25-year-old David McGowan made the move from Connacht Rugby to La Rochelle in 2007. Although he still admits to missing home, he has settled into the patterns of French life and is a true convert to the morning coffee social scene and the bloody steak.
I catch up with David as he is just dealing with his local bank – an often testy affair in which one can come face-to-face with the sort of bureaucracy for which France has become well known. In spite of this, however, McGowan is content with the decision to move to the Atlantic city four years ago.
“I was with Connacht at the time and I wasn’t playing as much as I would have hoped to be playing. When you’re a rugby player, all you want to do is play rugby. If you’re getting 15 minutes in one match and then no game for a few weeks, it becomes very frustrating, so I got in touch with an agent and a week later, he set me up with a trial for Stade Rochelais.”
In France, the traditional stronghold region of rugby has been down in the South-west, centred around clubs in Toulouse, Perpignan and Béziers. As in Ireland, however, the sport has been growing and spreading out from its traditional bases, as well as being strong in pockets around the country. Such a pocket is La Rochelle and their team – Stade Rochelais – for which McGowan was invited for a trial enjoys fervent local support. It’s second only to sailing as the main sporting pre-occupation.
“I flew over for the trial. It all happened fairly fast for me: I wasn’t really looking for a long time in France. But they (Stade Rochelais) pretty much wanted to sign me there and then, so I took the chance and it paid off for me.”McGowan was soon playing regular professional rugby in warmer climes in one of the nicest towns in France. As a child, he had come to France many times and had been on camping holidays with his parents both north and south of La Rochelle but confesses that he didn’t know anything about the town before moving to live and play rugby here.
“I’d never heard of it,” he says, “but it really is beautiful. You get an awful lot of tourists here in the summer time.”
Having grown up in Ballymote and been based most of the time in Galway city while he was with Connacht, McGowan found himself in a similar-sized city (officially, the population of La Rochelle is around 80,000). But, as he says himself, that’s where the comparison ends. There was the weather for a start. Not only is La Rochelle much further south than Galway, it also enjoys its own micro-climate, giving it very mild winters:
“There’s no comparison. Even this summer, a lot of people here were giving out about the weather, but I compare it to our standard – I thought it was lovely. The only time it dips a bit is around Christmas, when it does get very cold. But for the rest of the year, you can’t really complain. You do have your rainy days, but predominately, it’s mild.”
As for food, McGowan says that, given the choices in France compared to Ireland, he “can’t understand how everyone here is so thin.” He was never enough of a foodie to truly appreciate the French food scene in its full breadth, but one thing he is now a confirmed fan of is the bloody steak. Simply put, what most people in Ireland would consider rare would be considered to be overdone in France, where many eat their steak practically raw.“I’m certainly converted. I’m red and blood all the way now!”
Public services, McGowan says, can sometimes be a little slow. As he says himself, “You kind of have to sit on them for a while to get anywhere. But overall, the facilities here are just fantastic… The roads are fantastic. The parks and public spaces are always very very clean. At home, they are as well, but the standards are all better.
“The medical services are good – probably too good, in fact. I can see it possibly exploding at some point; I just can’t see how they’re paying for it. If I get hurt with the rugby, everything’s paid for anyway. But say if I get a cold or something that doesn’t count as a work injury, I go to the doctor and get a prescription and I pay peanuts compared to what it costs at home; you pay hardly any money once it’s prescribed medicine. If you badly break your wrist on a Wednesday and go to see a doctor, you can be seeing a specialist by Friday and have your money reimbursed to you by early next week. At home, if you’re in need of an operation, you could be waiting 4-6 months for it.”
Socialising interaction in France is a very different cultural experience, says McGowan. In contrast to Ireland, he found that initial contacts were relatively cold.
“At the start, you can think that it’s very… not unfriendly, but kind-of hard to break in to the neighbourhood. When Iarrived first where I live, I thought ‘Do any of the other people in the neighbourhood know each other?’ Everyone seemed so separated. Now that I know it, everyone is great friends; you’d have a drink with your neighbours regularly. Like anything, it just takes time.
“At home, people would approach you more quickly whereas the French tend to hang back and wait a while. A lot of people at home think that the French are ‘ignorant and they won’t speak English to us’. They don’t realise that, although a lot of people know how to speak English, a huge amount of people don’t have a clue. I see it with all kinds of tourists here. They don’t realise how little English a lot of French people know. They think ‘Oh, he’s an ignorant f***er!’ or whatever but they just don’t have a clue how to speak English.
“I can understand how the French can be protective about their language too. In a sense, I suppose that they are ‘ignorant’ to change, but we’ve sold off our image and culture. A lot of it is gone, really. But the French still have theirs. I think that that’s where the sense of ‘ignorance’ comes from. People from abroad tend to come in and go into a restaurant and the first thing they’ll do is speak English – it’s the first thing out of their mouths. I can see why the French would be frustrated by it. They’re in France – why would they not address them correctly? They’re very big on that, the French; addressing one another correctly. At home, it’s very easy to see someone and nod at them and keep going. Whereas here, you have to stop and say hello and ask how they are. It’s better, it’s more respectful. I think it’s a good thing.”
What, in his opinion, can the Irish and French learn from one another?
“As regards what we could learn from the French, we could certainly try to hold onto our culture a bit more. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t speak Irish when I’m asked to, for example.”
And, although he still enjoys a social outing involving a few pints, McGowan has found that the social scene in France is one where alcohol doesn’t come first:
“There’s a café I go to early in the morning – around 08:00 or 08:30 – and there’s always the same five guys that go every day for their coffee before work. That’s a big social scene here and that’s definitely one of the things that I’ll take with me wherever I end up.
“I think that the French can learn to be more charitable.” He explains further: “The guys here are great guys and will always help out, generally speaking. But I know that when I was living in the upstairs part of a house that was in two apartments, there was a disabled elderly lady living downstairs. I used to cut her grass for her – when I was doing my own, it would just take me ten minutes more. The lads were going ‘Is she giving you money for that?’ and I said ‘no’ and they were ‘why are you doing it so?’ Little things like that… it’s different. But then if you had the same situation in Ireland, if you didn’t cut the grass, your mother would kill you!”