A couple of times we drove through Norman Switzerland (Suisse Normandie), intrigued by the dark green lumps on the road atlas a few miles west of Falaise. Fully expecting mountains, we saw only tree covered hills and the most exciting we did was buy some bananas from an unimpressed woman in a greengrocers. Actually, I discovered too late, the highest point is actually Mont Pincon, around 100 feet taller than Mount Snowdon and half as high as Croagh Patrick in Ireland. The general appeal of the area is that you strap yourself into a hang glider, get on a horse, paddle a kayak, or get your walking boots out of retirement. To this day I have no idea how we missed a whole mountain.
Normandy of course is historically that part of the world we Brits gazed at covetously over the Channel long before we built ships and began turning the globe pink and vice versa, Norman nobles gazing covetously at England. The centuries of dispute over the rights of succession, begun when Alfred the Greats father returned from a holiday in the Holy Land with Judith of Flanders as his bride, brought about the events of 1066 and a period when being Norman and English was pretty much the same thing. It was also the period that Norman influence saw the birth of that most English of Institutions the peerage, the class system and the legions of the downtrodden working class. And we can’t overlook that all those fairytale princessess on the look out for dashing knights to sweep them away to the kingdom of happy ever after began here too.
Ok so we have to admit that we Brits are at our core, far too fond of the notion of Empire. Our homes are our castles and we are on the quiet, obsessed by being landowners and prefixing Britain with Great at every opportunity. Still, finding yourself on the wrong end of British empirical arrogance can’t be worse than being landed with a 1000 year old inferiority complex, can it?
After all it is all down to the same cause, a Dark Ages Brit abroad creating the plot line for any number of romantic novels and chic flicks.. And it was a very long time ago. What can we possibly find to dislike about each other in todays enlightened world?
A Daily Telegraph in an article titled ‘What the French really think of us’ , reports they are pretty ambivalent about us Brits per se , but fascinated by our royalty (isn’t everyone) and impressed by our popular music. They get our sense of humour, but reckon we need it. We are considered reserved, self- deprecating and easily pleased with a sense of fair play. On the other hand they consider our tea ‘tannic muck’ (treason surely) and can’t understand why we boil broccoli. Their view of British women is well… uncharitable
“Your women!” says a French woman. “The older ones all have hip problems, ill-fitting clothes and hair like helmets. And the young ones go out half-naked.” This strikes the French as odd in a nation otherwise so prudish. “On the beach, English people wriggle inside long ponchos to get changed,” says Valérie from Avignon. “This is ridiculous. No French person has done that since 1970.”
Our view of French women is no more considerate. We think they don’t bathe every day or change their undies, but by far the hardest to swallow is the suggestion that they don’t get fat.
The French do take time to enjoy life, but then they do have higher expectations in the first place and are seen as a nation of lovers, having sex 137 times a year to our 119. On the other hand they are not so giving when it comes to customer service. Paris syndrome is a very real phenomenon involving traumatising Japanese tourists with service related rudeness to the point of them needing therapy. Not to mention of course the French laissez faire approach to driving.
All this may be true, but perhaps the main irritation between us is that the French have a tendency to smugness, insisting on believing their food, wine, fashion and perfume cannot be bettered and the Brits do genuinely believe they are better, if not Great. God forbid that any Brit should stand up and preach as much, we only love an underdog.
Move forward to WW2 and all this becomes irrelevant. When it comes to the crunch not even a language barrier can undermine the hard wired memory of an ancient alliance.