At the age of sixteen, I decide what I want to be when I grow up: French.
Being sixteen has little to recommend it, other than not being fifteen any more. On Saturday lunchtimes, puffed up with our own daring, my best friend Alex and I and a group of sundry social C-listers from school can at least now go to the only pub in York that serves shifty teenagers, no questions asked. There we linger over a half of lager, watching the Bee Gees on the video jukebox, observed impassively by the elderly gentlemen who make up the remainder of the Brewer’s Arms’ clientele. This forms a significant new strand of our social life, hitherto limited to listening to Radio 1 in one or other of our bedrooms, loitering in McDonalds or Rough Trade records, trying on clothes in River Island and eating all the free samples of cake from under the plastic cloche in Betty’s tearoom. Boredom hangs around us like a low mist on the River Ouse. My attempts to launch York Youth CND have foundered on a combination of ideological differences and inertia and the members of Wind Band, in which I play the clarinet badly, are even further down the school pecking order than I am. I am too chicken to go to Leeds, which we view as the acme of civilization, and even if I went, I would not know what to do when I got there.
Mainly, I mope in my bedroom reading and listening to the Smiths, much as I did at fifteen. When my moping infuriates my mother to the point where she tries to suggest unpalatably worthy occupations for me (‘if you’re so bored, you could volunteer at the nursing home down the road?’ she suggests several times and I roll my eyes in disgust), I trudge down to school to sit in the library and read there instead. And it is here that I encounter French Elle for the first time.
No one has a satisfactory explanation of how a boys’ Quaker boarding school that has only recently admitted girls has ended up with a subscription to French Elle. Clerical error? Librarian insurrection? It’s not an overtly Quaker place in some ways, though: the music teacher thumps out Hymns Ancient and Modern at the grand piano instead of silent worship on Friday mornings (‘Jerusalem’, ‘Dear Lord and Father’, ‘Immortal, Invisible’) and most of the pupils are farmers’ kids from the Vale of Wetherby, not real Quakers. Whatever the reason, French Elle’s incongruous candy-coloured cover with a photograph of a pretty girl draws my eye one afternoon in the mock Tudor-beamed, wood-panelled library and I take a copy off the rack, and start to read. Having flicked through the first copy with growing interest, I go back, find several more, and sit down to give them my full attention.
Much of French Elle is impenetrable to me. I do not know who the people in the articles are: authors, politicians or actresses. Almost everyone the magazine interviews does something called ‘barre au sol’, which bemuses me (a bar on the ground? How is this exercise? It sounds like going over trotting poles on the fat Shetland pony at the riding school in Escrick) and everyone is épanouie (blooming, says the dictionary) or becoming an égérie of something (a muse?), which I don’t really understand. The magazine also tends to talk about ‘le couple’ as if it were a needy houseplant requiring constant attention. I concentrate initially on the make-up and fashion pages, which are full of desirable items you cannot find in Browns department store (I know because I write them down, and go and check). But my interest is piqued and I find I want to know more. Elle has stories about lipstick, sex and film stars, but also about literature and philosophy and politics. The film stars interviewed about their latest romantic comedies will discuss serious, abstract topics without any awkwardness. Sometimes they discuss facial serums, Victor Hugo and their relationship with their fathers in the same sentence and no one thinks this is unusual. Sex is ever-present, but not in the way it is ever-present in the hormonal fug of the lower sixth common room. In French Elle it is discussed seriously, and in depth. Indeed it is apparent quite quickly that pleasure of all kinds is a serious business in Elle: food, sex, culture or bath oils. The founding fathers of Quakerism would not have approved.
I fall in love with the world portrayed in French Elle over my seventeenth year, from the bûche de Noël taste tests in winter to the ‘régime maillot ’ diets in summer and all points in between, rushing to the library each Thursday to read the new edition. In the world French Elle presents, you are allowed to be interested, without any apparent contradiction, in books, films and politics, men, éclairs and pretty bras and this is what I want; this is what, without really realizing it, I have been aspiring to. No one in French Elle is embarrassed or apologetic, while I am one or the other all the time, and often both at once. Finally, there seems to be a destination at the other side of this mortifying trudge through a North Yorkshire adolescence: France.
I am not necessarily predisposed to fall in love with France. We have a French memory card game with pictures of typically French scenes and items, so initially France for me is the frustrating search for the second picture of Nougat de Montelimar and trying to snatch the wheels of Brie before my mother on wet afternoons. We go there on holiday sometimes, long queasy hot car journeys, me vomiting in lay-bys, my father getting tetchy. On one trip my mother becomes so enraged with me and my half-brother that she orders us horse steak just so she can tell us about it years later and watch our reaction. Another time, on a tense extended family holiday, I get locked in the loo of a draughty gîte in Brittany for a whole afternoon and have to be humiliatingly released by the local handyman. During another teenage summer, my father rents, very cheaply, a decaying chateau with a stuffed bear: the attic is full of relics of the German occupying officers, fly larvae wriggle under the wallpaper and the stagnant pond in the garden is full of dying frogs. Later, we go to Lot-et-Garonne and I try to sunbathe topless lying in the garden listening to awful Europop, ending up horribly burnt, while my sister gets bitten by an adder and has to go to hospital. The consolation for all our many minor disasters and disappointments in France is always the same: cake. Before I fall in love with French Elle I fall hard for French cake, pains aux raisins and pretty raspberry tartlets and wobbly, trembling flans topped with plump apricot halves.
I have also suffered under the yoke of French lessons from a friend of my mother’s, a semiotics lecturer. The lessons, I am later given to understand, were less intended for my benefit than hers (she needed the extra income). This makes sense, since they were no fun at all for me. The semioticist would wait in the playground to collect me from school one afternoon a week, a thin, rather forbidding figure whose presence did not scream of roaring good times. She would escort me to a nearby café and attempt to drill into me the basics: my name, my age, did I have any pets, colours, cheerless songs in which some chickens would go to a field and then return or puppets would turn around three times and leave. I dreaded everything about these strained and awkward afternoons – it was plain even to me that her heart was not in it – except the cake I was allowed to choose to accompany our conversation. A serial quitter of extra-curricular activities that inconvenienced my minutely planned schedule of reading the Famous Five and pretending to be a horse, I petitioned hard to be allowed to give up; eventually my mother acquiesced.
