By Charlotte Eyre in London
ASK any French expat living in the UK what they think of their British neighbours and the conversation will straight away veer towards booze.
Most of my French friends here in London despair of the drinking culture, with “qu'est ce qu'ils boivent!” being a common exclamation.
“I have no idea why they ruin every Thursday and Friday night by drinking themselves into oblivion,” one told me, while another said, a little more cheerfully: “You’re good at creating a festive atmosphere in pubs but that’s because many of you have a drinking problem.”
Some of our French friends feel alcohol may be to blame for what one calls “la schizophrénie latente de l’Anglais”, or in other words how an initial friendliness is followed by a certain froideur, and signals that say ‘keep your distance’.
A good friend of mine says: “My husband and I find it difficult to make friendships here. The people are very nice, and at parties we have a good time, but afterwards there’s no contact. At first meeting Londoners are so nice so why not stay that way?” Possibly because at those parties they were pissed, many of her compatriots would say.
The conversation at this point inevitably turns to the English girls, with French women being especially scathing about their British counterparts. “The drunk girls are all wearing miniskirts but are fat and ugly, what’s more they can’t even stand up straight,” said one former Parisienne.
Another hates seeing London girls chatting up men, as “une Française bien elevée” would never do that.
Although, funnily enough, French boys are not so fussed about this kind of behaviour, especially the short skirts. I once met a Frenchman who works at the French embassy who said he admires the fact English women wear short skirts. Apparently, it shows that England is an enlightened, civilized society where women can wear what they want without necessarily being the objects of male sexual desire. He later admitted he also likes looking at their legs.
Another friend of mine (again, male) says the wearing of short skirts is the main reason Frenchmen come to London. And I think he’s only half joking.
Working with the English can also prove problematic for the French, especially when understanding office politics. Many don’t realise that “I’m not sure I agree with you” actually means “you’re wrong”, while “you might want to think about taking another look at this report” can usually be translated as “redo it and have it on my desk by Friday”.
So what else? When quizzing my French friends and acquaintances some of the impressions of the Brits caught me off-guard. One guy swears all English men wee with one hand against the wall (to be fair I’m female, so wouldn’t know, but it’s an odd observation nevertheless), another says we all buy houses in Australia (we obviously move in different social circles) and someone even said “their education keeps them away from displaying visible signs of friendship, like grabbing some bloke’s genitals to celebrate the moment”. Excuse me?
However, despite grumbles about certain aspects of British life, most of these observations are said with a tone of amused bafflement rather than genuine annoyance. And the English have certain characteristics that outright please our friends from across the channel. Our general politeness is seen as adorably quaint, for example how we give tourists directions with a smile. Only one Frenchman I know finds the British courtesy, especially queueing, a little annoying. But we’ll ignore him. He’s from Paris.
Many French people also praise the ‘dingue’ sense of humour, an open-minded attitude towards cultural differences, the crazy fashions in Camden town and the best rock music in the world. One friend likes how the Brits here are always up for joining some kind of club, whether it be dancing, creative writing or art, while another says English people make the best housemates.
Although perhaps the best compliment came from one young lady who said: “Well the English created England, and lots of us want to live here. So you can’t be all bad."