News reaches me that many of us are going to live to be 100. According to experts there could be 1.2 million centenarians in Britain by 2074.
This is extremely worrying for those of us in France. And terrifying for those of us in the far south of France. In Kensington and Chelsea people live on average 11.5 years longer than those living in Glasgow. That’s almost ten days of life per mile. We’re another 500 miles from London; how old could people get down here?
Experts put the increased longevity down to better diet and improved health care. Among the reasons people cite for moving to France, those two are top of the list. Where else can you live off fresh asparagus for most of spring, melon for the whole of summer and get a hip operation before you even need one?
Life in France is healthier than it is in England, and not just because a visit to hospital will normally cure you instead of killing you. People simply live better over here. Their lifestyle is healthier in almost every way. For example they take important things, like lunch, extremely seriously.
Recently we were telephoned by our local primary school because of a storm warning.
“Could you come and collect the girls please?” the headmistress asked. “The school will be closed with immediate effect.”
The girls were in the refectory, waiting for their lunch. This is never a simple affair involving a pizza and a can of coke. It is a four-course, sometimes five-course, meal involving fresh vegetables, meat or fish and of course a cheese course.
“They can’t possibly go home now, storm or no storm,” said the dinner lady as the lightning flashed. “Can you come back after lunch?”
Lunch is the great excuse. When I was writing about the last Pope’s visit to Lourdes there was tight security all around the city centre, no one was allowed to cross the road. No one that is except a furious old-aged-pensioner who told the policeman that she had to get back to her residency in time for lunch. I was amazed when I saw him lift the barrier and let her through. I must remember this trick next time I’m trying to get close to a Pope.
It is this respect for things like lunch that makes France a more pleasant place to live than England. The French have their priorities right. Their main aim in life is to enjoy it, not to earn as much money as they can. “I would rather have lunch in the garden on a sunny day surrounded by my family than a new car,” says Georges, a French friend of mine. In France it’s not about how long you live, it’s how long you lunch.
The English who move to France adopt the French way of life pretty quickly. I always stop for lunch now. In fact if I’m not at the kitchen table shortly after midday I start to get nervous. The day is divided up into two parts; before lunch and after lunch. Nothing happens during lunch except, well, lunch.
Of course the more of the stress-free French lifestyle we adopt, the longer we will all live. But if we adopt some French characteristics we won’t need to adapt too much. Another comforting aspect of life in France is that not much changes when you get old; you still play the national sport (boules) and go cycling. In fact cycling is the one sport the new centenarians will be taking up in droves. As long as you can get someone to lift you up onto the bike the rest is easy. For the climbs you can hang on to the octogenarian in front of you and on the way down just close your eyes and freewheel.
It seems to me that a lot of the French spend their whole life preparing for old age. I have never known a people that are so old before their time. My daughter’s best friend from school for example was extremely worried the first time she came to visit us as we had to drive over a bridge which has no barriers. She is six. Imagine how prudent she’ll be when she’s sixty-six. She was also astounded to see my daughter take her seatbelt off before the car had come to a complete standstill. Last spring I took the children into town. They were wearing trousers and long-sleeved T-shirts. It was around sixteen degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. “Aren’t they cold?” asked a young woman who stopped us in the street. “It’s not summer yet you know.” “It is to us,” I felt like responding but instead told her I had forgotten their puffa-jackets in the car along with their hats and gloves.
I predict the Brits who have moved here for a better life will enjoy ageing disgracefully in France so much they’ll hang on to the bitter end. I envisage a day when I will be surrounded by semi-corpses. Walking around the local town will be like walking into Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. The Queen will have to start emailing her birthday greetings there will be so many of us hitting 100 here. Our children will of course complain that we’re not dropping off and leaving them our money. But the good news for the French state is that when we eventually die, the money will come just in time for their long and pleasant retirement.