What circumstances first brought you to France?
My wife Inès (who is French – no one is perfect) and I both lost our jobs in England in the same month. Inès somehow contrived to convince me that this apparent disaster was, in fact, a splendid reason to go and work in France – just, she said, for a year. For reasons I can’t really explain, 20 years later I am still here.
Is it strange that your children’s first language is different to your own?
It is extremely strange to hear one’s own children speaking to each other in another language – not least because they obviously speak it far better than me and aren’t cursed by an English accent! But I only ever speak to them, and they reply, in English, regardless of where we are or who’s around. I always assume that everyone can speak enough English to follow what we’re saying. We even did that in front of their teachers when they were at school.
Your latest book, An Englishman Aboard, tells the story of your journey along the length of the Seine in a handcrafted rowing boat. How did that idea come about?
I decided to build a rowing boat in the garage, more as a creative project than from any real desire to own a boat. Once I had finished it though, friends demanded (quite reasonably) to know what I was going to do with it. Somehow this led to me being challenged to discover the length of the Seine – no small affair, as it is 500 miles long! They gave me a year to do it.
What were the most memorable moments of your journey – good and bad?
The best bit – apart from all the bars and restaurants we went in along the way – were the strangers who did their best to help. I couldn’t do the whole river in a small rowing boat so I needed to find other boats to travel on. Once they understood, all sorts of people did their best to help: friends of friends, bargees and even the Paris river police. The worst bits were probably rowing in the rain or when I rowed down a broad stretch of the river frequented by huge barges which threw up waves that nearly swamped me. That wasn’t fun at all!
You’re the author of two other books. Can you tell us a bit about them?
I set out to write the books that I wish I’d had when I first came to France. Pardon My French explains, in an interesting way, the 250 words that seem key to understanding life in France, while A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi does the same with the essentials of French culture.
What’s your favourite French word?
One of my favourite words is “J’arrive!” It means “coming!“ and is used in reply to a request to come and do something – bring the bill or some more wine, or give a hand with something. It always amuses me because whoever it is only ever says it when walking away from you. I’m convinced that this gives a valuable insight into the French character.
What’s your most invaluable piece of advice for someone making the move to France?
This is a simple one: always, always start any conversation or exchange with any French person, whether in a bar, a shop or a railway station, with a friendly “Bonjour”. Even if you can’t say much more, it will still always get things off to a good start.
● To buy Charles’s books, visit www.penguin.co.uk
We reviewed An Englishman Aboard in issue 106 of FrenchEntrée magazine. Read the review here.
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