‘She sat at Derrida’s feet!’ she protested when I remonstrated with her many years later, as if this in some way reinforced the semioticist’s credentials for teaching me to count to twenty.
Now, in secondary school, I am good at French, but the lessons are indescribably dreary and uninspiring. Our teacher, Madame Cockroft – the French faculty is mainly composed of French women with Yorkshire names, exiled in our misty shire for love – is a great fan of repetitive written and oral exercises and we spend hours each week conjugating irregular verbs, agreeing our adjectives and asking each other about our ailments. I have chosen French A-level more because I am good at it than because I enjoy it, and the dreary drills and exercises continue. There is a token element of ‘culture’, but this has been largely limited to learning the location of the power stations of Haute-Normandie, studying Norman cheese production and watching a couple of grainy videos about the port of Le Havre. Our other French teacher, Monsieur Collins, who seems to be permanently teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, sometimes reads us poetry, de Vigny and Verlaine, but we just nd this embarrassing, a pink-cheeked Irish man getting misty-eyed about sepia-tinted men in frock coats. ‘Seul le silence est grand,’ he declaims, tremulously. ‘Tout le reste est faiblesse.’ This is at least appropriate for a Quaker school, but it doesn’t exactly speak to us.
Occasionally, however, the French A-level group is herded to City Screen, York’s sole art-house cinema, to watch films starring Gérard Depardieu. All French films in the late 1980s and 1990s seem to feature Gérard Depardieu in some capacity, as if without him they would not be fully French. His face becomes inseparably associated with French culture to us as we watch him fall in love with his secretary to a soundtrack of Schubert Impromptus (Trop Belle Pour Toi), recite verse with a prosthetic nose (Cyrano de Bergerac) and reminisce about playing a viol in a curly wig (Tous Les Matins du Monde). ‘He is not handsome,’ says Madame Lofthouse (another of our Yorkshire–French teachers) thoughtfully, during our conversation sessions after these films, ‘mais he has something.’
On our own, my best friend Alex and I go and see Les Valseuses, in which a much younger Gérard – who indisputably ‘has something’ at this point – wears extravagant flares and has arousing, alarming sex with strange women who apparently find him and his co-star Patrick Dewaere irresistible. We like Les Nuits Fauves best, because the director and principal actor Cyril Collard is beautiful, bisexual and tragic and because there is lots of sex and drama. The rumoured ménage à trois in Jules et Jim (no Gérard in this one) is a bitter disappointment in contrast (what on earth is even going on? We are mystified), but I do add a postcard of a still from the film – Jeanne Moreau running across the bridge in her chic, oversized man’s sweater, baggy trousers and charcoal moustache – to the mosaic of moody black and white Robert Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson shots above my desk. At home with my mum and stepfather we watch Au Bout de Souffle and I ignore the plot entirely to fantasize about walking through Paris with a pixie cut and Capri pants and kissing the cop-killing rogue Jean-Paul Belmondo’s lubricious, Jagger-esque lips. Because not only do I want to be French, my sexual orientation is now firmly French. I lust after Belmondo, and Alain Delon, after Daniel Auteuil, Vincent Lindon and Valseuses era Depardieu (though I draw the line at Jean Rochefort).
Soon, France is my worst crush ever, worse than the man from House and Sons Electricians on Monkgate, worse than Gary Speed of Leeds United, worse than Dafydd, the double bass player who lives down our street. I listen to Nina Simone’s version of ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ in my bedroom, rolling my ‘r’s extravagantly, and look round York’s second-hand shops for a leather jacket like Romane Bohringer’s. Sadly, my outlets for Frenchness are very limited. There is staticky, dull France Inter on longwave on my radio. Our neighbour Geo is translating Madame Bovary and he lets me read the manuscript (or rather, lets me keep the manuscript on my bedside table and say to myself in the mirror ‘yeah, I’m reading a new translation of Madame Bovary’, because I find all the bits about the countryside tedious and search in vain for the sex scenes). My mum buys me Le Grand Meaulnes (deeply improbable but stirring) and Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (I like the bits about getting flashed at in a Catholic bookshop and drinking gin fizz, but skim over whole chapters of dry Sorbonne disagreements about Hume). But my latent Frenchness does not receive any fuller expression until my French exchange trip, Easter 1992.
It is actually not strictly speaking a ‘French’ exchange, because my exchange partner, although French, lives in Casablanca. This rather eccentric arrangement comes about through my stepfather’s mother spotting a small ad in the classifieds section of the Catholic Herald and after some exchanges of letters and an awkward phone call, an arrangement is put in place for me to go and stay with Aurélie, the daughter of two French expats and an accomplished ballet dancer and model, no less, and for Aurélie to return to us in the summer.
I set off with a suitcase full of nineteenth-century novels and Monsoon summer dresses and spend the next three weeks in a state of deep, dream-like culture shock. Casablanca is the strangest place I have ever been. It is not so much the centre, which is broadly recognizable as a North African city from reading Paul Bowles or watching television (a souk of heaped olives and cakes and insistent pressing bustle, the roar and odour of poorly fitted exhaust pipes, groups of men sitting around in purposeful idleness). The strangeness comes in the suburbs, the flat plains of desert where Aurélie’s leathery, enigmatic family live. Driving back to their house from the airport we pass through huge swathes of nothing but grey-brown scrub, the emptiness broken only by the occasional donkey or goat. Then, rising from nothing, come a series of huge, stupid, white elephants of villas. They are outlandish, architectural follies, the kind of mansions you discover when a dictator is deposed and the rebel forces parade around, showing off the gold-plated toothbrush holders and His and Hers lavatories. One is shaped like an ocean liner and another like a Deep South colonial bayou. They are all in poor repair, buffeted by desert winds and exfoliated by sand, and it’s impossible to imagine who, if anyone, lives there.
