In the weeks and months following Britain’s referendum on their future membership of the European Union, and the slow move towards Brexit, I started to question what this might mean for the diverse British populations who have made other European towns, cities and villages their homes—including those Britons living in the Lot whose lives were captured in the pages of my first book, The British in Rural France (MUP, 2011). Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council through their UK in a Changing EU initiative, I revisited the Lot in June 2017. In this, the second of my posts for Streetsigns I question my return to rural France, through the consideration of my visceral responses to a once-familiar field.
I am uncharacteristically anxious; I’ve said I am going back to rural France, but how am I going to pick up those relationships that I have neglected for twelve years? Will people remember me? Why would they even talk to me? These are the thoughts that wake me up at night as I prepare for my trip. The recruitment letters have gone out in the post to those who had originally taken part in my research—email addresses were few and far between at that time—and I am hoping for some replies. They hardly come in thick and fast, but people are generous and kind when they get back to me—most often by email—congratulating me on my successes, occasionally explaining why they won’t be able to take part, but more often inviting me to come and talk to them when I arrive in France.
But it is only being back in the Lot that I return to the question that Emma asked me in Peckham that day, the music from the crossfit gym pumping out into the space, the chatter of voices around us. How do I feel about going back to study in the rural after working in London?
The road from the airport is quiet; I come across the occasional car and tractor, getting held up only by the crew re-surfacing the road. The supermarket is empty too, but it is a Monday lunchtime, the quietest part of the time compounded further by it being the day on which, ordinarily, the shops and services are shut. Different rhythms to those I had left behind in London, where you can find something open every hour of every day.
I arrive at my home for the next three weeks, a gîte on the edge of a small market town. A heatwave has just started; the farmer who owns the fields to the front and side of the house has had to resort to using a watering system. Its rhythmic pulsing sound is almost hypnotic, dominating the soundscape, punctuated five or six times a day by the sound of cars and motorbikes on the narrow windy road on which the house is located. Very occasionally the French Air Force run exercises over the area; the planes invisible, the uncomfortably high-pitched sound cutting through the soundscape abruptly, before the soothing sound of the water system takes over again. The chirp of the cicadas that competes with the noise of the watering system during the day, is replaced at night by that of the crickets. The birdsong is also notable; indeed, recognizing the calls of different species is a common aside in many of my conversations with the Britons who live here—welcome to Countryfile.
When I arrived, my hosts—a British couple now in their early fifties who have been living in France since they were in their late 30s—had apologized for the sound of the watering system; others who took part in the research warned me of traffic and the problems of parking in Cahors, the city of just over 20,000 people that is the capital of the Lot. In London, I awake regularly in the night to the sounds of the cityscape, the drone of the traffic near and far, the frequent blare of sirens, the voices of the inhabitants of the city, human and non-human; this night-time soundscape best characterized as arrhythmic.
The counsel of my hosts and could be easily dismissed given such relative reflections; indeed, the parking problem does not come anywhere close to what I imagine when I think of the problems of parking (as I write, I hear Emma chuckling … parking was a regular fixation of the middle class residents we interviewed in London). But there is something else going on here which makes me question whether I am returning to the rural, or experiencing it anew, the experiences of conducting research at a different scale and in different scapes becoming part of my toolkit for doing this research.
Shifting vantage points: view of the Lot valley and (some of) its cliffs from St. Cirq Lapopie (2017) and the view of Peckham Library from the Peckham Arch (2016) © Michaela Benson
For me, shifting scapes from the urban to the rural—moving from London to the Lot in particular—are viscerally felt and experienced. I am surprised by how ill-at-ease I find driving once familiar routes. To the east of Cahors, the main road hugs the base of monumental limestone cliffs, at times precariously perched on a ledge, winding its way along the narrow valley floor carved out by glacial activity in the last ice age. The scenery takes my breath away in a way that I had forgotten; these cliffs, characteristic of the Lot valley, had been part of the rationale that many Britons I had worked with before had given for choosing to settle in this part of France. But I don’t have time to dwell on it; I must keep my eyes fixed to the road much as I do when driving around London’s south circular. Where there was no natural ledge for the road to perch on, the engineers drilled straight through the cliff, creating cavernous tunnels through the cliffs that in one case are held up with brick pillars. Back when I was in my early twenties, I had taken this in my stride, but driving along the valley now, there is tension in my shoulders as I clutch the wheel, and I flinch when I see a vehicle coming the other way, moving my foot almost involuntarily towards the brakes and slowing down to inch gently past oncoming traffic.
Such unease is analogous to how I feel about this once-familiar fieldsite. As I listen to those who have come forward to take part in this new research, the arguments I have previously made about this population are all to present in my mind, their words and actions at times contradicting, at times confirming my interpretation of their lives and what I thought I knew. Revisiting those who had taken part in the research previously, I remember their words and actions printed in the pages of my books and articles, but I also recall information that I had long-forgotten or that I had overlooked in my original analysis. While there are moments of encounter when I feel that no time has passed, when people and place appear the same, lives, hopes and needs have changed in the intervening twelve years. Not to mention the spectre of possible changes on the horizon brought about by Brexit that might put in jeopardy their rights to live and work in France.
From my vantage point, enhanced by research at different scales and in different scapes, this has become more than a return to la France profonde.
Michaela Benson is Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Michaela’s research among Britons resident in the Lot is part of the broader project BrExpats: freedom of movement, citizenship and Brexit in the lives of Britons resident in the European Union.