Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Culture shock 2

We're just back from a few days break away from Grillou, a kind of punctuation mark between the life we've led this summer and the one to come over the winter. Fitting, because it coincided with Samhain, traditionally a time for looking back, for letting go of the old to make way for the new. We went to Périgord Noir, between Bergerac and Sarlat, an area that neither of us had visited before. Beautiful though it is, after the first day we almost turned tail and came home.

On the agenda was a bit of exploring, and a lot of walking, and so we stayed in a small, and very pleasant, town between the valleys of the Dordogne and the Vezère rivers where we thought we'd get the best of both worlds. What I wasn't prepared for was the sheer heights to which tourism has been raised there. Now I'm not a good tourist at the best of times: I hate 'attractions' and guided tours and all the junk that comes along with them, and I hate being regimented; I'd much sooner stumble upon quirky, low-key places almost by accident than have everything presented to me on placards and in guide books. And I particularly hate being seen as exploitation fodder. So when, on the first day of our holiday, we thought we would briefly explore a couple of the well known villages on the Dordogne before setting out on a walk from the third, I neither expected nor appreciated having to stuff a parking meter with a rather large amount of change in order to park anywhere within four kilometres of - well, anywhere, really. Hectares of each village were given over to paying (yes, even between 12pm and 2pm, unheard of and truly shocking) parking, with all other land barred off; in spite it of being the Toussaint school holidays the car parks were mostly empty, meaning of course no trade for local businesses ... now how crazy is that as a policy ??? We did stop at one and had a desultory look around, but after half an hour of feeling as though we were in an over-restored and twee theme park we decided, simultaneously, to beat a hasty retreat.

The same evening we ate out in a simple restaurant in our local town known and recommended for its wood fired pizzas. We ordered a pichet of red wine. "You'd prefer a half bottle of this" said our host. Er, no, actually we wouldn't. He snorted, and asked us whether we'd like water. Of course we would. "Still or sparkling?" asked our host. No, just a carafe of tap water, I said. It's many years since I've been through this charade; in Ariège, as in most of southern France, water is brought to your table with a basket of bread almost as you sit down. He snorted again. We ordered pizzas. "Would you like a side order of chips?" asked our relentless host. (Chips?? With pizza???) By now we were feeling distinctly uncomfortable, as if as visitors to the area we were fair game to be milked for cash. Our host sulked off to the kitchen, returning a couple of minutes later to ask ... if we were Belgian.

For the rest of our stay we did our best to get more off the beaten track. The landscape is lovely - deep valleys, limestone cliffs and wooded hills - as is the vernacular architecture. But it's just all so ... nice. The verges look as though they've been clipped with nail scissors; nearly all the houses are immaculate; even the trees are neat. There are no soixante-huitards or 'eepees', not a dreadlock or a beur to be seen (and gens de voyage - travellers - are actually prohibited from stopping anywhere in the two valleys). The level of control - for residents as well as visitors - is awesome. After a few days I was longing to get back to the laid back, well worn, non money-grasping, somewhat anarchic, culturally mixed vibe of Ariège.

And so here we are, home. And at home.


Unknown said...

How interesting that there's such a difference between the area you live and the one you've just visited. Always good to go and do a bit of research. Your place sound idyllic by comparison!

Kalba Meadows said...

I do love the vibe of Ariege, of course. It suits me. But as ever it's horses for courses, so to speak: it all depends what you want in an area and what you feel comfortable with. I could no more live in Dordogne than I could have lived in, say, the Cotswolds, or Surrey. But someone who's comfortable with, and maybe reassured by, neatness and order and a higher degree of conformity and conservatism would probably hate it here and love it there ....