Hell is Other People

One of the principles upon which this blog is based is No Fu$@ing Fairy Tales.  Life in my adopted country is not perfect.  It’s a balance of good and not so good.  The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side of the Atlantic.

Being a migrant is a factor in how life here is experienced by me, as well as a factor in how people interact with me.  Sometimes that’s great.  Sometimes it sucks. It can certainly make a bad situation even worse.

So let me tell you a little more about my summer.  Because the health problems were just one thing out of several that made 2019 my annus horribilis.

Backyard chickens.  It’s become a bobo thing.  So chic.  So “green.”  And there is an entire city program in Versailles designed to promote it.  The mayor’s office offers two chickens for ten euros to any resident  with a garden.  Over the last few years they have distributed nearly a thousand gallus gallus domesticus in neighborhoods all over the city.

We signed up.  Our house may be small but our garden has space to spare. We welcomed the first ones and before long we were doing “chicken math” and we added another.  For two years now I am blessed to have fresh eggs every day and my flock has become my partner in the garden. They turn the soil, spread the mulch, eat slugs, snails and leftovers, and send out the alarm if something unusual crosses the property line.  In short, they work for a living.

But in one respect that first year with chickens, we blew it.  We introduced animals into an existing urban ecology (albeit one surrounded by green spaces) without understanding how they would fit in with the animals that already occupied the neighborhood.  One in particular:  rats.

That’s where the problem with one of our neighbors began.  They saw them in our yard near the coop and went ballistic.  Nothing like having your neighbor yelling at you on the sidewalk in rapid-fire French.  There were threats to call the authorities and I was informed that they were filming my yard.  What made it worse, I think, was my reaction which was to channel my inner American.

It’s not always true but I find it is generally the case that when confronted with an angry French, going “anglo-saxon” on them (calm and cold which can be perceived as argumentative and condescending) takes the temperature up rather than down.   Since that day they have not spoken to me. As I was not overly fond of them anyway, this has been fine with me but it did have repercussions.

The Versailles city office helped us.  They sent us to a local business that provided us with traps and poison and they gave us a few simple principles for chicken owners to foil pests:  keep the coop clean, no food in the coop, and no feed lying out overnight anywhere. We invested in a closed feeder and put it next to the house where we could keep an eye on it.

And all was calm after that until late this summer when it all went to hell again.  The rats were back but interestingly enough not in my backyard.  No, these rats decided to set up house in the yard of the very neighbors who had complained the previous year. How did I find this out?  The mayor’s office called, said there was a complaint and asked to visit.  I said, “Come on over!” and within the hour she was being given the tour of my yard and took pictures.  Her conclusion?  All good.  Coop was clean, garden was clean, traps with poison were properly placed, and the chicken food was in the rat-proof feeder.

Exoneration?  Of a sort.  We were square with the city but turns out we had a bigger problem.  Unbeknownst to us the neighbors had written a letter which was sent to the city, local politicians, and several local magazines and was circulated in person to the entire neighborhood.  A neighbor gave me a copy and it was brutal.  Really ugly stuff.

At that point I started to be afraid.  I felt as though I was under constant surveillance and being sick didn’t make it easier to cope.  Reactions to the letter came to me indirectly.  No one seemed to want to discuss it with me.  Where I grew up in in the US, people are pretty direct about such things.   If your neighbors have a problem with you, you know it from them, up close and personal.  And if they don’t get satisfaction, you find yourself playing defense at a neighborhood meeting.

In my neighborhood in France comments were always passed through another neighbor.  I got complaints that it wasn’t the chickens but my little pond that attracted the rats.  One pro-chicken neighbor went to the other side because the controversy was wearing him down.  The worst was one neighbor who passed on that his wife was pregnant and he thought she would miscarry because of the rats.

The whole business started with a bang and ended with a whimper.  It was a very hot summer here and the letter-writing neighbors got around to cleaning up their yard and the piles of rotting apples that were lying on the ground all August.  The owner of an apartment a couple doors down closed up a big hole coming out of a sewer on their property.  And the city did their fall de-ratting of the city sewers.  Impossible to know what did the trick but the rats were gone.

