I was chatting to a French man the other day. Sipping the as usual superb local coffee in a pavement café, we’d struck up a casual conversation while sharing a table. I’d initially slightly resented the intrusion, as I’d been busy doing nothing watching the trams clattering by.
He was a nice guy though and the conversation flowed easily.
Inevitably the discussion got around to the current economic crises or ‘problems’ - the view can vary depending upon one’s political views and bank balance.
After some vague exchanges of views, he said in a slightly apologetic tone “Monsieur, you are English and I would like to ask you a question about these banking and housing problems in England…”
Now at this stage it’s worth pointing out that many French people are not very fussy or correct about their use of ‘England’ or ‘English’. By this I assumed he meant the UK and very possibly the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In other words that great block of the world’s population with social and economic values that are often incomprehensible to most French people.
So, I hastily started to try and remember everything I knew about mortgages rates, government interest rate policies, the banking system and so on. I nodded and picked up my coffee hoping I could use it to play for time if his question was REALLY tricky. Even so, I couldn’t have predicted how much his question, or in fact several questions, would stop me dead.
“Monsieur, why do English people want to sell their homes so often? I don’t understand, because surely it is painful to keep selling the home of one’s family with all those memories? Why are people eager to make big profits by selling their family home every few years?”
The discussion we had following on doesn’t really matter much. I talked about all the usual suspects of the UK having a mobile society, the housing market being a major part of the UK and USA economies, and so on and so forth.
After a few minutes pleasant chatting, we shook hands amicably and he walked off having picked up the tab for my coffee as well as his. As I watched him walk off into the distance between the trams, I couldn’t help but be grateful for our chance meeting.
Yes, one could dismiss his questions and views as ‘yesterday’, ‘obsolete’ and perhaps naïve, but as I finished my coffee I suddenly realised something.
No European country is perfect or an idyll of social values. People in any country, his France included, are just as keen to get the highest price they can when selling a house.
Yet, as I stood up ready to go, I couldn’t help wondering if such questions would even be asked in many English speaking countries of the world today. Even his use of ‘home’ as opposed to ‘house’ or ‘property’ seemed somehow warming...