Goodbye la France

I'm Francesca Tereshkova, a British girl who washed up on the shores of France aboard a Eurolines bus in 1998. I came to France the day after I finished my University finals. I'm now 32 with two children. I married my Russian boyfriend (now 'hubski') in 2003. And I've learned as much about France as I need to know. In August 2006, I brought my family back 'home' to the UK. We're still adjusting... This is my story.

Location: Formerly the Parisian suburbs, now the town of E., Darkest Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

I get perverse enjoyment from doing the opposite of what everyone else does. I wish I could stop but I can't. So when thousands of Frenchies were leaving France to find work and to make a better life in the UK, I chose to do exactly the opposite. That was in 1998. My French experience is unlike any I have read about in the vast Brit-in-France literary sub-genre. I have no French boyfriend or family, no country house. Dog poo has never inspired me to pick up a pen. I have recently given up on France ever changing, or me ever changing, and brought my family back to the strange new world that is England in 2006. This blog, part life-story, part diary, is my way of saying goodbye la France, and hello Angleterre (or in the Oxfordshire vernacular, 'Orwoight?').

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

And so I'm back...

...from outer space. Walking back into my blog with that sad look upon my face.

Not that I intend to reveal my face, or real name - I have a pointless, but important (in the bread-winning sense) job to lose. But I still have a story or two to share, and so I will spend the brief window of opportunity between completing the last item on my to-do list 'consider garotting self with washing line' and trailing upstairs to bed, regaling you. Until tonight that time has traditionally been spent trawling e-bay for Hobbs and Boden clothes at Tesco's prices, but I have decided there must be more to life than this.

It's hard to cram two years into one post, even though they have galloped past. The most important thing is that we have survived, and we're still surviving. But as I struggle with a full-time job, raising two children and a hubski who thinks that if he continues to be "creative" with the English language it will eventually warm to him and the dictionaries will get changed accordingly, I find that something is lacking in my life (and no, it's not MAAF).

It's writing. My first love. Just like the Abba lady who thought that 'everyone listens when I start to sing', my dream is to captivate through writing. Make people laugh, reflect, and have a laugh myself.

So please indulge me, and sorry for being away for so long.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Things go pear-shaped

Last week we were sitting round the dinner table eating our sausage and mash when the telephone rang. It was my mother.

'I've just had a call from hubski's boss. They don't want him to start at 5am tomorrow, they want him to go in at 10 instead for a meeting, to discuss his progress to date.'

'Oh. That's interesting.'

'That's what I thought.'

Apart from the fact that Human Resources (or Human Remains, as I prefer to call them) in hubski's company had yet again failed to get the message that we changed address 3 months ago, this could mean only one thing.

Hubski was about to get the push. The end of his probation period was still a month away.

The writing had been on the wall from the beginning. Since returning from Germany in November, having passed his flight dispatcher exams, his induction programme had been mysteriously delayed. It took five weeks for his Heathrow pass to come through. Nobody seemed bothered. In the end, they told him to stop calling, and wait. So we had Christmas and New Year together as a family for the first time ever, which admittedly, was great.

His four week 'training period' consisted of following people round who didn't want to followed round, getting his head around contradictory instructions. Rising at 2.30am to begin the long commute to work was all the harder when nobody on the early shift knew what he was supposed to be doing.

One Friday, when he'd been working late, he turned up subdued. He was in trouble for messing up a load sheet. He'd started filling it in according to one set of instructions, but the next supervisor on shift had said it was all wrong.

The next week he was called in for an warning interview, followed by a letter. In disbelief, we read that if there was not a 'significant improvement' in hubski's performance, his 'suitability for the post would be reassessed'. Together, we tried to work out what was going wrong. Hubski was baffled. In the interview, his manager had said 'it's not your performance I have a problem with. It's your attitude.' He said that all he was trying to do was working out what they wanted from him. He knew he could do the job. It was the people he couldn't work out - two of the supervisors in particular.

We had a couple of theories. One, personal dislike. Two, several more trainees than usual had passed the training course (which had a high failure rate), and now one of them needed to be culled.

Boiling with rage, I drafted a nice positive letter back for hubski, thanking the manager for his feedback and stating that 'I am looking forward to moving on from my training period and proving my competence' blah blah. Ha. That would surprise them. If they thought hubski was some idiot foreigner who couldn't stand up for himself, they were wrong.

