Sorry isn’t good enough

Each morning I leave the house for the school bus stop at 7.25 am. By that time it is likely that I will have apologised about fifteen times already, and been apologised to about the same number of times. Our family manners culture remains quintessentially British in this respect. So it is that Eadred the Bald tells me, one minute after getting out of bed, that he is tired: “I’m sorry,” I say. He reminds me that I need to take the car in to have its exhaust pipe mended: he’s “sorry” about that. A child is “sorry” that they have left their jumper at school the day before. I’m repeatedly “sorry” two minutes after having screeched at everyone to hurry up and get out of the house. It rains: we engage in an orgy of regret. We have apology Tourette’s.

Two children, already wrung out with apologising before they even set off for school
Two children, already wrung out with apologising before they even set off for school

I concede that our family, and British people in general, are penitent to an absurd degree about things which they have no need, or indeed any right, to be sorry for. A French friend has suggested to me that it is hypocrite to apologise for something that has nothing to do with you. Whilst in the moment this made my hackles rise, I have to admit that she had a point.

Despite this concession, saying sorry to someone remains, for me, a mark of empathy, a ritual display of the solicitousness which we owe to those around us. It may not be my fault that every child in my daughter’s class has to take their turn at reciting four verses of a tedious poem about la rentrée, but nonetheless I feel her pain. I am, at some level, “sorry”. And when my husband apologises to me for the rain, his emotional support somehow bears me up and carries me through (and, more to the point from his point of view, disarms me before I can throw a hissy fit).

Imagine, then, emerging from this cloistered world where everyone is repeatedly sorry into the Lyon rush hour. In Lyon, hardly anyone is ever sorry about anything, but if they are, they make sure never to manifest their contrition during l’heure de pointe.

So it was that, the other day, we rounded a tight corner in our car only to come face-to-face with a motorcyclist hurtling full pelt in our direction on the wrong side of the road. It was a bit of a shock. It may not have been our fault, but we didn’t want to kill the man, so we juddered to a halt. We awaited the flurry of mouthed apologies and hand signals signifying submission that would surely ensue.

We had, of course, forgotten that we were in France. There was to be no contrition or even expression of relief. Indeed, I believe a few gros mots may have been sent in our direction, and the rider’s gesticulations seemed somehow to imply that it was our car—travelling as it had been at the speed of an arthritic snail on the correct side of the carriageway—that was at fault. Presumably an apology would have endangered his sense of self (far better to endanger his physical existence than risk an implosion of his esprit). Whatever.

In case any of you are tempted to ascribe Monsieur Moto’s lack of contrition to his masculinity rather than his Frenchness, I can assure you that I have a voluminous supply of further examples, refreshed daily, which pays no heed to gender, creed or age. In the supermarché it frequently arises that I am walked into by some aged dame avoiding all eye contact and using her chariot as a battering ram. It is extremely rare in these circumstances that an acknowledgement, let alone an apology, will be issued for the grievous bodily harm which ensues. In fact, it takes every last millimetre of self-restraint that I possess not to apologise myself, the dame’s lack of remorse reaching such a pitch that I convince myself that it must have been me who was at fault all along.

In the boulangerie I have been known to ask for a pain complet when either none remain or none was ever made. Were I the one behind the counter, both my British servility and my business sense would lead me to apologise for the lack of wholemeal baked goods, perhaps give an explanation, and offer an alternative in their stead. Not so the lady in question. Il n’y en a pas, she says, without cracking a smile (cue my departure, tail between my legs).

During a meeting of volunteers, I witnessed one person receive a fearsome dressing-down from the chief volunteer about some failure in the work that they had done (for free), which had led to a mild inconvenience for someone else. By the end of the speech, even though the reprimand had nothing whatsoever to do with me, I could feel my face burning bright red, and my hands trembling. The person in question, however, managed to maintain a look of complete impassivity throughout. There was a pause at the end of the tirade. I held my breath, waiting for the apology that would come gushing forth. I heard a clock ticking. Then, bof, she shrugged. There was a further pause, before, finally, qu’est-ce que tu veux ? she asked, rhetorically. I could barely credit my ears. What could she be thinking? Surely this lack of contrition was going to further inflame her accuser… but no. The meeting was off once more on its merry way and no further mention was made of the heinous crime. As reticent as people are about apologising, it seems that nobody really requires to be apologised to either.

It has only recently occurred to me that I can play my natural contrition to my advantage in such an environment. When I in turn received a dressing down during the course of my inglorious volunteering career, I was ready straight away with a fulsome and heart-felt apology. As I stammered out my expressions of regret and deep repentance, every head in the room swivelled in my direction and regarded me with a blend of horror and pity more potent even than that normally reserved for my manglings of their language. I had barely got started on my sorry encomium when I was interrupted: non, non, ne t’inquiète pas, murmured my chastiser: ce n’est pas grave. Not grave? A moment ago it had been a matter of such gravity that I doubted that any of us in the room would survive to tell the tale. What had changed?

