In my next life I do not want to come back as a French dog. It seems to me that unless you are a Parisian poodle, your life is going to consist of mainly being tied up in some yard or put in a cage and expected to bark for hours on end. Having said that if you are a Parisian poodle you may be expected to wear some dreadful Christian Dior bling-style dog-coat, which could be even worse. But one thing is almost sure. If you’re a country dog used mainly for hunting, you’ll be treated like, well, a dog.
We have a dog. He was a stray. One day he just arrived at our house. But it took him about three months to come anywhere near to us. He was thin and had clearly been very badly treated by someone. He was terrified of people.
He would come for walks with us, but keep his distance. Then he started to run past me, pushing his nose into my hand as he went. Eventually he let me stroke him. Now, almost four years later, he is part of the family. But he still doesn’t trust anyone else.
Until recently he retained total freedom, he didn’t even have a collar. I found it rather touching that he chose to live with us, although he was free to come and go as he pleased. I liked his independent and gentle spirit.
But our French neighbours don’t like it. One local vineyard owner came to see us a few weeks ago, complaining that Wolfie (as our dog is called) had been eating his rabbits and trying to seduce his bitch. I believe the last bit, but he’s never shown any interest in the rabbits around us.
"What do you suggest I do?" I asked.
"Keep him tied up," said the wine maker.
Recently the children and I cycled to school. Wolfie followed us and ended up in the village. A woman rounded on me.
"Dogs must be kept on a lead in the village. If not, it’s breaking the law," she yelled at the top of her voice.
So much for French "liberté".
But that’s the thing. The French are not really very free. I would say that the Brits have a more carefree and independent attitude towards life. Here in France much of your life is dictated. For example, you can all go on holiday whenever you like, as long as it’s in August. And as for a good location, well France is the obvious choice. Last August when I was leaving Marseille in a taxi to catch an early morning flight the traffic was appalling. I asked the driver what was going on.
"Everyone’s going on holiday," he said.
"Where are they going?" I asked.
"Well," he replied, "you can turn left, or you can turn right."
Then there’s lunch. You try getting a Croque Monsieur after 1.30pm anywhere in the Languedoc. It may be different in other parts of France, but down my way you eat at midday, whatever else happens to be going on. I was once asked to come and collect the children from school due to a terrible storm. It was midday when I arrived at the school gates.
"Don’t be ridiculous," said the headmistress, motioning for me to come back later on. "They have to have lunch first."
My children are being brought up in the French system and I notice small signs of this lack of liberté creeping into their psyche. When I took Bea to Paris I spent most of my time waiting at traffic lights for the little man to go green. Nothing would induce her to cross the road when he was red, even if there wasn’t a car around for several miles. Obviously this has its advantages, Bea is less likely to get run over than a lot of children, but you see what I mean.
Olivia the other day said I was not on any account to overtake a car while driving into town "because normally we go into town in this lane, and we come back from town in the other one".
One of the first expressions you learn in France is "tu n’as pas le droit." This means 'you don’t have the right' and can be applied to just about everything, from which bag you take your supermarket shopping home in to more serious issues such as trying to wear un-matching underwear.
The other day I was exasperated with the children and told them I was going to run away from home. "Mummies can't run away," said Olivia. "Tu n’as pas le droit."
If our French neighbours have their way, Wolfie won't have the right to run anywhere either. What I find surprising is that they would rather I tied him up all day and let him bark himself hoarse than let him do what is perfectly instinctive for a male, seek out females on heat and try to get close to them. The village thing I can understand, and he does now have a collar and lead. The first time we put it on him he was outraged, but he seems to have got used to it.
In fact there are lots of things about the French sense of what’s right and what’s wrong that I like very much. I feel that I am living in a place where people care what goes on, where there is a sense of civility and civic pride, where how you behave is noticed. In France there is not the feeling of decay I sense in England. There are still too many people running around telling you what to do. The difference between France and England is that here it is the neighbours watching what you do, not some CCTV camera.
But one of the things I love about Wolfie is his liberté. This is a majestic, elegant creature who was born to roam the fields. The thought of turning him into a caged animal is hateful.
But maybe I don’t have the right to do otherwise?