Did I have something to declare? An odd question. Standing in the customs zone of the Eurostar terminal in Paris Gare du Nord, I pondered what in my holdall of crumpled clothes, books and toiletries, could possibly have raised suspicion. Then it dawned on me. The ostrich.
In faltering French, more rusty than the corroded iron lid on my ancient well, I explained that I was merely harbouring a metal oiseau in my bag, a gift from my sister who lived in Paris.
The female officials didn’t smile. Having pulled out the enormous bird with the bendy neck and large girth, they demanded to know why I should be given such a gift. I explained that back home in Majorca I had a collection of large wooden and metal birds, something they seemed to find bizarre. The three uniformed women hovered over the bird with glum faces until in desperation I delivered my mini coup de grâce: Mr Sarkozy, the President himself, apparently had the very same bird. It was as if a champagne cork had hit the noddle of the nearest gendarme. They gasped in amazement, giggled, cracked some jokes and patting me on the back, returned my oiseau to the bag and waved me to my train.
It got me thinking about the French. It is a long held belief that the Spanish have a natural affinity with the British who began holidaying in Spain back in the sixties and have more or less formed the backbone of the Spanish tourism industry ever since. But in Majorca, one nation pulls the heart strings more than others, and that is the French. There’s a reason for it, of course.
As far back as the late nineteenth century, Majorcans began trading oranges, textiles and olive oil with the French and many emigrated to towns and ports that included Marseille and Sète. When in 1865 a terrible blight destroyed all the citrus trees in my local town of Soller, enterprising Majorcans began selling Negrita Rhum, Spanish wines and dried fruits instead. Despite Spain’s neutrality in the First World War, some Majorcans living in France felt such loyalty to the countrymen that they even fought alongside them.
When I announced that I would be visiting Paris for a few days, Majorcan friends expressed delight. Ah, how lucky I was to be visiting such a wonderful city full of welcoming, warm and charming people and experiencing the very best of French cuisine and culture. By contrast, friends in London commiserated. Paris was OK, but the Parisians were such snobs and so cold and arrogant and, rumour had it, they really didn’t wash. Oh not that old chestnut again.
Much as I kept vigilant, awaiting rude, hostile or boorish treatment at the hands of our Gallic cousins, I received nothing but smiles. The people were genuinely fragrant, ultra friendly, helpful and painstakingly tolerant of my Spanglo-French. In one shop the assistant and I had a chaotic but lively conversation at the end of which he gave me a discount and waved me up the street. In the bars and restaurants I was bowled over by the inherent charm of the waiters and the quality of the fare. Even in the street Parisians courteously gave me the time of day when I patted their chiens, or asked for directions.
So I felt a small stab of disappointment when my oiseau caused consternation at the French customs. My trip had, after all, being going so well, with a French PR offensive so strong as to knock the narrow-minded Britons off their feet. But thankfully Mr Sarkozy had saved the day and planted a smile back on those chic Parisian cheeks of the customs staff before I left for London.
The Majorcans are right. The Parisians-and the French as a whole- really are a very welcoming people but it all comes down to attitude. As long as prejudice doesn’t muscle its way into the suitcase, most Britons visiting the country are in for a treat.
First appeared in Telegraph Expat
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