In his farewell column, George East writes a love letter to France
Don’t miss George’s final FPN column
I know we see each other constantly, but at this special anniversary, I wanted to try and put into words why I’ve been in love with you for the best part of a lifetime, and I do mean the best part.
We met, if you recall, when I was but a callow youth. I’d come to Paris on a school exchange trip, and knew straightaway I’d got the best of the swap. From the moment I arrived, I entered another world, and one I wanted to see a lot more of.
I’d left a repressed and restricted monochrome post-war country, where short back and sides haircuts were de rigueur, and colourful clothes a cause of suspicion. There I was in blazer, grey flannels and Brylcreem, while your ultra-cool youths wore sharp haircuts and eye-dazzlingly colourful clobber with a smouldering Gitane or Gauloise hanging insouciantly from bottom lips as they whizzed around on mopeds. There and then I knew our affair would be a long and hopefully enduring one.
The moment I was old enough, I set about courting you. In England, I wore French clothes, smoked French cigarettes, drank French drinks and, to the horror of my contemporaries, ate garlic. I tried to learn your language so we could get to know each other better – and I’m still trying. I came a-courting in every free moment; motoring, sailing, cruising and pedalling. As a 21st birthday present to myself I spent a forever memorable year walking and hitch-hiking 2,000 miles within your borders, wallowing in the delightful diversity in landscape, culture and tongue.
Like all lovers, we sometimes fell out. Usually over trifles, and the good bits always more than made up for the bad. Whatever happens next, I just wanted you to know what a complete joy our affair has been, and that, if I could start over, I’d do it all again. Thanks for the memories ma chérie, and see you in my dreams.
Having declared my undying love for our closest Continental neighbour, I thought I’d share some of the moments and milestones on my journey to becoming a total and helpless Francophile. And, of course, a total French propertyphile.
Any list must include my wife and I searching for our first French home. Great fun for us, but not for those professionals we plagued. Estate agents and notaires would dive for cover as we approached.
Then came the ineffable joy of turning a corner and seeing what would become our first home in France. Then, that magic moment when we found ourselves sitting in the office of the notaire and praying that nothing would stop us getting our hands on the giant old key which would unlock the door of the Little Jewel.
Fate (as it usually does with us) intervened and we got an offer we could not refuse for our bijou cottage before we’d really got to know it.
Once again, we became the property agents’ nemesis. Ironically, and after searching the length and breadth of the region, we found exactly what we sought just a mile down the road in the shape of a ruined mill cottage and farmhouse on 10 acres of fields, ponds, woods and mud.
Je t’aime, moi non plus
There were the fun and games and ups and downs of restoring property in a foreign and sometimes strange land, and learning how to persuade a plumber with a love of home-brew apple brandy that we’d rather have the toilet in the bathroom than the kitchen.
Our small adventures at the Mill of the Flea became so bizarre that I wrote a book about them, and, to our amazement, Home & Dry in France became a modest bestseller.
Since then I’ve written dozens of books and millions of words about the delights of living in and moving around France. It’s all been great fun, but created an unexpected problem. Having lived in or travelled through every one of the French regions, we are still unable to decide which one should be our final resting place.
Ne me quitte pas Any list of our favourite French experiences and places must include rural French bars. Our first local was a room in a cottage shared by two elderly sisters, where they would dispense their own cider and tell of their adventures in the War and making knickers from parachute silk.
Then there was the bar which only opened for the midi meal when the owner had slaughtered one of his sheep. And all those roadside ouvrier bars putting on regional specialities for workers which put posh restaurants to shame for a tenth of the price.
Most treasured of all, those wonderful and sadly fastdisappearing village stores with a curtain dividing grocery shop from bar and invariably run by a forbidding Madame.
It seems impossible, but this year I’m celebrating six decades of my love affair with France, and that love has been returned a million times. Not by the odd Anglophobe or the misanthropes who dwell in any country, but by all the magic moments and good people and their acts of friendship and kindness.
Je t’aimais, je t’aime, je t’aimerai So, what’s next?
For sure our search will continue. I’m a travel writer and have travelled and written about other lands, but I always return to my first foreign love.
Richard the Lionheart left instructions that his remains be strewn around various parts of his beloved France. I am British and proud to be so, but my heart will always be in France.
We will continue our wanderings and wondering in France, and who knows where we may settle? Somewhere, there’s a village where bicycles still outnumber cars and the barépicerie has been in the hands of the same redoubtable lady for as long as anyone can remember.
Inside, the yellowing posters advertise long-past events and the shadows of my long-passed friends from the Jolly Boys Club sit with a cigarette and glass of wine for all eternity. When I find this perfect place, I’ll let you know. Perhaps.
Till then, it’s been fun and see you all next time…