Robin Hicks, who lived near Pézenas for 12 years, looks back on his time in France and explains how he felt as he slowly settled into the country, although he confesses a little more time on verbs and tenses would have made it easier.
For all that, he did manage to create the Cassan Cracker Fair, edit a local monthly paper named Blablablah and report for a number of papers, plus working with Béziers airport to promote the area to the British press. He returned to the UK in 2002 after 12 years in France, and here he gives us his thoughts on belonging, his struggles with the French language, secrets of the "international press" and the mysteries of wine tasting sessions.
Feeling we belonged happened in stages. I think the first occasion was chatting to a Gendarme who wanted to fine me for missing a stop sign. I asked if he was happy having a German motorbike — he expressed some outrage, but I think he was pleased to chat. Everyone else was getting tickets for €90, but he put his finger to his lips and said "allez" which I did. That seemed nice — I wasn’t a damned Brit, but a fellow two-wheeler.
I should admit my French is dire and I only do the present tense
— for the past, I point over my shoulder, and future I point away from me. Even so, I managed to start the Cracker Fair at the Abbaye de Cassan. At my leaving party, my great English mate paid tribute to me, saying I had created this fair with 140 exhibitors and 4,000 visitors with my "Churchillian French" to which the Abbaye team clapped and cheered. Winston Churchill was known to speak schoolboy French — and my French was not nearly as good as Winston's!
By the time I became editor of Blablablah and was going to press conferences
— I found my fellow journos (including the distinguished former editor of this magazine) would catch up with me afterwards and make sure I had understood what was going on. At about this time I first met Georges Frêche who was president of the region. I couldn't find a regional press person who would introduce me to the great man, so without permission, I introduced myself and we sat and chatted for half an hour — he told me he could speak five or so languages including Latin, but only a dozen words of English. That saddened him because he thought Churchill was the greatest man of his lifetime. Thereafter, at any event, Georges would greet me (I normally sat at the back of the room trying to understand the press release) and make some crack about Mr Blablablah of the international press! He always made sure I was properly looked after — so I felt a bit of a star!
As a journalist I was often asked to join wine tasting panels — a terrifying thing for a Brit like me with little real knowledge. I used to cover my notebook so the others could not see if I was writing nonsense. On one occasion at a very posh tasting in Béziers, I was a little surprised by the white wine — it seemed too yellow and too sweet. I tried unsuccessfully to catch the eye of my colleagues — and then a chap came and explained we were tasting a vin doux — and we all started laughing when we all confessed!
I felt part of that team, as I did as PR of Béziers airport working with director Pascal Pintre to design trips for visiting Brit journos
So little by little, I found a happy sort of relationship with everyone I came across, and certainly was not treated as a foreigner — I belonged!