I spent the next two weeks hoping that it would blow over. But I couldn't ignore hubski's increasingly bleak mood, and the kinds of things he was saying, which gave me an unpleasant feeling of déjà vu. 'People look though me.' 'I don't feel like I belong there. I feel like an unwanted guest, as if people are waiting for me to leave'. Exactly as it had been in my last French workplace. From which I got the sack.

So when the summoning phone call came, it wasn't much of a surprise. The positive reports and clearances he'd received since the warning were mysteriously missing from his file. Yes, the manager conceded, there had been an improvement in performance. 'But for me, the improvement has not been significant enough' (remember the letter?). No specific reason or incident was cited, no evidence offered, and the dismissal letter stated simply that 'you have not passed your probation.' So we're still guessing.

The strangest thing of all happened today, when hubski rang in to arrange to drop off his uniform. One of his former colleagues picked up the phone, and asked him how he was feeling.

'You must have been really ill.'


'Well, you've been off sick all this time.'

The managers chose not to tell hubski's colleagues that he'd been sacked. Instead, they chose to say that he'd been taken ill.

Go figure.

Friday, February 23, 2007

MAAF blinks first

Today will go down in history as a triumph for the good guys on the right side of the Channel. For ever more, I will give myself a day off work every February 23rd to mark MAAF Victory Day. Today, the evil overlords of French insurance were forced into a humiliating climbdown in the face of the British stiff upper lip. I can almost hear the strains of 'Land of Hope and Glory'.

Everyone who lives in France has got one or several administrative bogeymen. I have come to the conclusion that if French society has is a great leveller, or great unifier (and that's debatable) - then this is it. MAAF were far from my only French bogeyman, but they were the last. Now there are no more. I feel strangely bereft.

Rewind to last August, and MAAF's refusal to believe that I was leaving France, and therefore to cancel our overpriced family health insurance policy (I've found the NHS to be better value) prompted a stand off, with both sides refusing to back down. I wrote them a furious letter. What I actually wrote, after several final demands for a mounting bill of several hundred euros, and threats to repossess my non-existent French 'biens', was less interesting. But in case any reader finds themselves in a similar situation one day, here it is (and there's no need to correct my French, thank you, I am aware):

'En application des dispositions de l'article L. 113-16 du Code des Assurances, je vous informe que je souhaite résilier mon contrat d'assurance MAAF santé Biorythme.
Ceci est en raison de mon deménagement en Angleterre, qui a eu lieu en aout 2006. Je vous avez déjà addressé une lettre AR (daté 14 aout 2006) en demandant une résiliation de contrat.
C’etait donc avec étonnement que j’ai reçu une reclamation de paiement (voir pièce joint).
Ce veut dire que vous avez ignoré ma précedent demande de resiliation, et le fait que je n’utilise plus de mon contrat MAAF santé (il n’a pas de demande de remboursement depuis juillet 2006). En une lettre daté 18 aout 2006, vous m’avez reclamé un ‘justificatif’. En aout 2006, je ne pouvais pas vous fournir d’un ‘photocopie d’un document justifiant de votre départ à l’etranger’ , parce qu’un tel document n’existait pas. Ce qui est tout a fait logique – j’etais encore en France, et je partais pour chercher un emploi et j’avais pas d’adresse fixe en Angleterre.
Je vous joins un justificatif qui date d’octobre 2006. C’est une demande de numéro de securité sociale en Angleterre.
Je vous demande de résilier mon contrat a l’effet de ma precedent demande, et d’arreter de me harceler. Je vous informe que je n’ai aucun intention de payer les sommes reclamés, car je considère votre refus de resilier mon contract en aout 2006 abusif.
Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l'expression de mes salutations distinguées.'

And so today, another letter from MAAF plopped limply onto the mat. I tore it open with gladiatorial zeal. I had no fear. What could they do to me? Happy is he who has no 'biens' to impound or liquidate, and no dosh left in his French bank account.

And I found, a Certificat de Radiation, stating quite simply that it was all over between us. It was an anticlimax. No mention was made of our sparring, there was no trace of bitterness. But I stilll punched the air, and whooped.

What am I going to do without my French bogeymen? Crédit Lyonnais, the Mairie de Levallois, the satellite installation people and guichet gorgons too numerous to mention, I see you fading away into the mists of time.