Aurélie’s own suburb is called ‘La Californie’ and it is just about conceivable why, since it is made up of low-rise, white-painted bungalows, the high protective garden walls overhung with bougainvillea. Inside, the house is surprisingly small: three bedrooms, a tiny bathroom and a kitchen no one but the maid seems to enter. Seven cats and four dogs of wildly differing shapes and varieties sprawl all over the house, lounging on the modish L-shaped sofa module, following the maid into the kitchen to beg for scraps, drawing the intermittent ire of the gardener. The humans are more uniform: both Aurélie and her brother Ludo are almost comically attractive. Aurélie is tall and almond-eyed, her hair cut into a highlighted shaggy mane, her cheekbones conferring the instant illusion of sophistication. Ludo is boy band handsome with a floppy dark wave of hair falling over his face, emitting strong teenage boy waves of contempt. Aurélie’s mother wears thigh-high fringed suede boots and her eyes are heavily kohl ringed. Her father is tiny, neat and bronzed, almost always silent, one of those Giscard d’Estaing style French men who wear navy blue suits and striped shirts with brown brogues, and who carry man bags, which they do not consider for a second might impugn their masculinity.
Aurélie and I, thrown together by the Catholic Herald, share not only a room, but, to my prudish horror, a bed. We put one of those bolster pillows down the middle so as not to roll onto one another in the night, but it is still odd to sleep so close to someone you have known for a matter of hours. It gets stranger still when I wake to realize the maid is bedding down on a mat in the corner of the room. Over the next few weeks I wake occasionally to a low murmur and turn over, befuddled with sleep, to see her performing salat in the dim pre-dawn. More often, I am woken by one of the cats, claws out, impassively massaging my leg.
No one seems to have any idea what to do with me. Aurélie and I do not bond; we are strangers, two people sharing nothing more than a bed. Aurélie has her boyfriend, the jockish, monosyllabic Robert, her modelling, her dance classes and her Slimfast-based regime. She has no time for me and my oral dresses and my Victorian novels, dithery and tongue-tied and painfully embarrassed. I only go to school with her once (it’s terrifying, a giant purpose-built Lycée in downtown Casa full of lithe, brown French kids) and the rest of the time I am thrown on the kindness of Aurélie’s mother and of the neighbours. Dozy with culture shock and sleep deprivation, I wake late, to be greeted by a pile of pancakes, specially prepared for me, so and full of holes like giant crumpets, butter and honey seeping through to the plate; then I hang around, awkwardly, reading or playing with the animals until someone finds me something to do. Once I get to watch Aurélie’s ballet class, and another time she takes me to watch her record a lo-fi soft drink commercial. It’s Ramadan, and filming stops at nightfall so the crew can go and eat dates and drink bowls of harira, the traditional Ramadan soup, in a tent behind the studio.
But things are far better when Aurélie can’t be persuaded to amuse me. I am handed over to a fierce, semi-fascist elderly lady who lives down the road, who holds forth to me on various subjects close to her heart, then takes me on the train to Rabat. We tour the city, which is completely fascinating to me: the beautiful fortifications, the ornate Mohammed V mausoleum and the Tour Hassan, but also the modernity of it, the accommodations of old and new. Later, Aurélie’s mother takes me to Marrakech for the weekend. The drive is an enchantment, a fairy story with camels and herds of floppy-eared goats sitting in the middle of the road and the snow-topped Atlas mountains sparkling improbably in the distance. We stay in a riad in the Medina, where the lush tiled courtyard gardens hidden behind plain alleyway doors with peeling paint bewilder me with their beauty. The souk is a familiar image from a thousand films and photographs, but I am not prepared for the lambs gathered shitting in terror in its narrow lanes in anticipation of Eid, or for the rivulets of blood, made sticky and slow-moving by the yellow dust, the smells of spice and dirt and decay. We walk across the Djema el-Fna at dusk, all twinkling lights and smoke and hissing and I feel overwhelmed and cracked open, like the 1970s hippies. It’s all a very long way from North Yorkshire.
And then there is Karim.
I have never had a boyfriend, not a proper one. I have ‘gone out’ with a couple of Wind Band nerds, more because they were available than because I liked them and it has always been dreadful, excruciatingly awkward, a festival of sweaty hand-holding, silence and clashing orthodontics. Each time, there is a moment of triumph at the idea that I have demonstrated my normality, but each time it is swiftly replaced by a desperate desire to get as far away from these boys as possible. My fantasy crushes are far more satisfying: distant figures like the electrician, Dafydd the double bass player and Gary Speed. No one attainable has ever seemed desirable to me, and vice versa.
But now there is Karim, a friend of the family (his sister dances with Aurélie) who comes round to Aurélie’s house one night for some reason, and who, for some reason, asks me out. I say yes, of course I do. He is older than me, in his early twenties, confident and funny with that fair Moroccan colouring, green eyes and dark golden curls. Why on earth wouldn’t I say yes?
Karim picks me up in the warm blue Casablanca night and we go to the cinema. It’s ten o’clock. I don’t even think there are screenings that late in York: how would you get home? We drive through the barren suburbs and along the dual carriageway lined with scrubby palm trees, towards the city where the white cubes are closer together and strip-lit night shops alternate with dark alleys. As he drives, we talk, or we try to, a halting mix of English and French. I understand, but speaking is harder, I fumble my answers and point, my chest tight and fizzy with anticipation.
The cinema is showing some daft recent action film, dubbed into French, with Arabic subtitles. It feels ineffably sophisticated to be doing something so ordinary in such a strange place and I observe the audience covertly, young and old, snacking on paper cones of pumpkin seeds and drinking cans of Coke. After the film ends, the sky is darker blue still and as we drive, a vast inky mass appears to my right: the sea. It is the first time I have spotted it since my arrival and I insist on getting out of the car and walking down the debris-strewn beach, the twinkling lights of the refineries and chemical plants in the distance. I do not care. A warm salty wind blows into my face and nothing has ever felt so exotic, so romantic in my entire life. We kiss, and before Karim drops me back at the bougainvillea-covered bungalow, we conclude with a breathy hormonal grapple in the dark, to the soundtrack of his Prefab Sprout cassettes. This is almost certainly the high point of my life to date.
