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When France was a different place

Estelle Phillips talks to three British expats who moved to France long before the internet and cheap flights.

1 June 2008

The freelance journalist who came to France in the 50s

Expat William Porter’s international career took him to France during the 1950s.

Working as a freelance journalist, based around Lille, Mr Porter reported on French industries as the country was emerging from occupation during the Second World War.

Mr Porter, 87, remembers France at that time as a country in turmoil.

He said: “There were rapid changes in political leadership, with sometimes two to three governments in a year. If you drove through France everywhere looked down at heart and unpainted.

“The road system was not good and there were not enough telephone lines. I remember at one time there were a lot of complaints about telephone lines to authorities and then all of a sudden there was a great surge of black lines slung across roads.

“Before this, you couldn’t dial directly abroad, you had to do it through an operator. I had a house in the country and had to drive 3km to reach a farm.

“I got to know the people there and they had a telephone.”

Mr Porter remembers a greater dependence on well water at that time.

“In my property there were three wells. This is the way things worked in a rural situation.

“In the town there was a good water supply (in pipes) but there was a strong taste of chlorine and the chemicals they put into it.”

Before settling in France permanently in 1988, Mr Porter travelled the world working firstly for the army as a signals officer stationed in Asia with the India Infantry Brigade.

After becoming a journalist he worked throughout Europe as a foreign correspondent with the United Nations press corps, and in Canada and the United States as a freelance correspondent for news agency, the International Labour News Service and the Trade Union Press.

He met his Yugoslavian wife Sonja (pictured) while reporting on the situation in Yugoslavia under Josip Tito’s presidency.

He said: “I was looking for a translator. Someone told me a legal adviser could do the job and I expected to meet a man.

“Instead I was introduced to a beautiful lady and rather than pursuing the story, I began to pursue the lady. She was a very interesting lady whose half sister was Tito’s doctor.”

Following a 25-year stint in London which included a career as the chief executive of a publishing group, Mr Porter and his wife moved to France’s northern region, Pas-de-Calais, where they had owned a holiday home since 1960.

Mr Porter now lives in Le Touquet (Nord, Pas-de-Calais). Since moving to France he has worked as an honorary consul at the super-préfecture in Montreuil-sur-Mer (Nord Pas-de-Calais) Préfecture.

In 1996 he founded The International Communications Forum, a worldwide organization devoted to media ethics and freedom of expression and information.

He is also the author of a book titled Do Something About It. A Media Man’s Story.

Days when France still used pre-war trains

Keith Gordon moved to Lyon with his French wife and two young children in 1962, after finishing British military service and being promoted to Lieutenant with the Royal Army Educational Corps.

The couple arrived in France at a time of tense relations between the two countries, while the British Prime Minister was negotiating a place for Britain in Europe.

Mr Gordon said: “Harold Macmillan had just tried to get Britain into the Common Market but French President Général De Gaulle said no.

“The winter of 1962 - 3 was very cold and relations were frosty as well. France had just finished its war with Algeria. The country was a long way behind other industrialising nations.”

The Treaty of Rome which was signed by France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in 1957, established the European Economic Community with free movement of services, capital and people between those countries.

Mr Gordon was recruited to train English teachers, teaching professionals and the army’s educational core, as France tried to build up its export role on the world scene.

He said: “France wanted to be a player in the international market but the paradox was they needed English to do this.

“I was recruited by the Lyon Chamber of Commerce to train teachers of English to teach adults using audiovisual methods.”

Mr Gordon, 71, remembers Lyon as a gloomy town when he first moved there from Britain, a far cry from the beautiful city it is today.

He said: “The snow piled up and the town council said they couldn’t afford to clear the streets. The buildings were black and a law stating the façades of houses must be painted every five years, had not been applied for donkey’s years.

“There was also bomb damage around the city and bullet holes in the walls of buildings.

“There had not, however, been much street fighting as the resistance was well organised.

One of the main hospitals - the 300-year-old Hôtel Dieu - had a superb dome and angel on the top which had been destroyed. They were still repairing that nearly 20 years after the liberation of Lyon.”

As Britain was not part of the Common Market at the time, expats needed residence and work permits to live in France.

Rising pop stars The Beatles were also becoming known on the continent.

Mr Gordon said: “People used to ask me if I knew the Beatles but I didn’t come from Liverpool.”

There were also far fewer options for travelling around France and abroad at this time.

Mr Gordon said: “Transport in general was difficult. Trains from before war-time still hadn’t been replaced. The system was very different to the TGVs we have now. The trains were packed tight with young men going off to do their military service - it was like being back in the war.

“Flying from England to France meant taking a plane from Heathrow to Orly. Other destinations were very limited.”

A family move to Antibes in the 1920s

June Grenard moved from Cheshire, England, to Paris with her French husband and ten month old baby in 1962.