Mes amis, without you, there is something lacking.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Le retour...

I apologise for going a little awol. The reason was that I forgot my blogger password (such disarming honesty, and such incompetence! Does this girl deserve a reading public, however miniscule?) and started applying madly for jobs.

Life is lean without allocations familiales. Hubski brings home the Daily Mail from work (I wouldn't read it otherwise, honest), and I can't quite believe the rants it publishes, to the effect that we Brits are a nation of benefit scroungers. It really does make sense to find a job, rather than shoot yourself in the foot in order to claim incapacity benefit (less than £400 a month! I wouldn't limp out of bed for that!).

I hope one day to write the Brit in France novel to end all Brit in France novels (what a blessing and an honour that would be, to dam the unstoppable flow of septic tank anecdotes and locals called irritatingly by their first names). But for the time being, that will have to wait until after the working day is done and I've put the kids to bed. In other words, it will be the first Brit in France novel written while the author was asleep (a useful USP that, I don't think anyone's done that one yet).

The need to put food on the table equals the need to sell my soul to the devil, or to anyone who can outbid him. And so I have applied for a job as a guff spouter (I believe the official title is 'corporate writer'). Believe me, noone can spout more convincing guff than I, especially when 30K is waved before my nose. I always wanted to be a stay-at-home yummy mummy (even though I despise yoga and wearing anything other than a porridge-encrusted fleece). But Hubski is missing the kids on his long commutes, and we are not liking his low salary, so as soon as I find a better-paid job, he will give up his, and we'll have a role reversal for a while.

It wasn't as we planned it, but 'c'est la vie'. Vat's loife, mate. I'll keep you posted, however irregularly. And as I am not usually known as Francesca Tereskhova, I might even be bold enough to fill you in with my insights on UK office life, and how David Brent is doing these days. That's if I get the job.

PS. Re the 'Tescos value sausages' comment in the previous post. An eerie coincidence, but these are the very brand of sausages that hubski has adopted on British soil. There must be some link with dodgy Russian sausage. I dare not speculate. Eastern European men do seem to have a thing about gross meat products. I had a Croatian boyfriend at University who would bring a revolting meat paste that you squeezed from a tube (which I christened 'death toothpaste') back from Zagreb every term. The memory of the smell brings bile to my throat. Proust was right about those madeleines.

But I'm still glad I moved back to the land of fairy cakes.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Relations between Britain and Russia hit an all-time low

Hubski's sausage has been seized.

Let me explain. Twice a year, my mother-in-law comes to visit us from the Russian north (where incidentally, snow has yet to fall this year for the first time in living memory). Approximately four fifths of her small suitcase contains much-missed foodstuffs from hubski's childhood. Sausage features large.

Nostalgia can be the only justification for consuming something which, thanks to various dyes, additives and mysterious processes, stopped resembling meat long ago. The smell penetrates not only soft furnishings and cupboard walls, but one's very soul.

When mother-in-law came to visit us in France, hubski could usually pull strings at CDG airport to get her escorted from the plane. When she arrived at Heathrow last week, a polite official approached her and asked if she was arriving from St Petersburg. Thinking this was her welcoming committee, she trotted gratefully behind him to a table, onto which the polite official tipped the contents of her suitcase. He rummmaged through her neatly patched sweaters, jars of homemade pickles, bags of dried parsley (she thinks Western parsley is inferior), and confiscated 3 kgs of 'meat products' (I disloyally punch the air, no more smell and 3 kilos less lard to fur up hubski's arteries).

Mother-in-law (babushka to us), was incandescent. I would have been - that much sausage must have cost her half her pension. She gave the customs man a piece of her mind, all in Russian of course, and he responded by handing her a leaflet explaining about foot and mouth disease, featuring a picture of a side of ham, and a quizzical looking fish, with crosses through them.

Fortunately, babushka considers herself either too old for, or above politics (any mention of politicians is greeted with a dismissive wave of the hand and decisive turning away of the head). So the subject of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and worsening Russian-British relations has not been broached during her visit. Our family has been through enough choppy water recently, and there seems no sense in further rocking the boat. Hubski and I no longer bother with furious, wine-fuelled rows about who really won the Second World War or if the Russian mafia are pussy cats compared to Western corrupt bosses.