Our fling continues for the remainder of my stay. Almost every night, Karim is there to take me out on adventures. There is something incredibly freeing about being somewhere where no one knows who I am and what I am supposed to be like. In York, I am an introverted, vegetarian semi-goth. In Casablanca, I can be someone entirely different, and I am. With Karim and his sisters, I go to nightclubs and dance and we drive around the city in the pink dawn to buy hamburgers. I sit on the floor at packed house parties as French stoners talk over me about The Doors, and ride horses through the desert. I have a delicious feeling of uncertainty: I never quite know where I am or what will happen next, but rather than worrying I abandon caution and trust entirely. Nothing bad happens. Usually, we end up back at Karim’s house drinking mint tea with his parents and playing Pictionary. I sleep in his bedroom sometimes. We don’t have sex – for all my abandoned caution, I just can’t surrender to that extent – but it’s all a great deal more satisfying than my excruciatingly awkward encounters with the Wind Band nerds. I lose myself, lose the inhibition and the doubt and the distaste for my own body in the warm darkness.
It is there that they come to find me in the small hours of my very last morning, Karim’s sister banging on the door, phone in hand, reminding me my flight leaves in a few hours. After a mad rush to pack – boxes of Moroccan patisseries stuffed in my backpack wrapped in those Monsoon dresses, the unread Effi Briest and War and Peace – Aurélie’s parents see me off, waving a last-minute goodbye as I run to my departure gate. My heart lurches as the plane taxis, then climbs (last view of palms, white low-rise city, sand, refineries, churning grey sea). Something has shifted in me: I feel older, taller, Frencher.
My bubble is swiftly burst on my return to York. Karim never replies to my gushing letters and when I tell people at school that I rode Arab stallions in the desert, it causes an outbreak of juvenile sniggering. Aurélie’s return trip to England does not seem to affect her anything like as deeply, either. We take her to a damp National Trust cottage in the Lake District, where we introduce her to our traditional holiday pursuits: long, sodden walks, the occasional visit to a tearoom and a great deal of solitary reading, occasionally punctuated by a hysterical (to us) game of Racing Demon. Each morning, Aurélie rows gloomily across the lake in the mist to maintain her ‘poitrine’. She seems distinctly less excited than the rest of the family by the momentous discovery of a dead mole by the back door, or by the large tick lodged in my sister’s shoulder. She does, however, learn that ‘cagoule’ has another meaning in English, so the trip is not entirely wasted from an educational perspective. On our return to York, we take her to the newly opened multiplex cinema, and to my friends’ houses for viewings of Single White Female and Spar popcorn. My male friends stare at her in open lust, a fact Aurélie accepts with a total and complacent absence of surprise. It is true that she is magnificent. The problem is that she is also very boring. We part without regret at the end of her stay and soon our correspondence dies an inevitable death.
For me, however, the die is cast. Casablanca, Aurélie and Karim have shown me the transformative power of abroad: being in another place and speaking another language has allowed me to be someone else entirely. If my identity can be up for grabs in this unexpected and welcome fashion, then I can pursue my plan with every expectation of success: I will become French.
When my placement comes through for my assistante-ship, my stepfather Joe looks it up in our huge Times atlas and shows me, then I laugh, hollowly. Madame Cockroft would be happy: I am going to sodding Normandy. Will my knowledge of the nuclear power stations and cheeses, the industrial hinterland of the port of Le Havre and the meadowlands of the Pays de Caux finally be put to good use?
I am going to be a classroom assistant in a secondary school on my year off and the school to which I have been assigned is in Canteleu, on the outskirts of Rouen in Normandy. Joe, who likes a task, researches Canteleu, cycling down to the library, returning with several reference volumes plus the collected works of Guy de Maupassant and Flaubert, both of whom have Normandy connections. Flaubert’s house is actually on the outskirts of Canteleu it transpires, and has an illustrious literary past, having welcomed Zola, Turgenev and George Sand among others. Canteleu was a pretty, bucolic Normandy hamlet back then, a short carriage trip from Rouen. Emile Zola, attending Flaubert’s funeral, describes it as ‘un coin touffu de la grasse Normandie qui verdoie dans une nappe de soleil’, a densely planted corner of fertile Normandy, blossoming under a carpet of sun. Modern Canteleu is a whole other story, as I will soon discover.
I arrive in Rouen by train on a Sunday afternoon in January after a two-day induction course during which I learn nothing, except that red wine is fantastically, improbably cheap in Paris and that no one here cares if I am old enough to drink it. It’s sort of terrifying the way we are all just left to our own devices to find our way to our schools, but I manage to acquire a ticket and find a train (no one else is heading in my direction, since most of the other assistantes are based down south). Sitting by the window, I watch as the Paris banlieues give way to orchards and farmland, and I track the wide meandering willow-lined course of the Seine. As we near Rouen, the fields give way again to several miles of flat industrial wasteland, illuminated in the gathering darkness. When I alight, uneasily, at the station the English teacher, Madame Martine, is waiting for me, as arranged. She is a wispy woman in her fifies in a brown roll-neck, with an air of resignation and little to say, but she does take me to the station café where, still English despite myself, I order tea and boggle in silent horror at what arrives: a tiny metal pot of lukewarm water, a Lipton Yellow teabag on the side, no milk. Some of the children, she says, can be difficult, she uses the word ‘insolent’, but it will be fine. Probably. I think back to my brief conversation with my predecessor, who told me he was held up in the car park of the nearby supermarket by one of his students, who stole a bottle of vodka from him. I had assumed he was joking, but now I am less sure.
After I have finished my awful beverage, she drives me to my new home. We start to climb the hill to Canteleu – the wide, winding road fringed by meadows and wheat fields and poplars that Zola described barely recognizable – when Madame Martine’s decrepit Renault is suddenly overtaken by ten vans full of CRS (the French riot police), sirens blaring, pin pon pin pon pin pon. She shakes her head sorrowfully.
With the sirens still audible and flashing lights reflecting off the apartment blocks, Madame Martine is unwilling to leave her car unattended (‘Voyous,’ she mutters, ‘vandals, brigands’). She drops me and my luggage at the front gate, gives me the key to my apartment (which is apparently within the school grounds) and drives away, promising we will catch up on Monday. The collège is a modern low-rise, a squat heap of grey and white metal in the middle of a cité of pebble-dashed tower blocks.
