‘A Frenchman’s Wife …

‘A Frenchman’s home is where another man’s wife is.’ Mark Twain

Well, it’s time to face this rather difficult entry… (as the bishop said to the actress). I have been avoiding this one for some time, because it crosses so many boundaries, which could, if not handled delicately, re-ignite the Hundred Year War!  Firstly, we are looking at the grave penalty for insulting our hosts:  How can we Brits have the audacity to move to a land, which we had reasonably given up our title to in 1802, and start lording it over the natives? Insulting, marauding, superior attitudes are no longer ‘de rigeur.’  The second problem with trying to highlight the Frenchman’s flagrant plundering of his neighbour’s cherry orchard, is that I have to raise the somewhat vulgar topic of the rights and wrongs of ‘ownership,’ in respect of man and wife. (I use the term ‘ownership’ in it’s somewhat old-fashioned meaning, as used in those tried and tested, and broken, ‘marriage vows’.)

There are feminists who will rankle and presbytarians who will vex, when they have to consider whether sleeping with another man’s wife is fair game. But who better to judge whether the rules are being properly played out, than we Brits? We have a history of fair play second to none:  We forged a gentlemanly agreement with India, giving them tea and cricket in return for their land;  we came to a civilised arrangement with China, with the Treaty of Nanking, giving them the opportunity to share in our habit of Opium smoking and offering our expertise in handling all of their exports in return, only,  for some silk.  We were fair and considerate leaders back then. But something happened in the Empire’s evolution, in the 70s and 80s, which has cast a shadow on that which set us apart from the rest of Europe. I want to take a short diversion here, to examine the decline of fairness in Blighty, and I think that one of the key events that signalled our  lowering of standards was the sudden inabilty to form an orderly queue.  There was a time when politeness, nay overpoliteness, was something of which an Englishman could be rightly proud.  ‘An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.’ [George Mikes]

When exactly did we forget how to queue  for the bus?  One minute there we were all bowler hats and Truform shoes … no one would ever dream of arriving last and stepping to the front of a queue!! Was there a gradual change, an evolution from fairness into each man for himself? Or did it happen on one particular night, for no apparent reason? Go for the morning bus these days and it’s like pigeons in Trafalgar Square – all over the place! A gaggle of people hanging around, stretched in all directions, with not even a parting semblance to a line. Pretending they’re not really interested in whether a bus comes along or not. We watch the bus as it rounds the corner, straining to make out the number before anyone else notices… then a quick shuffle, pretending to tie a shoe lace or leaning casually against the bus stop, or muttering, “oh what bus is it that he said I need to get”.. as you move forward and pretend to be reading the timetable. Arm stretched across to prevent anyone else coming near to what you perceive to be the alighting point. Of course there is no alighting point as the driver stops wherever he darn well pleases! All the time, shuffling, barely noticeably moving, towards the point where we think the bus is going to stop. The shuffling becomes a little more agitated as we realise that this is our bus, and that it looks pretty damn full. The young mother, moving her push chair into prime position… a push chair which says, ‘I carry a special cargo, don’t mess with me!’ The older women stamping their feet as if to keep warm, “ooh, it’s so cold”… another inch forward, then another as the other foot comes down. And the children just overtly moving right up into the front, causing the adults to “tut” and take the opportunity to shoulder their way in too. Now, the bus is just a few yards away, you watch the driver’s directional gaze and step right up to the edge of the pavement. Side stepping, elbows out like a rugby player. The bus driver is playfully moving a mere centimetre at a time, and still refusing to press the ‘Door Open’ button. You glare at him, you try to hypnotise or threaten him with your stare. The largest man in the world is right at the front now, his threatening pose causing the driver to reconsider his idea of coming right to a halt and then just sitting there pretending to fill out forms for a couple of minutes! The throng is pulsating and their determination is palpable. Children are hitting up against old women, chips flying in every direction, young businessmen have dropped their aloof calm and taken to the role of plunderer and invader, with vim. The bus has stopped, the button has been depressed and the ‘choo, poosh, cha’ of the door release is finally sufficient for the first foot to force through …. “oy, get back!”. “You fecking little moron!” “Let me on, I’ve got arthritis!” And a young Muslim women, veiled, appears from nowhere and quietly steps forward in front of everyone. “Where did she come from?!” “She’s on, bitch!” Then a child, and another child reeking of chips and vinegar, a young man in suit… “That’s it I’m full”.. “No, no! Get back… off the platform or I’ll call the police!” Little old lady with shopping trolley, “please luv, go on let me on, I’ve got lumbago mister” “NO!” “Bastard!”. “My Mum’s just died..” “NO!” “I’m having a heart atta..” “Clunk, pursh, psst!” And it’s off. The crowd disperses, taking up their positions ready for the next round. Not very British if you ask me.

Enough prevarication and beating around the mulberry bush… time to ‘couper à la chasse’! Face the brutal truth about adultery! So, Mark Twain summed up the French attitude to marriage and sex rather well, in his usual scathing manner, when he said, ‘A Frenchman’s home is where another man’s wife is‘…. And thank God he was American and not English! Is it just me, or has anyone else here come across the trend for taking the idea of sharing to its illogical extreme in this neck of the woods? Have you noticed well -heeled Frenchmen, with big bushy moustaches (I think the moustache in this rural part of France is similar to the long bonnet of an E-type Jag back home,) running from house to house at all times of the day or night? And is it only me, or has anyone else taken it into their disturbed heads to follow the little Napoleons on their unusual forays? You know…you see a big blue tractor parked outside a certain house at odd times, and always for about an hour. Then it’s gone… to return the same time, same day, the following week. The shutters around here open and close like the clappers and I simply can’t equate  it to the level of sunlight or outside temperature. Picture the scene: A top floor volet is left half open with a pretty vase of plastic flowers placed with a certain “fausse désinvolture” in the window… The big blue tractor arrives; the shutter briskly snaps shut; the occupant flings open the volet 60 minutes later, suspiciously and over-keenly dusting off the plastic flower or shaking a duster out, as she plays out her fantasy of having cleaned the upstairs chambre thoroughly. Quite why she had to close the shutter in the first place is not explained in this mise en scene! Oh, Marie Paradis, you are not so chic now, with your blushing cheeks and your hair en désordre! And Monsieur, “aren’t you harvesting along way from home?”

So, what we have here is the quiet acceptance of the role of “la Maitresse” in  the Dordogne. Les femmes seem to shrug and bear it… Les hommes revel in it! What d’ya think?

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