The damage, however, will linger.  Over many years France has changed me in a lot of ways and some are pertinent to this situation.  For example, how to apply “Il faut pas se faire avoir.”  Stand up for yourself, sweetheart.  So I found a way to cut off the commentary.  I simply said to those who tried to pass on info, “I haven’t met this person.  In fact, they have never even said bonjour to me.  Until they have the courage to talk to me directly, I am not taking any of their comments seriously. ”   The resulting silence says it all.

However, I did, in a conversation with one neighborhood gossip, let it be known that the ugly letter from the neighbor was now in the hands of a lawyer.  That was all I needed to say.  No one wants to get anywhere close to a potential legal battle that will have the lawyers and the authorities poking their noses into places the residents would rather they stay out of.

One neighbor did push back telling me, “That’s not how we do things in France.”  Are you kidding?  That is 100%  merde.  The French do sue and issues with neighbors end up in court all the time.  Maurice the Rooster is a good example.  Nice try, neighbor, but I didn’t get off the boat yesterday.

In October I planted trees for privacy.  Many trees. All meticulously placed at the precise property line limit required by the city. And I now have a contract with the pest company who will come by every few months and do a constat that my yard is fine. I got push back for the latter from one person who argued vehemently that this was a terrible idea. What was I thinking?  I clearly wasn’t considering the good of the neighborhood as a whole, he said, but only of my yard.

Yep, I thought, that is exactly right.  Took me decades in France but I think I can safely say that I have the same level of l’égoïsme as my native French neighbors.

Three cheers for integration!


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Born in Seattle, USA. Generation Xer. Lived on 3 continents (North America, Asia and Europe). Country agnostic. Mother of two Frenchlings. MA in International Migration

12 thoughts on “Hell is Other People”

  1. First, I’m glad you’re back, though I’m sorry you passed through such a health scare. Hopefully, things will pick up from now on.

    Second, these issues with the neighbors sound just about right. In our patch of rural Spain, gossip and criticism also take a roundabout route. So-and-so said this about your yard. So-and-so said that about your husband (that’s when they really want to mess with you). I just ignore them and keep on the right side of the law as much as possible.

    There are other ways neighbors, especially older ones, try to get back at you. Once, years ago, my mother found a bunch of eggs, carefully covered with soil in our front yard. At that time, our chickens were in another part of the property with no access to the front. She was very particular about taking them out with a shovel and burning them without touching them at all. One of our friendly neighbors had put a hex on us. Did it work? Only if every bit of bad luck were to be attributed to that instead of simply to life’s quirks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Maria, for the good wishes and for sharing your experience in Spain. Hexed eggs? Great story. It does sound very similar to what I see here – the indirection and rumours which is a very common form of social control and/or social resistance. See Weapons of the Weak by J.C. Scott.


  2. Love your story. Sounds like you’ve learned how the play the game. And you are correct in saying that the French sue each other all the time. They certainly do. Anyway bravo for bringing up the legal threat. That generally calms things diwm

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Harriet. Thank you. It was cathartic to write it all out and isn’t writing one of the best forms of therapy?

      And for a positive follow-up, after I wrote the post and came back from my morning walk I found a package and a note in my yard. It was a bag of goodies for the chickens from a Portuguese woman whose family lives in Porchefontaine and who have had backyard chickens for years – long before it was cool. “un goûter pour vos poulettes…” she wrote.


  3. Don’t feel alone. We bought this house 6 years ago. It had a wall at the back looking directly into a farmer’s field. There was no wall anywhere else and we are next to an ecole de mere, and soccer field. That means that everyone who uses the farmer’s road or the scoccer field had great fun looking in our windows to she the new family or teasing our Shiba Inu still in a puppy stage and looking just like a fox. I was furious and want a wall. Our neighbor didn’t want us to build a wall between the school/soccer field because it would ruin his view. (he lives in front of us). Then he put up a monstrosity of one of those concrete walls. I was livid. So we wanted our wall and made the request. It is 7 feet tall, just as tall as his wall, and dark grey aluminum set on concrete bricks covered with white stucco. I am going to have planted trees between said neighbor and us because he sits in his house like a spider in a web and watches everything goes on in our property and garage. Every time my husband walks down the drive to take out the trash or get the mail, out comes the neighbor with some complaint about something I’ve done. I last had an abri installed over on the side of property and he doesn’t like it. When he told me I told him, in French. “Well it looks a lot better than those giant wood piles you that stacked right there facing our property and believe me the rust wheelbarrow doesn’t improve your landscape at all.” He told me “The wood is for heating and I can put it there.” and I said: “The abri is for the lawn tractor and I can put it there. But don’t you worry I am going to plant some hedges between our property so neither you nor I will be abused by the views.”

