided against it after a brief visit to the post office with Natalie. She was inside and I waiting outside. I was wearing a three-piece dog-tooth check grey suit, a matching tie and pocket flounce and fiddling with my waistcoat watch chain. I could see Natalie and the counter assistant talking about me. Probably admiring my suit, I thought, in my bubble of narcissism.
‘I think you should dress down for the interview,’ Natalie said, ‘that assistant was ready to call the police.’ Apparently I made her nervous.
‘What’s he doing ‘round here, dressed like that?’ She’d said. ‘It isn’t right. He’s up to something.’
‘That’s my husband.’ Natalie had replied and no doubt some feminine telepathic ‘I feel your pain’ had passed swiftly between the two. Nevertheless, I discarded the waistcoat, jacket and the shirt and tie and went ‘casual’ instead.
The lady interviewing me was very nice and asked me about my family, my job, where we lived, why we lived there and so on and then came the cruncher. Why, she asked, do I want to be French?
I’d prepared for that question obviously, but not without a fair degree of soul-searching. Why indeed? And do I feel French? She added as a sharpener. Madam, do I feel French? I sit before you in the finest British made check trouser, a Peter Werth knitted long-sleeve Polo and John White brogues, I couldn’t be Frencher. The truth is, I couldn’t answer the question easily. I had felt slightly fraudulent in my preparation, was I doing this for cynical reasons? Was it just to ease any post-Brexit visa restricted travel? A quick route to less bureaucratic healthcare? The last thing I want to be is the Kevin Pietersen of French citizenship, a cynical traveller with bought loyalty, a Zola Budd of French healthcare, shoeless and mistrusted.
‘The world has gone mad,’ I began, ‘and the least we can do as a family is all have the same nationality, the nationality of the country we live in.’ I meant it too.
‘But do you feel French?’ She persisted.
‘I feel more French than British right now.’ I answered, slightly dodging the issue. ‘I feel European, and Europe and France share the same ideals that I do, while Great Britain seemingly no longer does.’
She paused and looked at me. It was hardly Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but she could see I wasn’t trying to flimflam her. I meant every word. Take your Brexit, if that’s what you want, but be very aware that when you’re negotiating your new trade deals that the world now sees you with different eyes, namely that you are a pernicious, xenophobic, small-minded, cynical grabber. The Gollum of international trade and diplomacy. And I want no part of that.
She put the lid back on her pen. She would, she said, give me an ‘avis favourable’, but, she added almost apologetically, it may count for nothing. I may not get French Citizenship as it was only my ‘first application.’
I was stunned. It felt like a hammer blow. A year of document research, elevated language learning and a greater knowledge of French culture, history and legislation than, I suspect, most French people and my application could yet come down to a whim. Sometimes a case is pulled aside in airport security because they just haven’t pulled one aside for fifteen minutes, my future is now subject to the same level of luck and mercurial impulse and there was no way I was going to take that phlegmatically. I’m French enough to get narked about that sort of carry-on, but then, I’m also French enough to know there’s naff-all I can do about it. C’est la vie, and all that. And I must add that I don’t, for one moment, think this is policy. It’s more a national pessimism, nobody expects to pass anything first time in France, driving tests, employment qualifications, a half-open bottle of wine. Nothing.
For two days though I was in a sort of fog, and, like the dogs, I couldn’t let the itch go unscratched. I was determined not to mention it in my TV interview though. It would be just my luck that a local bureaucrat would be watching and after a long day of shuffling paper and alphabetising paperclips would make a mental note of my name for tomorrow’s first red pen. I did get one dig in about fonctionnaires in the recorded interview, but that was about all. I had made it clear when agreeing to the interview in the first place that my French wouldn’t stand up to flights of fancy questions under TV lights and that I’d need to have some idea of the questions beforehand. And also, as the thing would be pre-recorded, perhaps we could stop every now and then (after every question) and I could look at my notes. Television doesn’t really work like that though. I started off well, slightly thrown by the fact that the questions weren’t word for word exactly what I’d been sent, but I muddled through until about halfway when I just seemed to run out of French. They were all very nice about it, but I just got a mental block. There was even a question I’d prepared on whether it was easier to be funny in English or French, to which the answer was obviously English as humour is about speed of thought and observation, and the ability to then express those thoughts, and that my French – as it stands – is just too… I couldn’t remember the words.
Again, it was a blow. How could I possibly call myself French if I can’t explain a simple existential concept like the expression of thoughts and jocularity? I came away, once again, questioning myself and what the Hell I thought I was doing here anyway. Of course, when your week isn’t going well the last thing you need is a room full of rubes and hayseeds making you feel even more like an alien. Samuel’s meeting about his upcoming Germany trip, an unnecessary drive to his Lycée about an hour away, involved parents asking questions like, ‘will their phones work in a different country?’ and ‘what sort of beds will they have?’ One question, it may have been ‘Does Germany have the same oxygen, or do we need to supply breathing apparatus?’ made me snort rather too loudly, and Samuel’s concerned girlfriend asked if I was ok, ‘was I understanding everything?’
The thing is if, at the start of the week, you’d asked me if I could cope with conversations in French ranging from the philosophical nature of my identity, through canine skin conditions to humour as a way of coping, parking metres as representatives of a nation’s psyche (trust me, I did), quoting Tony Hancock in French to a baffled nurse and the cost of public lavatories in Germany, I’d have taken a 90% success rate. I don’t include the meeting with a French accountant simply for the fact that I looked up the vocabulary needed, and its English equivalent, but didn’t even understand the English. I did alright, yet I still feel like a fraud and a failure. And the idea that even if I was as erudite as Sartre right now, I could still get knocked back because some bureaucrat forgot their packed lunch or something, just won’t leave me. I’ve been through every twist and turn that the system has thrown against me, and in the end, it may still come down to luck and whether the powers that be got out of the right side of bed that morning.
There was a joke by the brilliant comic Roger Monkhouse, which said that if a family of refugees can successfully cross the English channel on a lilo, then they are exactly the kind of go-getters and triers the UK needs. France should adopt a similar attitude to people applying for citizenship. If you can fruitfully negotiate the byzantine, capricious nature of French administration and the system, you should be welcomed with open arms. Of course, if I do have to do the interview again, I may keep that to myself. Oh, and maybe next time I’ll wear a bloody suit.
This is the 53rd Full English Brexit blog, and – hopefully – will be part of the book. When that book comes out is difficult to say, it’s with a brilliant agent and the feedback is good… but, you know, Brexit innit?
My other best-selling books are available here IAN’S BOOKS.