An Englishwoman’s home is her castle, so they say, and mine have stood up to various attacks. From the neighbor who jumped my parents’ fence one day, brandishing a chainsaw, to cut down an inoffensive birch tree that had been upsetting his dog—itself a vicious Alsatian trained to draw blood first and ask questions later—to the strange glazed-eyed ladies who appeared at my door a week after I had set up house in a small Japanese fishing village to teach me about Jehovah, I have usually been able to repel intruders. Even the Socialist Workers Party types who used to let themselves into my room at university and wait patiently for me with a pile of copies of Morning Star were eventually got rid of with protestations of eternal Catholicism—and the Catholics, with vows of undying socialism.
Not so with the French. There is a marauding ex-plumber in the village where I now live who has for some years been engaged in a one-man struggle against the English invasion, with reckless disregard for personal safety. Rather than adopting the traditional method of retreating to the forest and firing the occasional salvo, he has embarked on a campaign of aggressive friendship. He starts his rounds of the village at about quarter to twelve each day, when he sets out from home on his first foray: to the nearest foreign house. A loud cry of “Salut!” is the only warning his victims get before he walks into the kitchen, pours himself a Ricard, and settles into his favorite chair to pontificate. He prefers to drink two Ricards before moving to the next stop on his itinerary, where the process is repeated. At one o’clock, he goes home for lunch and, presumably, to sleep it off before starting his evening round at five-thirty. (Apart from a classically reddened nose, he shows no signs of ill effects: yet another example of why the British should leave important hobbies such as drinking to the French.)
Hubert has two important weapons: the crucial ability to expound on any subject for unlimited amounts of time and his vocabulary, a conglomeration of 70’s Paris and timeless Languedoc patois that leaves the uninitiated lost and reeling. He is also unhindered by any fear of repeating himself and has never heard of political correctness. Recent monologues include “The Importance of Sport to the Soul,” “How to Grow Parsley,” and “Why Le Pen Will Always Have My Heart.” He is abetted by the growing sense of shame within the foreign community, desperately middle-class and ostensibly desperate to fit in with the village—but secretly aware that they would far rather play bridge and drink gin and tonic with their compatriots. This makes it impossible to turn away the locals, even someone such as Claude who turns up every day, twice a day. Most of his regulars replenish their stocks of Ricard only for him.
My position is slightly worse; he has a key to my castle. Others may lock the door and cower under the covers when they hear his battle cry, but the last time I did that, he came straight up into my bedroom and demanded to know why I wasn’t answering his knock. My feeble response that “Je suis très fatiguée” was treated with the contempt it deserved. When I left my key in the lock to stop him from using his own, he stood in the courtyard and yelled for ten minutes before he eventually got bored and went away. The next time we met, he informed me that he needed to be able to get into the main house at all times, regardless of whether he was welcome. He has even come down to my secret garden to look for me.
Anywhere else, I would be on the phone to the police, demanding protection from my relentlessly cheerful stalker. In this little village, though, he is clearly the vanguard of a people fed up with occupation. The Anglo-Saxons currently account for 40 percent of the population of the prefecture: One in five children at the elementary school is English. The chattering classes are undaunted by the bills for extensive renovation, nor do they feel anything other than patronizing amusement when confronted by French rudeness. So the locals have taken the fight in a different direction.
A sign on the road outside announces that you are about to enter “Un des Plus Beaux Villages de France.” In the bar, the resident artist talks loudly of orgies, while the students at the painting school nod approvingly, refusing to feel any shock “because it’s all so very French.” The annual village sports now include the running of the pigs, where two village teams chase their respective pigs round the ramparts with large buckets of water, used to spur on the animals but also to splatter any second-homers who have turned out to luxuriate in the “rustic” festivities.
They are trying to out-twee us; they will never succeed. Each time the restaurants put their prices up and reduce the portion size, the visiting bankers perceive greater value for money. Their ladies organize regular takeovers of the village church, on which occasions the French priest is seated at the side of the altar and allowed to speak only once during the service, a moment of hilarity for all concerned. Meanwhile, Claude continues his solitary mission to infuriate us into leaving; little does he know. The quickest way to repel our advances would be to build a McDonald’s on every street corner and besiege us with shameful examples of our own “culture”—a tabloid a day keeps the tourists away.