Monday, 26 July 2010


Some months ago, a French family moved in a few doors away from us. Since I’m married to a Frenchwoman and we have three sons with joint French and British nationality, this was an event of some interest to us. That was particularly as Stafford, where we live, is a sleepy market town where one doesn’t expect to meet many residents from the Continent.

He was a doctor who, to my amazement, had left a job in a French hospital to come and work in the emergency department of ours. He explained that the money was better here than there, but it was striking that within weeks he’d left the hospital to go working as a locum GP instead, as he found accident and emergency services in Britain much too much like hard work. Certainly, it isn’t an environment in which staff have a lot of time to draw breath. He complained that he had to do things that in France would be done by nurses, which must have been hard for him, though I can’t help feeling that it’s rather a good thing when nurses stop being merely glorified assistants to doctors.

Meanwhile, we’d also met his Algerian wife. She and Danielle exchanged pleasantries and gifts of food, there was even talk of a dinner invitation but it fell through and wasn’t renewed. Every time our paths crossed, there were smiles on both sides and we’d talk for a few minutes, but we never really got beyond simple good neighbourliness.

They had two children who exuded warmth and some charm, although they wore that a bit thin, particularly with other families who had children, when they took to hanging around on their doorsteps rather too long and demanding rather too much attention.

All in all, though, we kept feeling that these were potentially friends, even perhaps good friends. And yet somehow on neither side did we take the step that would have made it happen.

Then on Saturday afternoon there were removal vans outside their house. On Sunday, the place had been emptied and the landlord was clearing up. They’d vanished without a trace.

I really mean without a trace. I don’t even know their names. I have no idea where they’ve gone.

The whole experience leaves a strange feeling. There’s a little sadness, of the kind conveyed by the expression ‘ships that pass in the night.’ On the other hand, though the friendship never got beyond the level of potential, it might never have been any better. Perhaps we got close to something that could have been good, and never spoiled it by making it real.

Above all though I’m left with a sense of mystery. Who were these people really? Where have they gone? And why did I never take the trouble to find out?


Mark Reynolds said...

The "dinner invitation that fell through" was something we had to get used to France: in North America "we'll have you over sometime" basically means "you seem nice, and I wouldn't object to seeing you again" and no one actually expects a follow-through. We were quite embarrassed to discover that our friendliness was taken quite literally in France - though we were obviously happy to be hospitable, we were careful after the first few times to never invite without being sure of having an open day in our calendar in the next week.

Awoogamuffin said...

Haha, the Spanish have the same attitude as the North Americans, it seems. It took me a while to realise that invitations in Spain are just a way of being nice!