(A less-than-serious reminiscence of living abroad in France and Sweden)
I remember it well: the slow rattling of shop's shutters being pulled up, the smell of bread baking, and good Lord, hardly any traffic. That is the Champs-Elysées at nine o'clock on any given weekday morning. It is not like that all the time, however. Life is not an art house film. If it were, we wouldn't be where we are right now. We would be at a shady terrace café, talking about life, the universe and everything, through a mouthful of croissant.
Of course, many English people go abroad and experience local culture and, where appropriate, bring with them a taste of the English way of life. However, there are also those who embrace the typical ex-pat existence. Visit any English pub in Paris and you will find a throng of English ex-pats with a distinctly aggressive air. They often find kinship with the mercenaries and English-speaking security agents who are attracted to such places, and form little groups of mumbling men in polo shirts, slacks and boating shoes; always in the corner, always with their backs to the wall. This behaviour, born of the fear of being surrounded by non-English-speaking 'savages', is a throw-back to the old colonial days. Modern ex-pats in France peer nervously over the tops of their pint glasses, constantly ready to ward off any attempt at a kiss on both cheeks.
English students can also be found in these pubs, working behind the bar. They usually have a deeper interest in their host country than older ex-pats and can frequently be found unravelling the fabric of society in the bowels of an all-night drinking establishment. Whatever region of England they are from, they will often muster football, rugby, cricket, darts and golf teams to take on those of opposing English pubs and (with the exception of cricket) the locals. Believe it or not, these activities are enjoyed by one and all and seldom end in hostilities.
It is human nature that once you have moved to another country to work and live, you will go through a honeymoon period of falling in love with the new culture. This is usually followed by a longing for your own familiar surroundings and the things that you have grown up with, like orderly queuing and baked beans, or even things that you have never hankered after before (long promenades on Sunday afternoons or custard creams). Thriving mail-order services keep homesick ex-pats supplied with English essentials such as Marmite, considered a dangerous and detestable substance in most foreign countries. A recent report points to a massive increase in the number of Anglican churches popping up all over France. These are not only religious institutions; they are also places where English people can socialise, in quiet rural areas where the English pub has perhaps been run out of town.
The homesickness phase can eventually transmute into a deep ambivalence towards the host culture, so that even the most open-minded Francophiles end up nodding sympathetically with Telegraph readers. I have often asked people who display these symptoms why they stay: 'I know I slag the place off a lot, but I do love it really,' is a typical response. There is, after all, a fair bit to like about France and yes, even the French. France is beautiful, the architecture amazing, the skiing good, and the food and wine can be heavenly. What is less-known is that the French do have a sense of humour and can at times be self-deprecating.
One English import that appeals to the French is the good old-fashioned pub quiz, a convivial form of competition which we can be proud of bestowing on the world. There is now an almost universal tradition of champagne or cash prizes to the winning team and a packet of crisps or half-a-pint of the local rotgut to the team that did least well. I was present at a pub quiz in Paris, and the look on the faces of the French competitors trying to understand the quiz master's strong Glaswegian accent was something to behold. (That was nothing, however, compared to their infuriated grimaces as they later munched communally on a packet of Walkers'.)
The topic of pubs brings me to that of Sweden, another country of which I have intimate knowledge. The number of English people going there to work and live has increased in recent years. As a result there are English pubs springing up all over the place. The Notting Hill Pub in Gothenburg is a nice bar where public tobacco smoking is an unpardonable offence and the air is clean and fragrant. The obligatory group of slack-wearing ex-pats is present, but less aggression emanates from them due to the mildness of the locals, who practically all speak excellent English. Unlike in France, students from England are less likely to spend their time within the ex-pat community, choosing instead to befriend the locals, often with romantic intentions. Being blond and beautiful seems to carry very little weight in the lands to the north, so we English folk are deemed an alluring curiosity.
Swedes are attracted to English pubs because they have a penchant for English premier league football (Arsenal is a particular favourite). They are also proud of Sven-Göran Eriksson, coach of the England team. In fact, the visitor will notice that there is an unashamed patriotism in Sweden. The national blue-and-gold flag flutters everywhere, from shops, official buildings and personal dwellings, although there is a distinct lack of Viking memorabilia. In fact, it is strongly recommended that you do not ask the Swedes about anything that relates to Vikings, for the response will usually be a silent icy glare or simply a quizzical look, as if you had asked a North African about their Celtic roots.
The Swedes do share our national pastime of binge-drinking, but an English person will be disconcerted on arrival to discover that alcohol is doled out in government-run shops, rather than in off-licences and grocers'. It is very much like buying beer over the counter at the DHSS. It is a good idea to carry your passport on you in Sweden, because even if you are well over the legal drinking age (twenty-one) you may be required to prove it in order to enter night clubs, or to buy alcohol in the government shops.
Sweden and France have in common a higher quality of life than England's. Healthy eating is cheaper than the alternative in France, and Sweden is a clean and friendly place where public safety is taken very seriously. However, the wages tend to be lower and taxes are higher than in England.
There are French and Swedish immigrants living in England too, of course. I asked a Swede and a Frenchman what they liked about it. The Frenchman shrugged and said, '"The freedom to be yourself, non?" The Swede mumbled something vague about diversity, but added that H&M was too expensive and Ikea was too far away.
Visiting or being lucky enough to live in either of these countries is a fantastic experience that I would recommend to anyone, but I will impart some wisdom in the form of a quote from George MacDonald Fraser: "It don't pay to offend the local Gods."--Daniel Bowman.