Thursday, 4 March 2010

48. A Year in Warrington

4th March 2010. The Pays Basque is one of France's best kept secrets (in my opinion). After discovering its delights, I tried hard not to extol its virtues too much with friends and colleagues in the UK as I selfishly wished to keep it to myself! We’d suffered the occasional booming voices and braying laughter of my fellow countrymen in 'our' restaurant in ‘our’ village and we didn't want to increase the risk of any recurrence. For that same reason, I kept my distance from expat forums and blogs on the internet until recently.

I've always had a yen to write and once we'd re-located in the Pays Basque I started to keep a simple daily diary of our new life down here to 'get my hand in' again and start the juices flowing. I also started writing letters to my dear old Mum in England to give her more of a flavour of what we were up to than I ever could over the phone. After a while, this material started to accumulate and I thought about starting a blog to capture all these experiences in a more flexible, readable and joined-up format. In researching blogs, I discovered a whole new world of bloggers, blogs and forums for ex-pats (including many Brits) in France that I'd previously been unaware of. The more I looked, the more I found. There must be thousands of Brits widely dispersed around France whose only contact with each other is via electronic means. (Edited in 2017 to add: I've since withdrawn from all internet expat forums as they seem to attract aggressive "keyboard warriors" and, for me at least, life's too short to waste time engaging with them)

It occurred to me the other day that this largely invisible ex-pat community only exists here in France. It's all one way traffic. There doesn't appear to be a similar group of French ex-pats living the reciprocal life in the UK. While there is a large group of French working in the UK - estimated to be some 300,000 strong - I would doubt very much if there's an equivalent number of French living in the UK for what might be called lifestyle reasons - retirees and people who've taken early retirement and have set up small businesses to complement their pensions. It's my guess that those 300,000 French are mainly to be found working in and around London where there's easy access to the Eurostar for weekend commuting.

Peter Mayle definitely hit a nerve with his seminal "A Year in Provence" as it tapped into the aspirations of thousands of baby boomers (like me) who'd experienced foreign travel first hand - and liked it - in a way that wasn't possible for their parents' generation. I'm excluding, of course, our fathers' wartime experiences overseas as they all mainly came to a grinding halt in 1945. Our fathers returned home never to travel overseas again for the most part and they spoke about it rarely. It was a period that most of them wanted to forget.

We, the UK baby boomers, were the generation brought up on a diet of dull post-war food (although we didn't realise it at the time) - Camp coffee, Kia-Ora orange squash, sliced white bread, evaporated milk, salad cream, tinned fruit (peaches, pears or pineapple usually covered it), tinned veg, packet soups, Kraft Dairylea cheese, meat that was cooked to death and rice was only seen in rice puddings. Cooking oil - what's that? Spaghetti - as we'll find out in a few paragraphs - came in tins in tomato sauce. As my Mum said years later, "after the war, we were just grateful to be eating anything.." I think it's fair to say that our knowledge and experience of food and drink - as a nation - was pretty minimal in the fifties and well into the sixties, so we were all in the same boat. The problem arose when England met Europe, and more specifically - France.

Madame once asked me if we used to have lobster at Christmas when I was a kid.. (Lobster! I thought.. suppressing hysterical laughter!) No, we didn't! Or oysters. Or broccoli. Or a thousand and one other things we now take for granted. My Dad used to stock up with a case of a dozen bottles of sweet Spanish Sauternes in early November in good time for Christmas. By the end of November, that case had mysteriously evaporated and he'd have to go out for another. Sweet Spanish Sauternes put me off white wine for a loong time.

Here's a little story that will illustrate what a complete numpty I was in food matters when I was young. I lived in London for a couple of years in the mid sixties. My bed-sit was on the first floor of a large semi in trendy Willesden Green(!). My landlady was Italian and the tenants were a cosmopolitan bunch. Among others, there was Ferry, a wealthy young Persian man (they weren't Iranians yet) on my floor and a Polish girl called Marta in the basement flat.

It wasn't too long before my beady eye alighted on Marta. I found out that she had supper with the landlady one day per week so I asked her what Marta liked to eat. It turned out that spaghetti bolognaise was her favourite. I asked Marta if she'd like to come up one evening for a meal and, to my surprise and delight, she said that she would.

I went out that evening to buy all the supplies.. (and don't laugh!): 2 large tins of Heinz Spaghetti Bolognaise, a large white sliced loaf, some butter, a 2oz tin of Nescafe.. two plates and two coffee cups and saucers. Oh yes, and a packet of sausages. I was going to serve Marta tinned spag bol, on buttered toast, with a couple of sausages sticking jauntily out of the top in the manner of an indoor TV aerial.. Followed by real Nescafe.. I can't remember if wine was involved.. probably not. What a feast to set before my date! (ahem..)

Come the evening in question and Marta arrived on time.. The spag was bubbling away nicely in a saucepan on top of my Baby Belling.. the sausages were under the grill.. the toast was ready.. and I was talking to the lovely Marta... Suddenly, blue smoke started pouring out from under as the sausages caught fire.. Without pausing for breath, I quickly slid the grill pan out, blew the flames out and then held it out of the window to let the smoke disperse.. In my mind's eye I can still see this cloud of acrid blue smoke slowly drifting down the neighbouring gardens..

Right - the toast is on the plates, each with a steaming dollop of spag, two burnt sausages stuck in a 'vee' like a bullfighter's bandilleros.. et voila! From there on, the evening was only going one way and that was downhill..

I never did see her again. Strange that.. (I've often wondered if she's ever recounted the tale to groups of totally bemused Poles..)

Three or four years later, my French sister-in-law was staying at the family home and she offered to make the evening meal for my mother. She wanted to make a spag bol (the classic sixties dish) so she popped out to the shops to pick up all she needed. When she returned with all her ingredients, I noticed she had a long blue packet (~half a metre long) under her arm. I asked her what that was and she gave me a curious look and said, "It's the spaghetti..!" The penny finally dropped. D'oh!

Coming to France from the UK was a genuine revelation back then.. particularly in food terms. Steaks had red juice (ie, blood) still in them. (Meat was always killed twice in England.. once in the abattoir and then it would be murdered in the kitchen - just to make sure..) If there was any lingering sign of blood in a steak, my father would proclaim "A good vet would have that back on its feet in 5 minutes.." He was always a keen advocate of the blowlamp to cook a steak.. The big difference was that French food had taste. Salads with vinaigrette dressing. Crusty baguettes. All the different varieties of cheese. Red wine. Real coffee..

All of the above goes some way to explaining why thousands of French retirees aren't buying up abandoned properties the length and breadth of Britain, living the dream and writing best sellers called "A Year in Warrington" with a follow-up called "Toujours Warrington"*. Imagine the rumblings if they colonised such outposts as British West Hartlepools, Workington or Rochdale with settlements of trimly moustachioed French pensioners and their hennaed wives! Getting on to the committee of the local Working Mens Club, walking their whippets, fancying their pigeons and breeding budgies, writing witty columns for French newspapers.. The horror of the Bowling Club committee as the newly arrived Frenchman launches his 'wood' up in the air on the local bowling green in the parabola of a pétanque player..! There's a parody waiting to be written here. The simple truth is that they live to eat. We don't. We eat to live and as Madame found, it's very difficult outside of the major centres to find the ingredients for cooking à la française.
* With apologies to the good folk of Warrington naturally!

I doubt if there's a better interpretation of Debussy's Clair de Lune than this one by Presti Lagoya..

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