Which is just as well, because I haven't yet mentioned that my sister-in-law is also visiting us at the moment. She's a world authority on every subject, including (the latest example) religious education in English schools. 'Why do you teach propaganda in your schools?', she demanded (herself a veteran of the Soviet system and former Komsomol president), as if I work as a personal advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Laugh? I almost bit my tongue off.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

If you think you're hard enough...

This week I discovered something quite liberating. I've become immune to the little ways British people let each other know they are stepping out of line. The Look, the Tut, the Headlight Flash, or the Eye Roll, no longer make me blush to the roots of my hair. Nothing scares little me anymore.

After spending years almost constantly engaged in warring with people, through the medium of car horns, customer services call centres (I wonder how many of my calls to Crédit Lyonnais were used for training purposes?), weirdos on buses, employers who refused to pay up or issue contracts, the Mairie de Levallois which once informed me that my son did not exist (that's another post), barnacle-like insurance companies who refuse to accept that I no longer require their services (when will I ever get rid of MAAF?), it takes a hell of a lot to impress me.

This was brought home to me while parking the family Ford Fiesta (we have gone down in the world, in car terms, since moving) in the market square of the Oxfordshire town of V, town not of my birth but of my adolescence. As I eased my way into one of the coveted slots just in front of Woolies, my light was blocked by an imposing Range Rover which pulled up alongside. Its lady driver made a gesture to me, and if that gesture had a voice, it would have said, 'Shove alorrng now, member of the lower orders. I require more space to reverse in behind you. Skitter!' I declined the order with a shrug (not a Gallic one mind, a sheepish one).

Mrs Range Rover revved up her engines and did a remarkable job of parallel parking, at speed, in behind me. She didn't quite scrape me, but I could tell she wanted to. She shut her car door more forcefully than was strictly necessary (can you feel me quaking?), flounced past me, still sitting in my Fiesta, and then pointedly turned, and delivered a .... Look.

For the first time on British soil, I used my favourite tactic to deal with irate Parisian taxi drivers (while safely behind the wheel of my car). I blew a kiss. She stomped off, leaving me doubled up over the steering wheel with not very mature laughter.

With impeccable timing, we arrived back at our cars simultaneously, and there was a hilarious kind of 'tum-ti-tum, I'm ignoring you while wanting to tear you limb from limb', moment while we fumbled with our keys, got into our cars, and drove off in perfect unison, her Range Rover breathing unpleasantly down my neck. It was sooo nice not to have to fumble for my angry French vocabularly, for had we been in France, that would have undoubtably merited a slanging match.

I must own up though. After I got out of my car, I clocked the fact that there was about a metre of free space in front of me, and I could have legally budged up after all. But I decided to deploy another tactic I learned across the Channel.

Never apologise.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Land of extremes (of hot and cold)

Every so often, hubski reveals his French side to me, built up over 15 years of overhearing people in restaurants whingeing at length about the shade of their tights or the noise of the air-conditioner. Which reminds me, of course, what a very good move it was to bundle him out of there before he started buying French pop-music in a non-ironic way, or two lambswool jumpers at once (one for wearing, one for shoulder-draping and believing oneself the apogée of BCBG chic). Or voting for Le Pen.

He's on the phone from Germany, where, in his cute, newly-naturalised French way, he's being sorely tested by the German penchant for making up rules and then sticking to them ('Hitler had an easy job with this lot'). The conversation moves to our new house. He wants to know where the water meter is (does he expect me to know that?). By the way, he asks, all casual-like, does the bath have one tap or two? I say, two, I think. One for hot, and one for cold.

Hubski switches to English for dramatic effect. It's to let me know that he is displeased and I should prepare for a telling off. 'Oh no, Francesca. (weighty pause) That is bad. Veery, veery bad.' I can feel that I'm expected to apologise. But what for? Why should I be blamed for my country's indifference to mixer taps? That I come from the land of freezing right buttocks and scalded left buttocks? I refuse to take responsibilty. Noone consulted me. Blame Mr Amitage Shanks.

Our new house, although I love it, has rotten window panes, no central heating and no room in the kitchen for a dishwasher. But he doesn't care about that, oh no. We didn't move early enough. And now I have to live with the fact that my husband is too French to stir the bath water with his bare hands.