Hybrids on the Merry-go-Round

Crowds of sweating shoppers, feverish festive planning and a Christmas Eve drink at the pub: isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Or is it about cups of vin chaud at Christmas markets, the rich food you’re going to be force-fed at the 6-hour meal on Christmas Eve, and remembering to put the kids’ shoes under the tree for le Père Noël?

s decorate xmas treeI remember when Christmas meant singing carols in frosty streets with the other children from the village so we could peek inside people’s houses. It was crunching into newly made sausage rolls and sipping Harvey’s Bristol Cream (obviously not the same year as the carol singing). Dad would cut down a Norway Spruce under cover of Christmas Eve darkness; my sisters and I iced the Christmas cake more or less together; Mum emptied turkey innards into bowls as Christmas treats – for the dogs and cats, I hasten to add.

c and s xmas tree

Ah, the good old days… when I was truly English. Yes, Christmas is the time I think about my identity and where I really belong.

This may sound familiar to those of you who live abroad. Time stopped at the point you left your country. You took a photo as you stepped off the merry-go-round, and that photo fixes ‘home’ in your mind. But the merry-go-round keeps turning. When you go back home, it’s no longer the same. It doesn’t feel like home at all.

You know what? You’re a hybrid: no longer English, not quite French. You’re unable to vote in England because you’ve been away too long, but you’re unqualified to vote in France.

I first noticed the hybrid effect when I’d been living in France for a couple of months. I studied French at Pau University and, surrounded by non-English speakers, I forgot how to speak English. It sounds unbelievable, but that’s exactly what happened (to my family’s delight when, for example, I told them how I’d wet myself in the rain instead of saying I’d got wet). The problem was that my French wasn’t good enough for me to communicate on an emotional level. I was lonely. I booked a ticket to go home for Christmas and wondered if I’d ever come back to France.

But the simple fact of booking the ticket made me feel better. My French improved, and I progressed from being a no-brid to a hybrid: from belonging nowhere to belonging to two places. Once my French was fluent and I’d met some English-speakers, I became heterotic (check out this lovely, sexy word).

Natives often accuse expats of staying together, of not integrating properly. What draws us together isn’t our country of origin. It’s not even the language, although this does play a part. It’s because we’re hybrids. We’ve faced similar situations by leaving our mother countries. We understand each other. That’s why different nationality expats become friends too.

Occasionally I get back on the merry-go-round. After 20 years, going ‘home’ is an adventure. I see England through sightseers’ eyes. It’s a foreign country with traces of déjà vu.

deck chair sign

What struck me last time was the way the state shepherds its citizens: there are recorded messages and signs everywhere telling you what to do – and what not to do. Are they encouraging you to be sheep, to stop thinking for yourselves? Or am I just too focused on the theme for my next novel?

I noticed another strange effect during my visit last summer. I had absolutely no enthusiasm to write. I spent hours in English bookshops, feeling like a child in a sweetshop. But the glut of brilliant English books made writing seem pointless. There were so many books, so many writers. What could I possibly add?

parking sign

Back in France, the need to write returned in force.

I understood. It’s nothing to do with competing in the publishing world. I write because I’m a hybrid. Writing is my way of connecting with my English origins. It’s how I remind myself that I’m more than not-quite-French.

Being not-quite-French has lots of advantages, though. It means you can serve foie gras as a starter and Christmas pudding as a dessert (if you dare). You can drink vin chaud at Christmas markets and a sherry at the Franco-Britannique Christmas church service. As for the kids – well, they can have both stockings and shoes.

Happy Christmas!

For some great links to blogs about France, check out Lou Messugo’s blog link up: All About France #12

 

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14 thoughts on “Hybrids on the Merry-go-Round

  1. Phoebe @ Lou Messugo

    I completely understand this feeling of belonging to more than one place, this “hybridity” (that I’m quite sure is a made up word as I forget English words too – LOVE the example of wetting yourself!) You express how many (most?) expats feel beautifully and I’m so happy you’ve linked up to #AllAboutFrance. Thank you and welcome!

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  2. Margo Lestz

    Thanks for putting into words what many expats feel. I think we all go through a phase of not knowing where we belong. Glad you’ve got it figured out – I’m still working on it. 🙂

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  3. Rosie @Eco-Gites of Lenault

    I think I am at the stage of not quite knowing which country I belong in … but what I am more interested in seeing is how the boys grow. Will they become totally French or hang on to part of their English roots? I suspect one will integrate and the other will retain a good chunk of his Englishness – but I could be wrong. #AllAboutFrance

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    1. harrietspringbett Post author

      Yes, it’s fascinating to see how children develop. Mine rejected everything English, then suddenly decided English was cool when they got to their early teens. It’s also interesting that you use the word ‘integrate’. I often wonder exactly what we mean by this term.

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  4. Danielle - Living in Sin

    Interesting! Never thought of it that way. I have now lived in 6 countries and my passport hails from a 7th (hybrid / mongrel since birth) but I will say that France does feel the most like home of them all 🙂 But I will never fit quite in with people without international experience, that is true 🙂

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    1. harrietspringbett Post author

      After living in so many countries I think you qualify as a ‘multibrid’! Thanks for commenting, Danielle. The pictures of those lovely vegetarian dishes on your website look really appetising. And your post made me realise that innovative vegetarian dishes are something I miss. A vegetarian meal in France often still means the accompanying veg without the meat…

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  5. Andrea

    This is such a great post. I’m hopping to move to France with my family this year – I’ve been wanting to do it for over ten years but family circumstances have meant that it’s been significantly put back. My parents are already living there.
    What struck me about your post was your comment about the shepherding state in the UK. This is so true and one of the reasons I want to leave. It’s funny how French, a product of the more socialist French Revolution, seems to have more of an understanding of the limits of government than we do isn’t it?

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    1. harrietspringbett Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Andrea. That’s a really interesting thought. I can’t answer straight away – I’ll have to think about this. Maybe it’s the subject for a separate blog post!

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