Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

I would like to be able to say that it is nice to see friends and family from France when you live abroad but the truth is that my mum’s visit was simply exhausting. She stayed with us ten days over the Easter break, and I am shattered. In fact, I am exhausted, both physically and emotionally. To cut a long story short, there is a widening gap between us, and I don’t think that she is able to understand any perspective other than her own. Or I have become a lot less patient with age.

I wonder if it is a French thing, or a generational one. Probably a bit of both.

The thing is, my mother is an educated lady. She used to be a maths teacher, and her interests range from painting and golfing to studying Hebrew symbolism. That said, despite being intelligent and obviously very well educated, she doesn’t speak English. To be fair to her, she can ask for directions in English, but that’s as far as it goes. This means that I end up doing everything for her.

When she arrived, she decided that she wanted to take a shower. Fair enough. I took her to our newly renovated bathroom. Five minutes later, I heard her climbing up the stairs and coming back to the living room wrapped in a towel. She gasped and started yelling that the shower wasn’t working. She couldn’t get any water. Apparently, somehow, it was my fault.

I calmly explained, that, unlike in France, you don’t have one button for hot water, and one for cold water, but one for temperature and one for pressure, but she didn’t listen.
“Nothing works in this house. What a pain in the neck! I know how to take a shower. I can’t believe that you can suggest otherwise.”

She must be tired. 
I silently took her back to the bathroom and explained what each button is for.

She still looked skeptical.

I ended up turning the buttons and the water started flowing. Of course, she didn’t apologise. She simply couldn’t accept that things were, well, different this side of the channel. In fact, it was probably deeper than this: she was convinced to be right and that our bathroom was badly designed.

A couple of minutes later, she bursted into the living room again, dripping water this time.

  The water is much too hot! It is burning me!”

I went back to the bathroom and showed her which button to turn, without saying a word.

The following day, when I woke up, she was already in the kitchen. She seemed to be fighting with the coffee machine: she was leaning forward on the table, looking closely at the machine, and banging it at the same time.

“The coffee machine is broken! I can’t believe it! Nothing works in this house.”

Here we go again.

“Well, you just need to turn the switch plug on.”

“The what?”

I turned the switch plug on and the expresso machine started working again. Problem solved.

“ I have never seen anything like this before!” She complained. 
Really? She is coming several times a year! Well, it is all a matter of perspective, right? If she were slightly more open-minded, surely she could have said “I can’t get the coffee machine to work!” instead of complaining.

The rambling went on and on over the last ten days. Because our old Victorian house was full of steps…Because we didn’t have any external shutters…Because I  made a grammatical mistake when speaking French once…Because my younger daughter didn’t want to take her scarf to go outside…Because my older daughter was wearing a crop top. And so on, and so forth…

I tried to reason her. I tried to confront her. I tried to shut up. Nothing worked. She didn’t understand why I could be so upset: according to her, she was just trying to be helpful and expressing an opinion. It felt a bit as if I had a third child to care for. A child that kept commenting on my life and judging it at every possible opportunity. She didn’t lift a finger to help. She didn’t cook any meal, clean, wash or empty the dishwasher. Not even once, despite the fact that my days are pretty full-on. In fact, she didn’t even ask if she could help. No, instead, she spent all her days doing some French crosswords and watching movies, while sitting on the sofa and sipping tea that I had to prepare for her. On the bright side, Netflix was a real saviour, because it had a few French films. But even watching a French movie could be a challenge.
“ Oh, the telly is too loud…”
“Well, reduce the volume then!”

“I don’t know how to do it!”

I am pretty sure that French remote controls and British ones work exactly the same way

I had to stop loading the dishwasher and turned the volume down.

I tried to make sense of the whole episode. I couldn’t help thinking that my mother was the product of a very French logic: one you have got your degree, as a teacher, you have a job for life. No need to make any efforts. And she was able to comfortably retire at 56. No need to re-invent herself. As for me, I left the Corporate world to set up my business and ramp up my writing. I run the house single-handedly (my husband travels a lot) and things need to be organised. My time is limited. I always have to do something. Always.

Things came to a head when she had to take a flight back to France in the middle of a Tube strike. I told her that booking a minicab from my place to the airport might be easier, but she thought that it was too expensive. She didn’t want me to pay for it. No, instead, she wanted a taxi to Victoria station, and then she would take a bus to the airport. Finding a cab company in the middle of the tube strike wasn’t easy, but I managed to get a booking.

The morning she had to leave, the cab company couldn’t find any available driver in our area because of the strike, and her booking ended up being cancelled. It was seven o’clock and I needed to deal with my daughters’ school run in parallel  –there was a swimming practice at 7.15am, it was my turn to drive and I was busy.  My mother was ballistic at me, because somehow this was all my fault. While I was talking to the cab company, she was shouting at me. She ended up walking away without a word. I didn’t know what she would have wanted me to do: surely I couldn’t leave the girls on their own?

So much for looking after her for ten days!
We haven’t talked since the whole incident. Moving to London has probably made things more difficult because we have very different lives, but frankly, I couldn’t have done more for her. I am sure that things will be alright pretty soon, because they always are in the end, but I would really appreciate if you could share similar experiences in the comments…Where did I go wrong?
 Oh, and don’t forget to vote for me in the ‘Outstanding’ category here.
Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London