My room is on the first floor of the administrative block. It is small, with a single bed and a small table and two hard metal chairs. The walls are made of metal too and are in fact the outside walls of the building: I am living in a metal box, an ‘établissement Pailleron’ (so-named after the Paris school that famously burnt to the ground in twenty minutes in the 1970s, which is reassuring). A second, interestingly configured small room combines fridge, hotplate, lavatory and shower in two square metres of space that would give the UK Health and Safety Inspectorate enduring nightmares. As I settle in, putting posters on the walls and unpacking, a ballet of handbrake turns and sirens unfolds outside my window. When I venture to the phone box to tell my parents all is well, a small crowd of teenagers gathers outside, calling out ‘Hello!’, ‘Fuck you!’, ‘Pussy!’ but not with any menace. They seem bored, mainly, and hungry for distraction.
The area around the school is a sink estate; a large immigrant population living in poorly maintained social housing in an area of 30 per cent unemployment with few accessible shops or public services. There is, quite simply, nothing to do, so it is no surprise that my students trail me to the launderette and the phone box, or that they spend each night stealing and joy-riding cars and smoking weed, engaging in half-hearted clashes with the CRS riot police at weekends.
Teaching, it turns out, is not teaching at all, it’s babysitting. This is not the kind of environment where you can think big thoughts about the horizon-broadening, mind-expanding role of education. Why bother with school, the older children regularly ask us (homework undone, third written warning sent home and ignored), when there are no jobs, when your name marks you out as beur, Arab, in a society where that means an instant black mark against you? They are funny and bright, mainly, but they have no sense they have a future and who am I to suggest otherwise, coming from my white, prosperous city centre life?
School is not even a place of safety for these kids. The yard is lawless and frightening, humming with tension. There are drug deals and fights and on one occasion one of the older children holds another kid’s arm against a burning hot radiator until he suffers second-degree burns. The police are on site most weeks for one reason or another and the staffroom has bars on the windows. Ashen-faced, resigned- looking men and women huddle around the coffee machine, smoking and talking about their most recent bout of industrial action. The English teacher goes on long-term sick leave shortly after I arrive, never to be seen again. The younger children, the ones I teach, fall into two groups. There are the swaggerers, who deal with the open and veiled threats they face with bluster and violence, and then there are those who try to become invisible. I watch sometimes as the smaller, more diffident kids cross the yard, hampered by their vast school bags and I will the big boys, the casually violent invincible caïds, not to notice them. I don’t really teach anyone anything and after a few weeks I refine my lessons to two: either I hand out copies of Smash Hits and we chat about song lyrics (in French) or we play bingo.
This France is so very far from Laetitia Casta modelling Dolce & Gabbana swimwear in French Elle, or from Gérard Depardieu playing the viol in a powdered wig, I barely recognize it and reading Maupassant short stories is no preparation for this Normandy. It feels bleak and hopeless: the tower blocks create vicious wind tunnels and it rains diligently for weeks, a solid, turbo-charged drizzle that feels as if it will never stop. There isn’t even really anywhere I can buy decent patisserie in Canteleu; rather I live on radishes and Haagen Dazs ice cream from the supermarket (which is worryingly, in view of my predecessor’s experiences, called ‘Atac’).
In these days before Mathieu Kassovitz’s vividly bleak slap in the face portrait of cité life, La Haine, explodes our preconceptions, I know almost nothing about the banlieue. Most of what I know is gleaned from Bertrand Blier’s surreal, dream-like film 1, 2, 3 Soleil, where the grimy, half-derelict Marseilles cité becomes strangely sublime, baking in the sun to a soundtrack of cicadas. There is deprivation and violence and sex, but also solidarity and magic and unexpected acts of kindness, like the old man who ‘tames’ a child-burglar by leaving him small amounts of money and food. In Blier’s banlieue, anything can happen: people come back from the dead; adults become children again. It’s quite a vision for Canteleu to live up to.
The remainder of my knowledge of the banlieue comes from Christine Rochefort’s Les Petits Enfants du Siècle, a 1960s ‘issues’ novel we studied for A-level French. The action in Les Petits Enfants du Siècle takes place as the cités around Paris are under construction – their expansion is both backdrop and plot point. Josyane, the teenage narrator, is a child of social housing, the oldest of a feckless, ever- expanding family living on welfare in a tower block and she falls for Guido, a builder working on the construction of the surrounding towers (Guido is at least thirty and Josyane is twelve, it is not exactly a healthy relationship). When Guido leaves, she embarks upon a despairing journey to find him, via sex with most of the cité (what was Monsieur Collins thinking?).
In one scene Josyane heads off to try and find Guido in the newly constructed suburb of Sarcelles, where his crew is rumoured to have been spotted, and is brought to a standstill by the vision of the ideal, as yet unsullied structures: kilometres of white towers, lawns, shops and youth centres.
‘It was beautiful. Green, white, orderly. You could sense the organization. They had done everything to make us feel at home, they had asked themselves: what do we need to put in for them to feel good? And they had put it.’
She gets lost amidst this architecture of optimism, wandering confused up and down identical streets named for poets: Rue Verlaine, Mallarmé, Paul-Claudel, Victor Hugo.
This part, at least, I recognize: Canteleu has similar, similarly named streets down which you can get lost. In the early weeks I walk in the rain along Allée Bovary and Boulevard Monet and Rue Pissarro, exploring, trying to find my way to and from school or to the bank, bewildered by the ranks of identical tower blocks. It is not as if there is much to see, and after a few such outings, I tend not to venture out alone except to Atac, which I can see from my room. My main refuge, other than my metal-sided bedroom, is the surveillants’ room. The surveillants are mainly students, working to fund their studies. They deal with fights in corridors and social dramas, supervise detentions and frisk the kids on the way into school. There is usually a good vein of gallows humour bouncing around us as we troop off to the canteen at half past eleven: who has thrown what piece of furniture at whom, what new and exotic insults have been dredged up in long-running feuds.
