I have cringed so of­ten at the rude­ness and vul­gar­ity of Bri­tons

The Herald Magazine - - FIRST UP - FIDELMA COOK

IT IS only when the three big men sit down at my ta­ble that I can look be­yond them and see their shoes neatly lined up out­side my glass doors. They have padded over my tiled floor with a care it does not de­serve.

On this wet, cold day, Ce­sar has al­ready mud­died ev­ery square tile as if play­ing a game of hop­scotch. The sod­den leaves and twigs his long coat has gath­ered fill in the tiles his paws have missed.

When I give them the minute cups of strong es­presso they’ve asked for, af­ter I in­vited them in, I tell them there was no need for the cer­e­mo­nial shoe re­moval: the floor is filthy.

They look at me with a muted in­com­pre­hen­sion. This is what work­men, “dirty jobs” work­men, do when en­ter­ing a house. It mat­ters not if the floor is al­ready mud­died or clean.

And it’s true. Ev­ery French work­man who has come here has in­stinc­tively done the same. They have also not left with­out clear­ing and clean­ing their workspace.

It is a ques­tion of re­spect. Re­spect for the client’s space; re­spect for their own tem­po­rary place in it. And pride. For there are few jobs con­sid­ered be­neath the dig­nity of a French work­man; each job has a value and a worth.

We shake hands on meet­ing and call each other madame/mon­sieur that gives a strange for­mal grav­ity to what is to come. We are en­gaged on a con­tract which has al­ready been signed and sealed on the ac­cep­tance of the “de­vis” – the es­ti­mate of the work.

Un­less specif­i­cally dis­cussed, agreed and again signed for, the bot­tom line can­not be changed. It’s a great com­fort to have a fixed price when funds are tight and worked out to the nth de­gree. That same for­mal­ity of thought and ser­vice is ev­i­denced in all ar­eas. You need to live here, I think, to un­der­stand it is not dis­dain­ful ar­ro­gance at work when you feel slighted.

It is your, for­give me, An­glo dis­dain of those who, you think, make you feel su­pe­rior. I have cringed so of­ten at the rude­ness, the vul­gar­ity of Bri­tons abroad, in their loud as­ser­tions of that su­pe­ri­or­ity.

(I’ve cringed too in the restau­rants of London, Ed­in­burgh and even Glas­gow. It is of­ten not merely a ques­tion of lan­guage.)

Here, the waiter/wait­ress can tell you the ingredients of all you’re eat­ing; the som­me­lier will al­most sing the wine list if he feels you de­serve it; the street cleaner in his lit­tle car curves and re-curves the cor­ner to pick up the last bit of lit­ter.

The post­man/woman has gone through in­ter­views and writ­ten tests for the priv­i­lege of de­liv­er­ing the mail; the girl at the su­per­mar­ket till au­to­mat­i­cally says hello to each cus­tomer and good­bye with a wish for a good evening.

Ev­ery shop server will do the same. It is only the for­eign­ers who brusquely go straight in and de­mand what they’re there for.

That will cause you grief in France. It is con­sid­ered the height of rude­ness to ig­nore the pleas­antries in one’s de­mands and, trust me, you will pay for it in the sub­se­quent, tru­cu­lent ser­vice.

Any­way, back to the three un­shod, large men drink­ing from their tiny cups at my ta­ble. They are the work­ers who have fi­nally, fi­nally, ar­rived to in­stall the field drains around my house and over my “parc” to the ditch be­yond via an elec­tric pump.

Large ma­chin­ery, in­clud­ing a dig­ger, is in place and I fear for the state of my parc when it’s over.

But that has to be bet­ter than waiting for the main part of the house to flood and run with wa­ter when the storms come. At mid­day they knock on the door to tell me they’re go­ing for lunch. At 2pm pre­cisely they re­turn. I have no prob­lem with that. This is our work-life bal­ance, en­vied the world over. Of course, even here in La France Pro­fonde that is chang­ing – slowly, though, I’m happy to say.

The two-hour lunch is no longer sa­cred; big shops even open through it now and Mon­day is no longer a closed-door day.

But enough still hold out against the tide of work, work, work, which has swal­lowed and swal­lows our lives. Ad­mit­tedly I have come to this thought late when I am no longer re­quired, or wish to work, ev­ery hour God sends.

No, that’s a lie. I would still work ev­ery hour God sends if I phys­i­cally could. It’s easy to say that when you loved what you did.

But that doesn’t fit here ei­ther, does it? I’ve spo­ken to many peo­ple in France about this work-life busi­ness that are like me.

And then I un­der­stand they’re not. They want as much a ful­fill­ing life as they want their job. No ques­tion of one or the other.

Any­way, out­side, an­other lorry has ar­rived and is re­mov­ing the dredged-up earth to the orig­i­nal lorry out­side the drive.

One side of the house has been dug out; the other still to come. I know noth­ing. How­ever, it seems a new line must be put in for the elec­tric pump where it was not ex­pected to be. It is an un­ex­pected ex­pense, but not mine, the overseer tells me.

“That’s our prob­lem,” he tells me with a smile.

cook­fi­delma@hot­mail.com Twit­ter: @fi­del­ma­cook


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