I keep being asked whether the stories that I write are autobiographical. Well, there is no easy answer. Obviously what I write is loosely based on my own experiences, but have things happened exactly the way I have written them? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes no. To make matters even worse, some of it might be –gasp- parody.
Because believe it or not, we French have a sense of humour. Well, sometimes at least. So yes, what I write needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
As some of you are obsessed with number, here is my scientific assessment of the situation: I would say that 50% of what I have written in my manuscript has actually happened to me, one way or another. 30% is slightly exagerated. The rest might be invented. But here is the twist: I will not tell you which is which. Because it would be far too easy, wouldn’t it?
As for Carine and Archie, I thought that the love story between a French woman and her British boyfriend would be the perfect platform to explore the cultural differences between the French and the British, because, just like in a couple, we love each other, but we sometimes don’t understand each other.
As a treat for today, I would like to share with you a chapter that actually has happened to me in real life. I didn’t know it when we moved to London, but the Brits are obsessed with the Napoleonic wars. The thing is, I belong to a generation of French student that never, ever was taught anything about Napoleon. We just skipped it. This much is true…Now read on:
Battles Against The French
This is an important reminder for all my British friends and colleagues.
What important event happened in England in 1066?
A The Romans left England?
B The Norman invasion (yes, that’s the right answer. It means that the French WON a battle. You read that well)
C It’s far too old to remember
D The battle of Bannockburn
Let me reiterate that the correct answer is B. Note how they don’t want to say that the French won. Let me say it again: THE FRENCH WON THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS. Remember this next time you are giving me a hard time about one of Britain’s great battles.
Life In the United Kingdom, (Almost) Official Study Guide
Today, everybody from the accounting department seems to be crammed in my office. What is going on?
Colin, one of the accounting clerks, starts the show:
“So how does it feel to be in the enemy’s land today?’
What is going on? What are they talking about?
“Today is the 197th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, Carine! And, with my team, we are going to celebrate the great achievements of the Duke of Wellington.”
Great. I am in for a treat. I will have to book myself a business trip when it is the battle of Trafalgar anniversary. It is obviously too late for Waterloo. Where the hell is Francois? For once I wish he were here, I wouldn’t be on my own.
Colin has brought me a present: a Napoleon hat, with its characteristic bicorne.
“ You have to wear it all day, Carine, it is our office’s tradition. And you are the only French citizen in the office today, so wear it with pride!”
“No way! Over my dead body!”
I am so not going to wear this. It clashes with my dress anyway.
I belong to a generation of French who has never heard about Napoleon. Somehow it has never been part of our history lessons, and frankly it hasn’t bothered me at all. Until today, that is. I feel I am about to receive a crash course on the Napoleonic wars. Lucky me.
“ Waterloo is one of our greatest victories”, says Clara proudly. Great. I won’t have any support on this side. What is wrong with everybody? Why do they care so much about Waterloo?
A couple of hours later, new invasion of our office. Most of them are dressed in old army uniforms, and Colin even has a plastic sword.
“It is the end of the morning and the French have launch a diversionary attack on Hougoumont.”
“I, Wellington, will stand firm. I will not be fooled by such a tactic”.
He walks around my desk solemnly twice. The other colleagues don’t say a word. They don’t even crack a smile. Eventually they leave.
Unfortunately for me, this is only the start.
Shortly afterwards, Colin is back with a plastic gun that he firmly puts on my desk. Another colleague goes behind me, grabs the fake gun and pretends to shoot some of the other colleagues in army uniform. Some fall on the ground, pretending to be dead. Colin/Wellington speaks again:
“ The French have Captured Papelotte and La Haye Sainte. We have suffered heavy casualties but so have they. “
“-We will keep standing! “
“ Aye Aye”
“The Prussian are helping us on one side. Napoleon –he points at me- sent the infantry and the cavalry to face them.”
He mimics the noise of a horse.
“Mind the horse, Wellington” I mumble.
He continues, undeterred:
“ As a result, the French army in the middle of the front line becomes weaker. This is our breakthrough! We get La Haye Sainte back. ”
Colin is really into it. I have never seen him so focused. If only he could show the same enthusiasm when paying for my expenses. They all leave, pretending to be riding horses. Where the hell am I? How can I escape?
I am looking up on Google to see what is next, in order to find out more about this battle. How were we managing without Google? I am thinking of sneaking out of the office today but Clara is clearly monitoring my every move.
As she warns me:
“Carine, Napoleon cannot leave the battle! It would be treachery!”
I feel trapped. I hadn’t realised that today I will have to endure the re-enactment of Waterloo. And I can’t do anything about it.
They come back after lunch. Colin starts again:
“Napoleon –still pointing at me- is trying to capture back La Haye Sainte. He sends in more and more cavalry, but we resist and eventually they have no choice but to retreat. Hurray!”
All cheer. I want to bury my head in the sand.
”Napoleon is trying to prevent us from joining the Prussian army. He is splitting his forces into half. Fatal mistake.”
“ Yay, the French have got it all wrong! Three cheers for the Allies!”
“Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!”
I wonder why they are all getting so worked up.
“ The Prussian army and Wellington finally meet. The French are fleeing. It is a definite victory. It is the end of the Napoleonic wars!”
They all clap at each other, happy of their historical reconstitution.
“That was funny, wasn’t it Carine?”
“ Hysterical! Completely hysterical!”
I don’t know what to answer; this was the first word that came to my mind. I need to say something else. They are all waiting for it and I have been silent for far too long.
“Yes, it was good. I learned a lot. But, Colin, let’s face reality here: you couldn’t have done it without the Prussians, could you?”
“ How dare you? We won, and it is what matters. It was a strategic alliance”
“Bloody French. Sore losers.”
“Oh, Colin, don’t forget to take back the cavalry with you!”
It looks like, for my colleagues, whatever I do, I will always be French, permanent resident or not.
Throughout the day, I receive emails from British colleagues with whom I do not have to interact. They are all asking me how the re-enactment went. They are all extremely proud of Waterloo. I don’t understand.
In France, although we do celebrate the end of WW1 and WW2, we barely mention other battles. We do not even mention past victories, and for obvious reasons we don’t talk about defeats at all.
I reply to all of them that all went well, thank you very much, and that on 14th of October we will celebrate the French victory of Hastings. After all, we need to be balanced, right? If we celebrate Waterloo, we also need to celebrate a French victory. It is all about openness and inclusion, I say.
The response I get is that the battle of Hastings was far too long ago. Oh, the bad faith!