When the technician showed up this week to fix my television and install the satellite for my broadband internet I was relieved for two reasons. One I don’t ever want to go through the trauma of my husband missing England versus France in the Six Nations, as well as a Chelsea cup game in the same day. I think I aged about five years and I wasn’t even here, I was in America. Second, the technician was English.
Part of the relief at him being English was that after two weeks in America I can no longer speak French, but most of it was this; a sort of unconscious equation that went through my head as soon as he said hello in a Leeds accent: He is English, therefore I can trust him.
The TV was no problem. A mouse (probably a French one) had chewed through a cable. The satellite broadband however was more complicated. We just couldn’t work out exactly where the damn satellite dish should point and inexplicably the technical support desk doesn’t open until 2pm. After three cups of coffee and numerous trips up to the roof at 12 o’clock my charming technician finally conceded defeat.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ve got another job not far from here, I’ll pop back later.”
If he’s been a French plumber I would have handcuffed him to the sink. It’s a well-known fact that if you’re lucky enough to get a French plumber to show up then under no circumstances let him leave until the job is done. But I let the technician go of course. Being English, he would come back, I could trust him.
If you live in France you immediately trust other English people. You assume that because you have a shared culture they will understand you, be nice to you, and not let you down. This is in part a deep-rooted mistrust in foreigners (totally natural for an island race), although we do trust the French more than we do others. As Nancy Mitford said; “Frogs are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.” In today’s politically correct times that sort of statement is not allowed, but the fact remains. We trust our own above all others. Are we right to do so?
Not at all, according to an English friend of mine who lives in Provençe with his American wife. After five years here he is about to sell up and relocate to California. The reason? “I’ve had enough of Brits ripping me off,” he tells me. The ripping off began with his solar heating system. Instead of going locally to find a company he went for one based in the north of England. “In retrospect this was a bad decision,” he says. “But we had just moved over and we spoke very little French. I felt more comfortable dealing with English contractors; I just didn’t think I could cope with all the technical stuff in a foreign language.”
The system, which cost him over £8,000, has never worked and the company is now insisting it has gone bust and refusing to answer any of his calls, letters or emails.
Along with the heating system my friend decided to install a swimming pool. Again he felt more secure using a local English contactor than a French one. The pool was built and all seemed to be going swimmingly until a leak was discovered. Water started to seep out into his neighbour’s garden, creating a swamp where the lawn used to be. My friend called the local English contractor. All he ever got was the answer machine. “The man seems to have gone underground. Now we have found that not only is the pool a disaster but all the grouting around the tiles that line the pool and the pool area has dried and cracked. The whole place looks like a building site again,” says my friend.
A couple I know who bought a house in the Midi-Pyrenees made the mistake of thinking that just because the vendors were English they were trustworthy. When they went to visit the property there was an incessant barking from the dog next door. They asked the vendors what was going on.
“Wasn’t it just typical that it should happen the day we were looking around was their response,” Sandra tells me. “We all had a good joke about it and the next time we went to look it had stopped so we thought no more of it.” What my friends hadn’t realised was that one of the reasons they were selling was that they could stand no more of the dog their neighbours keep in the cellar 23 hours a day (most of which time he barks). Their second visit must have coincided with the one hour he is let out. “I remembered afterwards that they were not keen to let us come at certain times, but of course suspected nothing,” says Sandra. “You just don’t believe that your own kind could do that sort of thing to you. Maybe we were naïve, but we totally trusted them, and mainly because they were English. It just didn’t occur to us that they would have the nerve to just lie to us.”
Of course we don’t just automatically trust other English people if we live in London, so what changes when we move abroad? Maybe it’s an affinity thing; we are a minority here so we automatically think we will stick together. Maybe it’s the relief of dealing with one’s own kind, of understanding more about them in five minutes than we will in five years when it comes to a Frenchman.
Whatever it is, I am still waiting for my charming technician to call or show up. By the time he makes it back the French mouse will probably have chewed through another cable. Or maybe I’ll just call a French technician; at least he’ll be able to talk to the mouse.