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