#1: Adopt, Adapt, Improve
It was the Father’s Day card that started it. Thérence, my youngest of three sons and a 10-year-old French-born ball of fire and anger, had qualified for a Table Tennis competition in Chateauroux, but after a good start he was losing, and he was losing because he was getting upset with himself. He’s like a bottle of coke is Thérence, sweet and very enjoyable most of the time, but if he’s shaken, you’d better stand back because there’ll be an almighty eruption. ’Calm down.’ I told him, hoping to be the Obi-Wan to his young Luke. Well, it didn’t work, he lost. He lost badly and he lost because he was angry and I told him so. Which made him angry.
‘Happy Father’s Day’ the home-made card said, ‘I love You Daddy, from now on I will try and control my emotions. Thérence xxx’
There you go, I thought sadly, I’m bringing my French children up to be the same kind of stiff upper lipped, psychological wreck that I am; putting them through some kind of emotional mangle so that any public display of passion is tutted at, frowned upon, not tolerated, in other words Traditional English. And me, a newbie Frenchman as well.
Two weeks before the Table Tennis competition I’d been in Chateauroux alone, battling my own emotions. I’d been invited by the French Prime Minister, though he didn’t actually show up, to come and be presented with my Certificate of French Nationality, to be officially recognised as French in other words. I’d actually got my pre-certificate certificate (the French love a certificate) a year before, just before ‘we’ won the World Cup, but this was the passing out parade, with flags, photos, speeches and rosé; pretty much your usual Wednesday afternoon in the Loire Valley. The mayor of our local town even made the journey to congratulate me personally, a touching gesture and one she probably regretted when she heard my efforts at belting out La Marseillaise which was less patriotic gusto and vim and more drunken karaoke singer who makes up their own lyrics. But I’m now French and it feels odd. You don’t ever expect to have to change nationality, and I won’t go into the obvious reasons why but, like a rescue dog who’s found a new home, your loyalty is keen and takes the oddest forms. The first time I used my French carte d’identité was arriving at Manchester Airport and the sullen immigration officer eyed me suspiciously. I was travelling light for a weekend of gigs and wearing stage clothes, in this case a tweed Edwardian frock-coat and a cravat. I looked about as French as the Duke of Wellington.
‘Where’ve you flown in from?’ The officer asked, bored.
‘Paris.’ I replied, for some reason not pronouncing the S at the end, so it came out as ‘Paree’.
He didn’t like it and turned my carte d’identité over in his hands, giving it a ‘you made this yesterday’ look.
‘Er, two days.’
It’s amazing how much you can put into two words. I didn’t just say ‘Two Days’ in my usual Mockney English accent, I actually said, ‘er, a, too-ah, dez.’ If I’d started the sentence with “‘Ow yoo zay…” it couldn’t have been more ‘Allo ‘Allo and the man just waved me on, my French credentials clearly unimpeachable, though obviously not to his taste.
It’s confusing not knowing who you are, draining too. Mid-life crisis is such a tragic cliché, and it’s not that, though I’ve had several, the first when I was in my teens for Heaven’s sakes. It’s just that life being what it is, you have to be many different people in any one given day, like a con artist pulling a dozen tricks at once. I’m a husband, a stand up, and an author. I run a high end B&B, I make preserves, I reluctantly look after goats and other assorted livestock; I’m an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Centrist Dad, Citizen of Nowhere, ageing Mod, expat international traveller with a lucrative line in sarcasm and a weary look in the eye that suggests I know more than I really do. And, recently, I made the belated decision to try and enjoy life more, only there’s a problem. Something keeps getting in the way. Me.
I’d toyed with the idea of writing a book called ‘Mustn’t Grumble’, where I’d spend a year trying to find some kind of personal or even spiritual contentment by trying something new every month, like Buddhism in February for example, followed by Veganism in March. It sounded good on paper too, but was basically a displacement idea. What I need to find is a level of peace with what I already have not overload it with a pile of unnecessary ’…isms’. It’s not just I don’t have the inclination to try these things, it’s more a matter of time and/or discipline, anyway I can see how the domestic conversations would go.
‘Where’s daddy? I need to be at football training in 15 minutes.’
‘You’ll have to wait love, he’s off realigning his chakras.’
‘Bloody daddy and his soteriological journey of enlightenment. Where are my shinpads?’
My first two books were born out of a need simply to put a confusing, exhausting, albeit richly rewarding life into some kind of order. To get things off my chest, yes, but also just to try and make sense of it all. And I hope this blog will be a similar thing. I’m tired of spinning plates and by writing it all down I hope to get those plates stacked neatly onto a plate rack instead, though occasionally, inevitably even, some will just come crashing to the ground. Life has changed enormously for me, and us as a family, in the last year or so, partly it’s been forced on us, partly it’s been by choice. For instance, I never thought I’d run a successful B&B, nobody did, not even close friends.
‘I’m going to set up a B&B,’ I said to some close friends one day.
‘You?’ They laughed, ‘A host?’ They laughed some more before noticing that I wasn’t, ‘Oh God, really?’
And though it is successful and I am a good host, there’s the public face and the private one. And the private one, like Thérence and his 10 year old raging, at times feels on the verge of spiralling out of control, there’s a sea storm of passions and frustrations that needs to let rip every now and then, to vent. But mostly it’s just a constant state of bemusement at a surreal existence, a sense of helpless bafflement at my own world. I’ll give you an example, I’ve lost count of the amount of online reviews praising my discretion as a host. Discretion. I don’t even know what that means! How am I discreet? More to the point, what am I being discreet about? Unless of course discretion is just French for frightened.
The ‘Monsieur So British…’ blog carries on from my two best-selling books, ‘À la Mod…’ and ‘C’est Modnifique!’ both published by Summersdale and available here. This blog will also appear as a podcast every fortnight and will be available next week. If I can work out the software. Big if, that.
And please, feedback is always welcome, but keep it clean.