I WAS in the pub last week.
A pause while the significance of this comes to a creamy head, like a well and lovingly drawn pint of best bitter.
So what? I hear the murmur. Et alors? if you're of the Gallic persuasion. Well, it's true. It was ancient, low-beamed and warm. An apple-wood fire flamed gently in the bricken hearth. (Please don't scurry for the dictionary to look up 'bricken'. You won't find it. I've made it up, especially for you, to suggest a homely and traditional ambience, comfortable and comforting.) The patina of generations of corduroy and homespun shone from the furniture. Conversation was quiet, punctuated with easy laughter. No foreign tongue pierced the native speech. The food was - well, here I should give new life to an expression of my grandfather's, a man born in 1872: the food was toothsome and nutritious. The beer - but here I have to let you down, because having to drive afterwards, nothing stronger than tomato juice passed my lips.
It stood on a ridge reached by a sunken country lane, with a view spreading over lush and opulent countryside towards distant green hills. I expect you've guessed: this was in England. More, it was in Kent, in that part of the Weald dotted with immemorial villages, unsuspected by the laptopped Eurostar traveller or the France-bound driver hurtling down the M20.
I felt very much at home, in the warm and yielding bosom of a great and wonderful family, and certain questions bubbled up to the surface: one day, would we plier les bagages, pack up our troubles and everything else in our old kitbag, look for a last time on the Languedoc and head for England, home and beauty?
* * *SOMETIMES EXPATS open pubs and try to recreate a pub atmosphere here in France. In those regions where expats swarm you can usually find creations like Shakespeare's Head or The British Bulldog or Ale and Arty or (guess where) The Beer Ritz. It's a bit like trying to re-enact those marvellous velvet French summer holiday evenings with a bottle of pastis you've brought home: it's disappointing, it's not the same, it doesn't really work. The best you can say about Brit pubs in France is that for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like. In Montpellier, our nearest city, there's Fitzpatrick's Irish Pub, a watering-hole tellingly evoked by Bill Daly in his lively Montpellier-based thriller The Pheasant Plucker, and do take care if you're reading this article aloud. We're 90 minutes by car from Montpellier, so nipping in for a quick pint isn't a ready option.
I'm not certain we'd go anyway. Our experience of Brit expats en masse round the bar or anywhere else hasn't been enormously positive. I suppose we've lived in France long enough (myself 16 years, Josephine 20) to qualify as old French hands, and try as we do to interest ourselves in the usual topics of expat conversation, they don't grip us as maybe they once did in our green and callow days when we first arrived. Typical topics are:
1. The best ways to travel to and from the UK (usually indicative of reluctance to let go the apron strings)
2. Wizard wheezes, e.g. cricket, UK rules Scrabble, murder mystery weekends, which lumpen expats find themselves dragooned into by newly-arrived self-appointed Brit alpha milk monitors
3. The abysmal mess the UK has got into
4. The abysmal mess endemic in the French so-called administration
5. The local availability of Sloggi underwear, Marmite, baked beans, etc.
* * *BUT ON returning recently from a quick sortie to the UK, greatly reassured about almost everything thanks to that epiphany in The Pepperbox, Ulcombe (I knew you'd ask which pub it was), suddenly I felt obliged to lift the taboo on No. 4 above. In our mailbox was a most unpleasant, alarming and totally unfounded letter from the Béziers office of CPAM, acronym of Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie, the French national health service administration. Goodness knows where they got their information from.
Because I was 'inactive' and too impoverished not to become a possible burden on the French state, they said, I was to be expelled from the French NHS as from next March. It's true, there's been a big hoo-ha (or stushie, if you're reading this in Scotland) about immigrants, specifically recent ones under retirement age from other EU countries, who try to enrol in the French NHS under the assumption that residence in France will somehow automatically qualify them for the precious Carte Vitale. This is a card which details your status and rights under the French NHS. It's the key to what's probably the best national health service in Europe.
Not good news. In fact a bitter blow to one who's lived in France for 16 years, has always paid his way, before and after retirement. A bitter blow to one awarded medals by the Hérault département for services to the community. Indignation burned, more fiery than the apple-wood logs in The Pepperbox hearth. Wakeful night hours rehearsed bitter wrangles with the French administration, no branch more Byzantine and intractable than the CPAM. Endless paperchases, conveniently lost files, pig-ignorant Jacques-in-office sat smugly behind protective grilles designed to prevent end-of-tether Brits training not for murder, but justifiable homicide mystery weekends.
In the morning, guided by the much less flappable Josephine, I phoned the International Pensions Centre in Newcastle. Diane, courteous, helpful and cheerful, promised me Form E121 by return. You wave that in front of their noses, she said, and that'll stop their nonsense.
Maybe. We'll see. In the meantime, if you come across an embittered old codger in The Pepperbox mumbling in a corner to himself about his Carte Vitale, it'll be me, come home at last. And if you feel moved to buy me a drink, it doesn't have to be tomato juice.