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Soapbox: Talking of funny foreigners

Published:  19 January, 2021

Have you ever used the ‘F word’ during a meeting with your biggest client? I have. Several times and, to make it worse, several times during the same meeting. The client was Jon Woodriffe, now of Origin Wines, but then Sainsbury’s buyer for French wines.

“We’re going to fucus on marketing and promotions this year,” I said.

“You what?” Jon asked.

“We’re going to fucus on marketing and promotions this year.”

Jon smiled. “Let me write that down,” he said. “Say again.”

“We’re going to fucus on marketing and promotions this year.”

“So, does that mean marketing and promotions will be the… what did you say again?” By then he was trying so hard not to laugh out loud he’d turned bright red.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

“It’s ‘focus’, Anne, not ‘f*** us’. You may want to practise saying it if you don’t want to give people the wrong idea about your company’s priorities.”

I dined on that story so often that the embarrassment I felt at the time has abated. Yet when I cast my mind back to my early years in the wine trade I can’t quite believe I managed to do any business, considering how basic my English was.

There was the time when the car I had rented on the phone for a trip to Edinburgh was indeed waiting for me, but in Denver, Colorado. And the hundreds of flyers promising a “flashing promotion” that were stopped in extremis from being mailed to my unsuspecting British clients and prospects.

With Brexit now an inescapable reality for the wine business and for the UK, I am poignantly reminded of my early forays over here and how I benefited professionally and personally from the freedom of movement that has been stolen from the next generation.

We often celebrate the fact that the world of wine is international and global but, from a slightly myopic British point of view, we conveniently choose to forget it means a lot of people trying to sell their wares over here need to master a language and customs that aren’t theirs. And it helps to be able to come over here to improve said language and familiarity with local practices.

Charming introduction

It took me a while but I got there, as evidenced by the charming introduction by a slightly squiffy buyer at a long-forgotten party: “This is Anne, she’s French but she’s been here a long time and she’s much improved.” I felt like the souped-up version of a basic 2CV.

I worry that the rapprochement between the UK and France I feel has happened over the past 30 years may wither, also as a result of Brexit.

In my novel, Tasting Notes, I imbue one of my older characters with the outdated and cartoonish Anglophobia that is the equivalent of the Francophobia that I thought, before 2016, had withered and died. I have him criticising the British weather, British women’s dress sense and, wait for it, casting aspersions on British men’s sexual orientations. All good things come in threes.

People like that still exist but I used to think they were as much of a dying breed as those Little Englanders who think all French men wear strings of onions around their neck and start every sentence with “Allo, allo”.

Lately I have sadly noticed a resurgence of Anglophobia from my French friends, which is best summed up as: “English have never bought into the European ideal so goodbye and good riddance.” This is not said unkindly but with a foot in each country.

I hate the chasm Brexit opened and that Covid is widening. I suppose it was unavoidable and I simply chose to be blind to what was happening outside my cosy bubble. In 1994, I was in the back of a black cab, waxing lyrical about the impending opening of the Channel tunnel. The cabbie, however, was far from happy. “It’s the end,” he cried. “We’re not an island anymore.” I suppose he voted Brexit. Funnily enough we didn’t keep in touch even though he was prompt to reassure me “people like me” were not the problem.

When I first set foot in the UK, I was given a copy of George Mikes’ How to be an Alien. This little gem of British humour, written by a Hungarian immigrant in 1946, not only made me laugh out loud but helped me understand some of the idiosyncrasies of my adoptive country. It’s a hilarious book but I don’t want to have to read it again.

Anne Burchett’s first novel, Tasting Notes, unsurprisingly set in the world of wine, is available from Amazon