A question I frequently get asked is:
“How do you get on with the French guides? Don’t they resent your presence?”
The immediate answer is “Very well, and of course not”. A recent incident served to highlight that, like my other British guiding colleagues living full time in the Chamonix valley, we’re very well accepted by our French counterparts.
I was on the north ridge of the Pointe Percée, a classic mountain rock route to the top of the highest peak in the Aravis. As the weather was super hot and I was with two very fit British clients, we were moving very fast to get down before the afternoon heat kicked in. As we started the route, we could see a team of two above us, and coming over a tower of limestone, we caught them up. It was Sebastien Laurent with a client on the last day of the Grande Arabesque, a 3 day outing taking in successive peaks of the Aravis at about F6a. Think of it as a dry version of the Cuillin ridge on steroids.
As I came over the tower, I greeted Girly Seb (as he’s known among Brit guides due to his bouffant hairdo and to distinguish him from the guide and film maker Seb Montaz – though he may not know that) with a “Salut Seb - c'est Andy Perkins. Comment tu vas?”.
“Ah” he said. “je me demandais - c’est qui ces furking rosbifs qui vont si vite?”
A rough translation would be “I was just wondering who those English chaps are who are catching us up?”
Now, the process of integration into the culture of another country is a gradual process. It’s not like you can move to France and instantly become totally French overnight. Clearly the most important thing is to speak the language. In order to understand a culture, this is the first and most basic step. I’m very lucky in that I’ve spoken reasonable French since I was 14 thanks to an exchange programme set up by my parents. That’s been supplemented by repeated visits to Chamonix as a young alpinist when, being the French speaker, I was the one charged with buying the lift tickets, paying the campsite fees, explaining the presence of cans of sardines in my mates' pockets at supermarket checkouts, and so on.The next step on the linguistic front was the cunning move and good fortune to marry a francophone Quebecoise.
I've also moved gradually into French society: a French registered car, a French house, paying French taxes, and joining the Syndicat Des Guides de Montagne, the French guides association. In that respect you could say I am a French guide.
The key is to try and understand the culture and why it is that people of different nationalities and backgrounds act the way they do, even if I personally wouldn't do things that way. It helps to read up a bit with books like Talk to the Snail and 60 million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong.
Mes amis Français - vous trouverez "Watching the English" très interessant et amusant!
Of course my roots remain firmly in Britain. More specifically, the area surrounding the Peak District - Sheffield, Nottingham, Leeds and Manchester – is my spiritual home, even though I was born in Southampton.
I’ll never become French, but when I can exchange banter in the best British style with a local guide in French, (and when a French guide acknowledges you're moving fast) that’s about as good as it can possibly get.