    I love France. I don’t hate my neighbor but I am not going let him bully me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my goodness! That sounds really stressful and very familiar. No fun to know that you are reality TV for your neighbor. And good for you for refusing to be bullied. I suspect a certain amount of sexism in both our experiences where men of a certain age decide to “police” the behaviour of the women in the vicinity. As if it were their job, so to speak, now that they are retired. I’m not the boss of anything anymore, so I will try to be the boss of you. The wall should help and so will the trees and shrubs. For the side of my yard nearest the offenders I went for broke and planted the fastest-growing tree I could find – an Empress tree (paulownia..) https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/trees/royal-empress/pruning-empress-trees.htm

      It should fill the space fast and it has the added bonus of allowing me to try out a pruning technique – pollarding.


      1. Thanks for the info. Looks like a beautiful tree too. Unfortunately it is too tall for me. Our gardener is helping me with tree and hedging selection. I have a problem with the summer crowd of gypsies climbing over our back wall and I’m not enamored with that wall at all. It is white and because we live next to active farmer’s field it must be pressure washed every year. So I’ve decided to plant a combination of large climbing roses in between espalier fruit trees. I agree with you about the men’s unbridled attempts to insert their attitude everywhere it is not needed. I don’t understand why that seems to be the culture here in France since there were hardly any men left after the 2 World War. You’d think the women would lay down the law about that sort of thing then.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Retired men with nothing much to do. Especially difficult when they have had control, however minor, over others in their working life. Same problem in the farming community in the valley where we have our family farm. Real farmers are never an issue since they never really retire but we have a neighbor who gets in his car and patrols the neighborhood for “issues” after his first cup of coffee.
    Women generally aren’t a problem since we rarely retire from the day to day chores associated with cooking, cleaning, gardening even if we do retire from our other day job. Sucks but there it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Women don’t retire, we just drop one of our day jobs. Yep, I think that is 100% true. All the elderly couples I know here have the wife still doing the cooking and cleaning and some of the gardening. Men only get into the act when it involves power tools. 🙂


  6. They still write letters? Longhand? In my little part of the US we’ve gone high tech complaining: you take a cell phone photo and upload to code compliance that drives around in little marked cars with flashing lights, or they get on NextDoor and start complaining to an audience of hundreds, or you’ve got the neighbor with video cameras or neighbors with Ring they share online (into your backyard, street, windows) we’ve got zero privacy rights here. I thought it was just that tech and social media has made the US hatefully nuts.


    1. Hi Lauren,

      Yes and no. The official way of making a formal complaint requires a registered letter. My neighbors avoided this official process in favor of email, phone calls and in person visits to other residents of our neighborhood.

      Nextdoor? Sounds appalling. On the other hand in the US you can sue if someone defames you. This is true also in France.

      Update: a heavily edited version of their email appeared in the very last edition of our community newsletter (they are stopping publication). They took out most of the complaints against us and focused on their demand that chickens be banned from Versailles. And that’s just a non-starter right there. There are people in my neighborhood who were born here who have had chickens all their lives. Add to that all of the chickens the mayor’s office has distributed and, well, do you really want to tangle with all these folks? You want to tell them that they have to kill or find new homes for their beloved pet chickens? Now that would be one hell of a scandale.

      At the local parish Christmas sale this year there were embroidered tote bags on sale that touted the many virtues of Porchefontaine and included was “Porchefontaine et ses poules.” (Porchefontaine and its chickens.) 🙂


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