Quite simply, I think that I had flummoxed them all. Perhaps they had never heard an apology before? At any rate, they didn’t know what to do with it, and I, well, I got off lightly. Which is why I am sticking to my training regime of fifteen apologies before even leaving the house.

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Pillars of the local community

Back in the UK, only once in my adult life did I strike up any sort of relationship with my local council. The experience was mutually unsatisfactory, centring as it did on primary school admissions, but it least it increased the scope of our interactions, which had until that point been confined to voting, my payment of council tax, and their collection of my rubbish. I believe this to have been fairly standard: in the UK unless your financial situation is extremely precarious, your local council will have only a minimal visible role to play in your life.

If we gave any thought at all to our local mairie upon arrival in France, it was thus in relation to the known quantities of rubbish and schools. Neither of these issues posing any problems, we promptly forgot that it was there except for a brief interlude—detailed in Beer goggles—during which we hoped that Monsieur le Maire might provide us with a glass of champagne, but were duly disillusioned.

During our first summer in France we had a string of visitors who, as we ferried them into our village from various excursions, commented admiringly about the electronic noticeboard that was situated on the roadside. How marvellous, they remarked, to have such an active mairie and so much going on in the local community. It must be incredibly useful to have all that information displayed so accessibly, they raved. Yes, we muttered, moderately ashamed that it had not occurred to us to avail ourselves of any of the services or animations advertised in lights on the board.

Still: old habits die hard. We had busy lives to lead, boulangeries to haunt, and, besides, who wanted to risk having to stand through another interminable, virtually tee-total reception?

It was after an entire year had passed, and a second invitation to the ceremony of New Year’s vœux had been set aside, that the error of our ways finally dawned upon me. I had taken a ride in a friend’s car, and she had pulled over at the local commerces to buy an éclair au chocolat, or possibly an escargot: I don’t remember precisely, but, oh well, peu importe. She pulled into a space marked out in blue. I considered this to be somewhat reckless: blue spaces are for permit holders only, and in Collonges au Mont d’Or there is an agent of the police municipale who seems to be employed exclusively for the purpose of catching non-permit holders parked in places where they have no right to be. Just as I was about to start hyperventilating about this instance of French disregard for the rules, however, my friend produced a blue disk, which she plopped onto her dashboard, having first adjusted the cardboard clock on its surface to reflect the time of our arrival.

Recognising a parking permit when I saw one, I racked my brain for any conceivable public office that my friend might have held to merit one. Finding none, I finally spluttered out my question: mais où l’as-tu obtenu ? Quoi ? she asked, perplexed, then, indicating the permit with what I considered to be an unhealthy degree of contempt: ça ? Oui, ton permis, I said. At this point, my friend burst into peals of laughter. Mais à la mairie, she responded, shaking her head at my obtuseness.

Once her mirth had subsided, it transpired that all residents of Collonges au Mont d’Or had a perfect right to stride into the mairie and demand a resident’s parking permit at any moment (except during lunch breaks and extended holiday periods, of course). But the very notion of my doing so was utterly absurd, because, évidemment, we would have been given one when we first arrived and presented ourselves at the mairie… In response to my dawning look of horror, my friend gasped. Mais vous ne l’avez jamais fait, c’est ça ? she asked, incredulously.

Of course we had not presented ourselves at the mairie, for goodness’ sake! Can you imagine ever turning up in, say, Chipping Norton, and presenting yourself in the local council offices? The very notion is absurd, and profoundly embarrassing. As arrivals fresh from London, nothing, but nothing, would have compelled us to march into the municipal offices and introduce ourselves. And yet, apparently, here in France, it was the done thing.

We felt the damage in Collonges au Mont d’Or to be irreparable, so it was with great joy that, when we moved into St Cyr au Mont d’Or earlier this year, my husband and I took a moment to stroll down into the village and present ourselves in the mairie. I had initially hidden behind Eadred the Bald’s back, for fear of mockery, but the official on the front desk was most kind and not in the least taken aback by our appearance. We were presented with the inevitable dossier, and left. On rifling through it back home we were overjoyed to note that it contained not just one, but two, parking permits.

The mairie in St Cyr au Mont d'Or
The mairie in St Cyr au Mont d’Or

Once we had become pillars of the local community, we could not stop. We were invited by that first kindly official to a réception for all new arrivals to the commune, which we attended last weekend. It was hot, and there were long speeches, but it was useful, and there was an apéritif, which included saucisson brioché (sophisticated for sausage roll) and wine. Afterwards there was a forum des associations, an annual event in which all the local societies and interest groups present their activities and allow you to enrol. Our enthusiasm for local events has reached such a pitch that the children are getting bored of listening to my frequent exclamations over the marvels presented on the electronic noticeboard.

The girls outside the mairie after the reception for new arrivals. They are wincing because of the sun, or because of my excessive enthusiasm
The girls outside the mairie after the reception for new arrivals. They are wincing because of the sun, or because of my excessive enthusiasm

For such a centralising bureaucracy, local life in France isn’t half flourishing.

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If you are interested in reading other blogs about life in France, why not stop by Lou Messugo’s #AllAboutFrance linkup this month?

