Why do the Americans go to Paris and the British come to the Dordogne?

Why do the Americans go to Paris and the British come to the Dordogne?

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Wilna Wilkinson digs a little deeper and offers her views on this much debated issue.

In 1951 the American Gene Kelly came to Paris, found that he ‘got rhythm’, declared in true American aka Hollywood style, “This is Paris, and I'm an American who lives here”  and, even though he actually never did get further than the MGM studios in California, he became, overnight, the Pied Piper of Paris.

Soon thousands of Americans followed him to this city, declared in true American aka Hollywood style, “This is Paris, and I'm an American who lives here”, and stayed.

True, there were many other Americans before 1951 who came to Paris and one can even google “famous Americans in Paris” and come up with countless websites and entries on the Internet, down to “…who stayed for longer than a year”. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Edgar Allan Poe, Cole Porter, and Gertrude Stein are only a few of those who did not only land, rush to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, throw a quick glance at the Eiffel Tower, go once round the Place de la Concorde and then rush back to catch the first plane outta here.

Many stayed long enough to get to know the concierge, acquire a cat, find out to call the fire brigade when locked out of their house, discover the difference between red wine and white wine and leave their indelible mark in the annals of the City of Light.

And indelible and meaningful marks they have left aplenty, as Americans all over the world are wont to do. There are American schools, American hospitals, American research centres, American charity organisations, American churches, galleries, newspapers, magazines, clubs, societies, and ‘American’ something or other everywhere you look in Paris.

A few years back already the US Consulate published the number of Americans in Paris as being 50,000, making up a third of the 165,000 in all of France and I am willing to bet that most of the other two thirds are scattered mainly in a few of the other bigger cities of France.

When I asked a handful of Americans why one hardly ever finds an American anywhere else other than Paris and the South of France, their immediate response was “In the States France equals Paris and the South of France. They know about the American in Paris and they have read Peter Mayle but no one has told them yet that there is an entire country between the two!”

That is a sweeping statement, even if you do believe that the bulk of Americans are not too aware of a world outside of the States, and I am not comfortable with sweeping statements, so I continued my research...

At first, it seemed like an impossible task. Here, in the Dordogne, and the whole of the Aquitaine, there are very few Americans, and those that are here, are the “quiet Americans”. The ones who quietly settle in and integrate into the community. Who quietly attend the language schools and learn to speak French. And the ones who generally quietly return back ‘home’ every year to spend at least six months back in the States.

But there are many, many British. Recently published figures by the French statistics department revealed that there are 31% more Brits moving permanently to France than there are Maghrebians moving here from Northern Africa to live or to work.

Almost 700,000 Brits have moved to and settled in France and more than half of that again are in the South West – right here in “Dordogneshire” – as the area has become known.

Once again it would be easy to fall into the trap of generalities and make the sweeping statement that the Brits come to France, and in particular to the South West because it is close but warmer, because of (what used to be) cheap airline tickets, and, starting at the bottom layers of the Mazlow Pyramid, because of the good food, cheap wine, cheap housing, little traffic, excellent health services, and the all-encompassing “good way of life”.

Just recently at an Anglo-Franco evening, an expat of many years and who is so well known in the area that he is referred to as Mr. Name-of-that-village, but who, even so, had to speak through an interpreter, listed exactly these reasons for the large number of Brits in the area.

One would have liked to hear someone who acts as spokesman for his fellow Brits to show a little more depth of cultural awareness and appreciation, but alas, no. The same old, same old good food, cheap wine………

Moving slightly up on the Mazlow Pyramid, one may find slightly less obvious reasons for this migration. The English are, more than any other nation, victims of a fierce class distinction. They can better themselves, buy the best education, marry into a higher class than their own, become rich and famous, and even very important, but the upper classes will always look down their noses at the middle classes, the middle classes look down their noses at the working classes. And all together, they all look down their noses at any person of another colour and the rest of the world.

On this level, the generalisation would be that they move to France because here they are all expats and therefore equal in the eyes of the French. As they happily live under the illusion that the French cannot tell the difference between a Hull dock worker’s accent and that of a Somerset head teacher’s, life is good and all is well – and one could even be so bold as to dream of becoming a mayor of the local community one day.

In listing possible reasons why the British move to the Aquitaine, one cannot omit to mention the One Hundred Year War. A favourite story amongst the expats is this: The English came to defend their country (a large part of France north of the Dordogne River used to be England), they stayed for a 100 years doing so (probably because of the good food, cheap wine, cheap housing...), and finally left in 1453, leaving behind visible and invisible footprints and taking with them the memory of a place where the sun shines more and warmer, the food is good, the wine is cheap, there is little traffic... And now, more than 500 years later, they are coming back to see if the stories and legends of this place on the other side of the channel still hold true.

But, as I said, I am not comfortable with sweeping statements and I am glad to say that the British expats I have befriended in the Dordogne have not come here to claim their little corner of paradise for only the above reasons.

Those are added benefits, yes, but there is more. It goes much deeper. Therefore it is not only, as was remarked recently, the old and retired that are coming from Britain to France. More and more young families with small children are coming to start their lives here. Families with older children are taking their children out of good schools in Britain and putting them into the little local village schools here. 

One such good friend of mine moved here to get her teenaged daughter out of an environment qualified by peer pressure, false values, materialism, alcohol and sex, despite moving out of the big city and paying dearly for an excellent school for her daughter.

A little while ago, after only one year in the Dordogne, her decision was firmly vindicated when, looking out the window for her daughter and her school friend, she saw the two fifteen year old girls down in the garden playing an innocent little game of hide and seek. Any concern that she may have had of depriving her child of an English way of life and English upbringing by having moved to France, was swept aside for all time. She knew for certain that she had given her daughter the greatest gift of all: an environment and opportunities which every growing child and young adult should have.

However, all this does not answer the question: Why do the Americans go to Paris and the Brits come to the Dordogne?

The answer is probably not so complicated at all. Perhaps looking for the subtle and deep-down motivations for the actual relocation and the subsequent choice of destination makes for an interesting subject of conversation at dinner parties, but the reality of it is much simpler.

The Americans move to Paris (as opposed to 'France') because that is where their work takes them but also because Americans move to cities. They move from and to where life is as close as possible to the life they know, where there is life and culture and arts, where there is the exotic and the eccentric, where restaurants and hotels can be judged by their number of stars and where credit cards are readily accepted.

Whereas the British move out of the cities to the countryside. They are moving away from the pressure, the rat race, and the competition with the Joneses next door for the latest 4x4, the acceptance into the posh school, the therapy sessions at the Priory, the children going out in their logo clothes and getting drunk on weekends. 

They are moving to where quality of life is good, where there are good old fashioned value systems. Where life is gentle and honest and at a walking pace. Where you stop to smell the wild flowers and study the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Where there is a little run-down farm house that you can buy for a song and can rebuild and restore into your own beautiful home. Where traditions have value, work is a joy and where community spirit is alive. Where the market stall owner calls you by name and the neighbours put fresh flowers in your house to welcome you back from a weekend away. (And of course ----- for the good food, cheap wine, cheap housing, little traffic………!)


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