The other day we dropped in on some English friends who have had a house here for years and years. They come as often as they can and know the neighbourhood and all the local characters like the back of their hand. Ever hospitable, they will drop whatever they are doing to make you a really good cup of tea, and conversation is always stimulating and lively.
This time they had been intrigued to find a novelty in the local supermarket: a packet of Digestive Biscuits, but were somewhat miffed at the slogan on the side: “C’est anglais, mais c’est bon!” Talking it over though, we agreed that Mc Vitie’s must have come up with, or at least approved the slogan, and that after all it was rather clever. Playing on prejudices and national stereotypes and then gently ridiculing them might actually turn out to be more likely to unite than divide and they obviously think that this is the way to sell biscuits!
I remember ages ago in England, when Gauloise cigarettes first went on sale, seeing an advertisment depicting a packet of Gauloises with one cigarette popping its head out of the top – as it were over the parapet – and exclaiming “Sacrebleu, c’est l’Angleterre!” – a harmless piece of fun, (although of course these days completely impossible).
Two nostalgic images from the brilliant graphic designer Bernard Villemot. For more, click here.
It often seems to me that the much vaunted mistrust between the French and English (I cannot say if it extends to the other nations of Britain, but I rather think not) is not as hard-wired as one might suppose. Both are intrigued by the other, wary but fascinated by unfamiliar customs – le five o’clock, le cricket, versus two hour lunch breaks, the inability to form an orderly queue, andouillette – hampered by inadequate language skills, but circling around each other, in the manner of unacquainted dogs, and admiring a certain style, un je ne sais quoi about their neighbours.
Eurostar Advertising campaigns frequently use this technique to good effect. Here are a few examples, although it’s interesting to note that the ads for London are much wittier and more sharp edged than the generally rather predictably sugary images chosen for Paris.
So to come to the dreaded B word – which we tried to avoid with our friends, but which only left us with the dreaded T word to fall back on – for all our differences, France is horrified at the imminent prospect of Britain leaving the EU. The shock and surprise was palpable the day after the referendum. Now nobody talks about it and everyone hopes that it will just go away. Europe in general seems to be stongly attached to this complicated neighbour, who drives on the wrong side of the road, and is now preparing to drive away altogether, leaving an irregular, island-shaped hole in the map of Europe.
Who knows how things will pan out? In the case that residency rights are not sorted satisfactorily, Markus and I will be relying on our Swiss passports and the bilateral agreements that canny Switzerland has been quietly putting in place for many years. Yes, that oddly shaped white hole in the heart of Europe! Now there’s another complicated and widely misunderstood neighbour! Toblerone* anyone?
*With apologies to Dead Ringers
Photo credits, Leg and TWBA Agencies, Samuel Akesson, Mike Gordon & Steve Ubly