Surveillants come and go but there is a hard core of four: Marie-Laure, Sophie, Laurent and Olivier and over the navarin d’agneau (I have abandoned six years of vegetarianism overnight, when faced with the prospect of six months of baguette and/or boiled potato and have managed to eat everything except the tongue, a forest of unadorned grey organs jauntily arranged in the giant steel serving trays) and the terrible coffee, obviously, inevitably I suppose, I evaluate the two men. Laurent is dreamy, fair and chaotic and Olivier is the opposite. He’s quite short, dark-haired and he vibrates with a barely suppressed energy. In the mornings as I lean out of my window to smoke a Gauloise Blonde Légère (my latest pretension), I watch him searching the kids at the front gate, instantly recognizable in a red, puffy down jacket. I am not particularly interested in him, but when he asks if I would like to come on a trip into Rouen one Wednesday afternoon (school finishes at twelve on Wednesdays), I say yes. The prospect of an afternoon in Canteleu is dismal (it has rained solidly for two weeks at this point) and if I take the bus into town, there are bound to be students on it, staring at my clothes and sniggering (I find the girls far more terrifying than the boys). I have also sized him up and decided that while I do not think he is a violent psychopath, if he does turn out to be one, he is quite small and slight, so I have a fighting chance.
So off we go. I don’t think it’s a date, but if it were a date, it’s a pretty terrible one. We go to some outpost of regional administration to pick up a form, then we go to a large hardware store so he can buy some wood, then we have a coffee in the Rue du Gros-Horloge, Rouen’s most tourist-infested medieval street and all the while Olivier is speaking to me in the most execrable, unbearable English. He seems like a nice man as far as I can elicit, but frankly, it’s like talking to a halfwit. After fifteen minutes or so, with me supplying the words that elude him, I just can’t stand it any more, and I say something to him in French.
‘Oh!’ he says, surprised. Then in French: ‘But you’re really good!’ And he laughs, because he is not the kind of man to get offended about that kind of thing. He’s right: I am really good and I’m quite proud of it. I don’t know how, whether it’s years of singing or Madame Cockroft or Gérard Depardieu. Maybe it’s even the semioticist, but French has become something I can just do, the sounds trip off my tongue and the ‘r’s roll neatly.
Olivier orders us more coffee in his beautiful and, yes, sexy French and everything is so much better. Everything is great, actually, and we talk all afternoon, then we go for a Mexican meal and drink too much tequila. A few weeks later after several more successful dates, we kiss.
Before we even have sex, I stay over in his grimy little house, which is in a rather depressing, far-flung village and looks like something you might see on a local news report about a grisly, sexually motivated sequestration and murder. We share his mattress, which is on the floor in a first-floor room with no furniture, a single bare bulb and faded, peeling wallpaper that features the rock band Kiss. It seems legitimate to wonder whether I may be murdered, but instead, we fall asleep perfectly entwined like something from a fairy tale: arms and legs entangled, my head on his shoulder. It shouldn’t be comfortable for more than five minutes but I wake in the morning and neither of us has moved an inch.
Dating Olivier makes absolute sense of my weird Normandy adventure; in fact it becomes my weird Normandy adventure. Almost instantly I move out of my metal box and into his grotty little house with the Kiss wallpaper and damp lino and he takes me to school each morning and brings me back in the afternoon. Sometimes, thrillingly, he brings me in on the back of his motorbike. At weekends we see his friends or go to the cinema, or lie in bed and eat oranges.
He’s clever and open to anything and he makes me laugh properly by saying dark, horrible, funny things, but above all of it, above everything, he is French. Oh, but he is so, so French. He is French in the obvious ways: he listens to George Brassens and Serge Gainsbourg and uses the subjunctive effortlessly and has volumes of Montaigne’s essays on his bookshelf. He wakes me with a sincere and beautifully expressed endearment, finds physical affection simple and buys me gifts. He likes a rambling, circular philosophical discussion. But what really fascinate me are the weird little idiosyncrasies of his Frenchness. The way he spreads sweetened condensed milk from a tube on a supermarket loaf cake at breakfast time, then dunks it in a soup bowl of black coffee. The awful, tartan old man slippers he wears religiously at home. In bars, he sometimes orders menthe à l’eau, that violently green mouthwash, and I marvel at how anyone could enjoy it. Frenchness is stamped all the way through him like a stick of rock. ‘He looks so French!’ says my mother, amused, when she comes to visit me in Rouen. ‘He’s very French,’ says my father, his eyes narrowed in naked suspicion, when I finally pluck up the courage to introduce them some months later.
On Sundays, we go to his grandmother’s dark little house for a proper three-course lunch, perhaps asparagus or scallops, then roast chicken, followed by a home-made apple tart or something from the patisserie in a big white cardboard box finished with a slippery knot of ribbon. Lunch is preceded by dainty glasses of muscat and salty crackers and discussions of what we are going to eat, and finished off with Nescafé from the good cups and chocolate squares out of the tin she keeps in the forbiddingly huge armoire normande (a giant, brown piece of furniture that could easily double as a family tomb), possibly accompanied by some kind of meditation on the awfulness of ageing and the imminence of death or, on better days, reminiscences about Olivier’s childhood.
Later – considerably later, this is obviously a bigger psychological step – Olivier introduces me to his parents.
My picture of French family life is half drawn from those elegant films of bourgeois adultery and anomie that take place in grand Parisian apartments, and half from Jean de Florette. A French mother, thus, is a whippet-thin Kristin Scott Thomas smoking and saying cutting things or a bounteously sexy Emmanuelle Béart figure preparing tomatoes at a stone sink as the cicadas sing outside for a selection of rugged, shirt-sleeved sons of toil. Beyond that, everyone should be preoccupied with food to the extent British people are preoccupied with the weather, and talk openly about sex.
Olivier’s parents are nothing like this and they fit in none of my cinematic boxes. His dad is quiet and gentle and bearded and his mum is little and loud and lively. They live in a brown, modern house in Rouen with Olivier’s younger brother and a soppy Alsatian and they like riding bicycles through the forest and playing Scrabble. Olivier’s mother once offers to loan me her copy of the 1960s erotic novel Emmanuelle, but obviously thinks better of it five minutes later; apart from that, no one tries to talk about sex, ever. Most shocking of all, they aren’t particularly interested in food.