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Blogger recognition award

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I am thrilled to have been nominated for a Blogger Recognition Award. Writing a blog post is something of a strange experience: you tap away at your keyboard for a while, read through your post, and send it off into cyberspace. It seems incredible to me that anyone would read what I have written, and so it is really quite exciting to receive some public recognition.

I have been nominated by Vera (thank you, thank you!), who writes a blog about hearing loss called More Than a Bit Deaf. Vera began to lose her hearing after a particularly vicious bout of the ‘flu in her twenties. Now she is retired and her hearing has deteriorated considerably, making many humdrum activities much more challenging, particularly interpreting speech. I love her blog for its humour, honesty and articulacy in the face of personal adversity.

Reading More Than a Bit Deaf has proved to be an education: I know Vera in real-life, but until I read her blog I was almost entirely ignorant of the difficulties she faced every day. Her account has opened my eyes to the experiences of other people experiencing deafness, too. Particularly if you think that deafness has nothing to do with you, I urge you to give Vera’s blog a try, and perhaps even to subscribe to it.

My purpose in writing Lost in Lyon feels a bit frivolous by comparison. I started the blog in early 2015 as a means of communicating with my friends and family in the UK. After a year of hurling myself at French life, I had found that I had begun to remark upon the myriad tiny differences between French and English culture, and I thought that they might be of a more general interest. As well as being fascinated by these differences, I was experiencing a yearning for the security of my own native culture: at that time a dose of the British stiff upper lip felt to me as comforting—and as remote—as a piece of toast and marmite. Writing about this gave me an outlet for my homesickness, but also enabled me to put my Englishness into relief, and to question it as I had never done before.

What I begun experimentally, almost on a whim, has turned into a habit. I write blog posts as a way of disciplining myself to write at all (I have other projects, which need all the discipline they can get); as a means of reframing sometimes quite traumatic experiences with humour; and because I enjoy the possibility of making people laugh.

If there were just two pieces of advice that I would pass on to anyone thinking of starting their own blog, they would be these:

1) Define your subject before you get going. Very few people want to read the inchoate ramblings of anyone’s mind, but they might be interested in ramblings on a particular theme.

2) Start visiting other blogs. Leave comments when you like what you have seen. You’ll learn all sorts of things that you never knew that you wanted to know, and the contacts that you make may discover that they like what you are doing, too.

The rules of this nomination ask me to nominate 15 further blogs for an award. My blog tastes are like my taste in books: catholic. I am, however, a faithful reader of very few. Rather than listing everything that I have ever once looked at, I have chosen to nominate eight blogs, which I visit on a regular basis

Blogs about France

If you read my blog because you are interested in French life, you may be interested in France Says, a blog written by a Canadian woman who arrived in France twenty years ago and has acquired a French husband. I enjoy the appositeness of this blog, which has something pithy to say about every major event in the French calendar, and which brings to my attention some of the linguistic nuances that would otherwise have gone over my head.

When I started out, I found comic inspiration in Bread is Pain, Nancy’s blog about French life. Nancy is/was editing her first novel, so her posts are, by her own admission, rather infrequent, but they are always worth a read and usually a chortle. Nancy, I hope that the book is going well, but hopefully a nomination will prod you back into blogging life…

I can also recommend a visit to Phoebe’s blog Lou Messugo. As well as making readers jealous with her accounts (and pictures) of life on the Côte d’Azur, Phoebe plays host to a monthly link-up called #AllAboutFrance, which has become an invaluable index of blogs about English-speakers living over here. Phoebe has worked tirelessly to make a success of her link-up, and all this alongside running her holiday business and writing her own posts.

It was via Phoebe’s link-up that I discovered Margo’s The Curious Rambler blog. It is a veritable miscellany of interesting curiosities about France: on this site you can learn everything you could ever want to learn about the baguette, for example, and who knew that the hairdryer was a French invention?

Agatha Bertram travels is a very rich blog full of interesting thoughts from a seasoned traveller. If you are interested in France, but other places too, and you like reading and culture, this blog will have a wealth of good posts for you.

Blogs about writing

I am proud to be a pedant. I therefore thank the blogosphere almost daily for the existence of Stroppy Editor, which professes to exist in order to mind other people’s language. Whether it be the split infinitive or the Oxford comma that bothers you, you will find a post to scratch your itch here. Visit the blog and work yourself up into a lather about the endemic of misplaced apostrophes. It’s therapeutic.

On a mildly less pedantic note, Sentence First is an interesting blog written by Stan, an Irishman, about the English language. There you will find grammar, vocabulary, literature, history, and quirks. Stan has won plaudits in many prestigious places, but I salute him nonetheless.

It was inevitable that my eye would be drawn to any blog entitled Nerdy Book Club. This is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking books for their young people to read. There are reviews; they give awards. It’s great.

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So there we have it. Thank you again Vera, and thank you to all my favourite blogs for keeping me entertained.

The rules are as follows: write a post…..acknowledge the blogger who nominated you…..give a brief story of how you started blogging…..give two pieces of advice to new bloggers…..nominate 15 deserving bloggers. All done!