How do you tell if someone is posh? This isn’t a rhetorical question, or a subtle way for me to start this column by answering my own query. I really am asking – how do you tell? I have lived in this country for just under 14 years and I’m still not sure.
For a while I blamed the English, which is both an easy and a fun thing to do. Everyone here is obsessed with class but it all hinges on subtle clues, blink-and-you-miss it hints. You don’t like talking about your feelings or showing them in any way, so it would make sense for you to also refuse to be showy when it comes to social standing.
I changed my mind when my mother told me about her unexpectedly rich friend. I was back home in France the other week and she mentioned that this woman, who I’ve met before, is set to inherit quite a fantastical sum of money. Her parents own countless properties and she has more in savings than the two of us combined make in several years.
They have known each other for a good long while, but my mum had no idea about her friend’s background until recently. “I just can’t believe it,” she told me. “I’ve been here for over 30 years and I still can’t really read French people.” My eyebrow shot up. Had I been wrong in blaming England all this time?
“And you know, the worst thing is – I can’t pick up those cues in Morocco any more either,” she continued. “I moved away when I was too young, so now I don’t know the codes of either of my countries.” My eyebrow reached the roof.
As you may have gathered from this, my mother and I have had very similar lives. She grew up in Morocco, left at 18 to study in Tunisia, then wound up in France with my dad in her early 20s. I made one less stop, heading to London at 17 after an upbringing in Nantes, then staying firmly put.
In many – arguably most – ways, our itchy feet have made our lives richer. We speak several languages, have friends and relatives across continents, and get to experience multiple cultures at once. In others, however, we end up playing a less-than-zero-sum game.
Having left our home countries as teenagers means that we will never know what it is like to be an adult there. I was once asked about how taxes worked in France on live radio and could do nothing but shrug, which was at least pleasingly Gallic. There is also no amount of time you can spend in a country that will make you truly think and behave as a native.
Class and etiquette can probably be learned, if one tries hard enough, but there are things you must have grown up in, or with, in order to fully understand and appreciate them. I can now decipher a number of accents, but am still frequently taken aback by revelations about someone’s background, as my mother was with her friend.
It is like playing a video game for a long while and reaching the point where you have 95% of the abilities your character is able to possess, then stopping there. Life is seamless most of the time, until it isn’t.
Talking about it made us both feel a bit sad, as we had to come to terms with the fact that trying to belong in two places at once means that we will never truly belong anywhere. Our conversation stuck in my mind for a little while, as she is my ghost of Christmas yet to come.
She’s 20 years ahead and I’m still on schedule: there is no reason to believe my experiences will be different from hers. She will never be fully Moroccan and I will never be fully British, and neither of us will ever be fully French.
Still, is it really better to have 100% of one thing when you can have 95% of two of them? I think I know which I prefer.