Perhaps that is unfair. Some of their food is good and they certainly enjoy eating, but buoyed by the convenience revolution of the 1970s Olivier’s mother decided that she would not be spending her life cooking and she has stuck to this principle: tinned Buitoni ravioli is Olivier’s version of Proust’s madeleine. Vegetables are thrown into the ‘cocotte minute’, an intimidating monster of a pressure cooker, from whence they emerge soft, greying and defeated (except the artichokes, which are new to me and delicious and which we eat on the chilly terrace when Olivier’s mother decrees it is warm enough, which is when the temperature hits 12°C). Puddings come from the supermarket in plastic boxes and for special occasions food is sourced from the ‘traiteur’. This special occasion food is pastel-coloured and moussey and often imprisoned in a trembling dome of aspic, though on one memorable occasion, Olivier’s mother orders a vast pie from whose crust twelve charred bird heads emerge, with fantastic whimsy (Olivier’s uncle picks off and crunches each individual head with relish, beak, bones and all).
These special occasions are something to behold. I attend a few of them because Olivier has what seems like several hundred cousins and they kindly invite me along to their christenings and weddings and anniversaries. I both like the feeling of being included and slightly dread the actual events at which large groups of family – often thirty or forty or fify people – gather in village halls in far-flung corners of Normandy. First there is a flurry of cheek kissing, during which no one is quite sure which branch of the family does how many – two? three? four? – and which side to start (bise anxiety is a constant factor in my life). At this point, some bristly male relative can be guaranteed to trap me in a bise cycle as implacably relentless as a crocodile’s death roll, from which I will be too embarrassed to extricate myself. Next we sit down for a meal of many, many courses, after an arbitrary number of which Calvados will be served as a palate cleanser. I am often seated near some elderly relative who speaks with as much clarity as Father Fintan Fay, the monkey priest in Father Ted (‘It’s OK,’ Olivier says cheerfully on the way home, ‘no one else understands him either’), which makes my Calvados-blurred perception of these events even blurrier. When people find out I am English, they tell me about their awful school trips and laugh about lamb and mint sauce and ‘les beans’. Everyone gets steaming drunk (usually not the children, though Olivier’s mother does often claim they used to put Calvados in babies’ bottles on her parents’ farm) and the day and then the night slip away in loud, confusing merriment. Usually, the whole thing starts up again the next day. It is the wedding scene in Madame Bovary brought to life: best dresses, overwhelming piles of food, an endurance marathon of festivity (‘. . . they ate until night. When they were too tired of sitting, they went for a stroll . . . the children had fallen asleep under the seats’).
When we aren’t with his family, Olivier is game for anything. We go on road trips to Brittany, museum visits and zoo outings. Sometimes we go to the forest that surrounds Canteleu to see the not-so-wild boar in the amateurish nature reserve: Olivier knows exactly where to scratch the piglets behind the ears so that they fall into a deep trance, fully unconscious for a whole minute.
I am never homesick, not once in my eight months. Life with Olivier is fun and intense and gratifying, like an extended holiday romance. It is dépaysant, all this cultural and sociological exploration and I am dépaysée in grey-green rainy Normandy. Dépaysé means something a little like homesick but it’s hard to translate precisely because it is quite different from homesickness, there’s no implication of longing and no sense that it is a bad thing. You have been taken away from what you know and that can mean anything, good or bad. For me, it means I am hungry for it all. What I really want is for all this to no longer be dépaysant but to become familiar, and to achieve this I become the most indiscriminate consumer of French life. I gobble up television sitcoms and talk shows, dubbed German cop series with Olivier’s grandmother and dubbed Love Boat (La Croisière s’Amuse) with his stoner cousin. We go to the cinema to watch trashy comedies with the improbably tanned and perfect Thierry Lhermitte, as wooden as an Action Man, costume dramas with Fabrice Luchini over- emoting in a frock coat and American blockbusters (also dubbed) alike. I eat couscous and choucroute, rillettes, Danette puddings from Carrefour (I still love a trip to the hypermarché with its ludicrously well-furnished yoghurt aisle) and puff pastry swans from our local bakery. I discover Sephora for lipstick, Princesse Tam Tam for underwear and Printemps for everything else. I can feel my vocabulary extend and my fluency grow and I definitely still want to be French, more than ever. This trip has just confirmed that, even if no one I meet looks like Daniel Auteuil or Isabelle Adjani.
But the school year draws to an end and it is time for me to go back home, and from there to university. I have assumed for many months that Olivier and I will bow to the inevitable and break up at this point but when the time comes, the obvious time when we stand in Charles de Gaulle airport and my flight is called and I need to turn and head up one of the escalators, we don’t seem to be breaking up at all.
My degree is in modern history, but for three years I do everything I can to make it all about France. I pick and choose courses to plug the gaps in my knowledge from the storming of the Bastille to the Liberation of Paris and I fill my head with Marat and Danton and Robespierre, with Manet and Apollinaire and Huysmans. I skim over the dry stuff – the land reforms, the Pépins and the Clovises and the arid rationality of the Lumières – and concentrate on the mad, bad and dangerous to know parts, especially the Revolution, the Communards and the fin de siècle poets and painters. I like anything with blood or sex or intrigue, neglecting the economic origins of the Franco-Prussian war in favour of Courbet and Baudelaire’s friendship, Zola wading into the Dreyfus affair and Céline swooning at the occupying German army. I learn, selectively and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and I start to build a more rounded picture of France in my head. One of the most important things I learn, however, is not part of my degree at all. I learn that it is almost impossible to have a functional relationship when you draw your role models from French cinema.
I have watched a lot of French cinematic fights by this point and I have become something of an expert on them. There are loads of fights in 1990s French films and, I must say, many of them are excellent. French actors are really great at fighting. I don’t mean they are good at fighting in a relentlessly logical, enlightened cartésien style they might have learned in the philosophy exams for the baccalaureat. The fights I watch in the cinema are illogical and mad and often just stupid, but they are fiery and articulate and everything that comes out of the protagonists’ mouths sounds beautiful. French actors having fights sound like I imagine Rimbaud and Verlaine duelling would sound, even when they are throwing shoes at each other in their underwear. Victoria Abril, the Spanish actress who often appears in French comedies, is good; I like the way she lets rip with a volley of fury at Gérard Jugnot in the ludicrous war zone comedy Casque Bleu or at dozy Alain Chabat in the equally ludicrous ‘oops, my wife is a lesbian!’ farce Gazon Maudit. Josiane Balasko, playing her lover, does some good headbutting too. Isabelle Adjani is magnificent as the Medici queen, less for her fighting than her general attitude, battling and defying and carrying her lover’s head in a burlap sack on her knee at the end of La Reine Margot. But Béatrice Dalle is my favourite.