Mrs Grenard had married into a family of French bourgeoisie - the upper echelon of French society, whose status came from employment, education or wealth, rather than aristocratic origin.

The constraints of her social standing and the move to a new country left Mrs Grenard feeling alone when the family moved to her husband’s family’s home - the village of Sucy-en-Brie, south-east of Paris.

She said: “I was a complete foreigner - I didn’t speak any French and I was very homesick. Marrying into a Catholic bourgeois family meant I was not allowed to go out on my own.

“It was very much a closed circle and you only met with people of your own social standing.

“It was still a man’s world and I had little to say. I didn’t get out much - just to church on Sundays. By 1967 I had three boys.

“We would spend four to five hours at table on Sunday and they were not allowed to talk or move. It was an adult world.”

As a member of the bourgeoisie, it was important to observe the social customs. Mrs Grenard said: “We invited one of my husband’s colleagues and his wife to lunch once and they never came.

“We realised it was because we hadn’t sent a written invitation. It was a very formal world.”

With her husband employed in hotel management, Mrs Grenard wanted to get a university education so she also could look for work.

There were social barriers to be overcome in this respect also.

She said: “It was 1975 and my husband’s family didn’t consider it fit for a female member of the family to go to university or work (outside the home).”

However, Mrs Grenard found work as a paralegal assistant in 1978. She remembers travelling to Paris in a steam engine.

She said: “The steam train went to the Bastille. Then we took the metro cabs which had wooden seats.

Mrs Grenard later remarried and moved with her new husband to Cannes in 1984.

A move to France before the Second World War

MARGARET Turner was sent back to England on a coal boat as a wartime refugee, having moved to the south of France with her family in 1928.

Now aged 86, Mrs Turner moved to Juan-les-Pins, near Antibes (Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur) with her mother, father and sister when she was five-years-old in 1928.

She learnt French at school and remembers Antibes as a town with dirt roads and few cars. In those days relocating to France was a rare and intrepid adventure.

Mrs Turner said: “It was before the town became popular with the English so you did not see beautiful gardens everywhere. It was extremely rare to leave England and come out here. It felt very cut off which is strange when you think how people move around nowadays.

“Then it was an expensive holiday to come to the south of France and the journey took 20 hours by steam train. You got grit and bits of coal in your eyes - the trains were dirty but they made a nice ‘chuff chuff’ noise.

“There were very few cars or tarmaced roads. People used to walk along the dirt roads into the countryside which came right up to the edge of the town. Antibes was still old France then - now it is so modernised.

“At that time there were no supermarkets - just lots of little old-fashioned shops. At Christmas the shopping area in Antibes was lit up and the charcuterie and vegetable sellers were out selling their wares - it was exciting.”

An elite branch of the French army, the Chasseurs Alpins, trained in mountain combat, were stationed in Antibes at the time.

They came to be known as the ‘blue devils’, on account of their blue uniform. Mrs Turner said: “It was a garrison town and you used to see the Chasseurs Alpins with their berets, who were defending the frontiers along the Alps.”

Among the English community, customs were continued from home.

Mrs Turner said: “The French didn’t used to send Christmas cards - we did and were thanked by our French friends for our ‘illustrated note’.

Mrs Turner remembers daily life as being very different to the UK. She said: “We had no car, telephone or washing machine.

“We had an Italian woman who walked to us from Antibes one day a week, on ‘washing day’.

She used to light a fire in the garden and do the washing in a copper pot over the fire.

Then she put the clothes in a trough. At Villeneuve-Loubet (PACA) you would always see women washing clothes on the wide, flat stones.”

Although well integrated into the French way of life, the family of four received occasional food parcels from a department store in England, transporting treats from home to expats across the world.

Mrs Turner said: “It was difficult to find any type of British food - especially tea. We used to receive packages by train, with tea, treacle and marmite, I think.”

By the early 1930s Antibes and Juan-les-Pins were on the map as tourist destinations.

Mrs Turner said: “Juan-les-Pins was the place where people came to enjoy themselves, after the long trip across the Atlantic.

“Every evening you saw famous people. In those days it was all about sunbathing - people didn’t know about skin cancer. Cannes and Nice were for partying. Around Biot there were fields of wild flowers - Narcissi and Anenomies.

“With the threat of German invasion as a result of the outbreak of the Second World War, Mrs Turner and her younger sister were sent to England in 1940 as refugees on canal boats. In the panic of wartime, everything was uncertain - even the eventual destination of the refugees.
She said: “My sister and I said goodbye to our parents. I was 18 and she was 16. Our parents thought we were going to North Africa which in those days was part of France.

Instead we travelled for three weeks, via The Azores and arriving eventually in Liverpool.” In 1984 Mrs Turner returned “home” to France and now lives in Menton.

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