In 37 °2 (Betty Blue in English) – the preposterous 1980s cult classic of doomed love and stonewashed denim in a beachside shack on stilts – Dalle is the loosest of loose cannons, kicking off at the slightest provocation, throwing and breaking things and generally making an almighty nuisance of herself. There is not much of a plot to speak of (boy meets girl, girl goes mad, girl gouges out her own eye, boy smothers girl), but the sexual chemistry between Dalle and Jean-Jacques Beineix is heady and Dalle plays her part like a woman possessed, luminously beautiful, believably insane and unapologetic. At nineteen, I find this vision of love and relationships utterly persuasive: fuck logic, screw compromise, set everything on fire with a raging passion, have sex in front of the fire and then carry the embers on your lap in a burlap sack. Or something.
My love of cinematic drama means that when Olivier and I fight, which we do, almost constantly, I am obscurely satisfied by it. Our fights are awful, but according to my sources love is supposed to be unbearable and violent (‘happiness is an abnormal state in love,’ says Proust, who I read this year and who seems to elevate self-imposed misery to a fine art) so we must be doing it right. I take an unhealthy pleasure in standing in the corridors of my college, fighting with him in French on a payphone, which a small part of me thinks is rather glamorous and good for my image. I have taken great, ridiculous pains to cultivate my ‘French’ image at university – slightly distant and sophisticated is what I am aiming for – by going away often to Normandy, smoking Gauloises Blondes Ultra Légères that I import from France and walking the thirty minutes to the Maison Blanc patisserie to buy a millefeuille or a tarte au cassis in French. When I am in a good mood, I play Serge Gainsbourg records (‘L’Anamour’ or ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’) on repeat, provoking the ire of the Dean, who lives downstairs. When I am not in a good mood, I play wistful, droopy ballads by men who look more like antiquarian book dealers than pop stars: Alain Souchon, Francis Cabrel and William Sheller. I worry about their possible naffness, though, which is as hard to gauge in a foreign language as swearing. Am I listening to the equivalent of David Essex? Chris de Burgh? Sting? This fear haunts me often. I am odiously, ostentatiously French, and the dramatic French fight scenes fit perfectly with all this.
The only problem is, in reality I find the fighting very upsetting. We have lots of reasons to fight, Olivier and I, hissing at each other in my tiny college bedroom (he comes over at least two weekends a month), or racking up punishingly expensive silences on the payphone. He is deeply insecure about my new life in Oxford, and regards my friends and acquaintances with suspicion, verging on outright hostility, his eyes narrowing every time I mention a male name. He wants us to be together all the time, every possible minute: this is his conception of love. I have to concede that this is totally consistent with the French film version, but it is unreasonable and unfair and I am angry and frustrated. I need to have an independent life and make some friends without my boyfriend looming sulkily; I know that is a reasonable desire, but I can’t convince him. He thinks he is being logical and cartésien, but often he sounds quite insane.
As for me, I am not good at fighting. For the first decade of my life my mother and I lived mainly alone (she and my father split when I was tiny) and we never fought, then my stepfather Joe, who is the kindest, gentlest, most conflict-averse man I have ever met, moved in. My sister is ten years younger than me; I simply have no experience of fighting and I don’t really like it either; I want everyone to get on. I don’t even like expressing mild dissent, or talking about what I want. Ideally, what I would like to happen is for Olivier just to intuit my feelings without me having to say anything, and act upon them. This is often my default: staring hard at him and trying to convey my thoughts non-verbally, in the manner of a mournful greyhound. Can’t you just guess? I think, desperately. I have not had much success with this strategy so far.
The fact that we are fighting in French adds another layer of complexity. I know what I need to convey: it is, basically, ‘back off’. I need to be able to explain to him, gently but quite firmly, that there are more ways of loving a person than he has the life experience to conceive of right now. That not everyone is as simply and absolutely happy in the company of one other person all the time as his parents and that for some people – including me – moments of separateness aren’t a threat or a problem but a necessity. ‘Look at my mum and Joe,’ I want to say to him but of course, we’ve been together for less than a year and he hasn’t really seen enough of them to understand what I mean and I don’t have the linguistic ability to make him understand. He’s staring at me all fiery and heartbroken and ‘back off’ seems too raw and too definitive. What can I say? I just don’t have the subtleties of language at my disposal in French and I don’t trust myself to find them.
So rather than get it wrong, I just clam up. Obviously I know the words or at least, I know some words, enough words, but they feel so powerful to me, I am terrified of misusing them. I am hung up on phrasing and tone and nuance, so instead of saying something that might come out wrong, or be misconstrued, I say nothing. I formulate and reformulate in my head – does this sound right? Is this what I really want to say? – and while I do, the silence builds until I haven’t said anything for so long it feels too late. Unable to express my frustration, I turn it inwards on myself. Sometimes I rake my nails through the skin on my arms and legs until they bleed, sometimes I bang my head against a wall. Sometimes I just storm off and sleep in the bath or stomp through the streets of Oxford muttering to myself (obviously, this passes entirely unnoticed, most of the other people in Oxford city centre are also muttering to themselves). I’m seething: I can’t reconcile these two incompatible lives and it makes me furious at myself.
I have, I suppose, a sort of breakdown. At the end of my first year, when exam stress combines with our continuing relationship meltdown, my hair starts to fall out – wisps, then tufts, then handfuls. By mid-vacation, back in France with Olivier, the bedroom floor is entirely coated in an unsettling carpet of my hair each day. We go off to the hills outside Rome for a disastrous holiday and the fighting gets worse, uglier, as bad as it has ever been – we scream at each other as we tour the Villa Hadriana, and drink too much cheap wine in thunderous silence in trattorias. I behave abominably – I even hit him once. Some irrational part of me feels like the hair loss is his fault, and I’m bereft and furious and scared. When we get back from holiday, I am still bald, exhausted and sick of fighting and I wonder if it’s time to give up. I didn’t really expect this relationship to survive and perhaps it has run its natural course? Olivier is so incredibly certain we should be together and it has been flattering and gratifying and romantic, but he can’t be certain enough for both of us. We can’t stay together through the sheer force of his will, strong as that is.