Symbols of Englishness in the Ariège Pyrenees
I follow a few French Instagrammers as I love to see what others are doing in the Ariège mountains. I’ve noticed how some of them post using English rather than French language. I guess it’s to reach a wider audience, which is interesting because in Ariège I don’t think that English is that widely spoken there (people often tell me that Spanish is often learned in schools, before English).
You don’t see written English very often in the Ariège public sphere (what researchers call the linguistic landscape) but I can share some observations that I noted when doing my research on English migration.
At that time (2011) there were two British shops in Ariège, although they’ve both since closed down. Both shops were advertised with signs using the Union Flag and related colours. Hardly any of the English incomers I spoke with admitted to using the shops, and when I was in them, I noticed that they both got their fair share of French customers who like to buy English tea. But it’s interesting how the English themselves mostly denied using the shops. Generally, few people I spoke with wanted to admit to continuing to use English products, and it was as if they felt guilty for buying British branded goods. Admittedly it was hard to understand why anyone would want to buy British jam in France, but there are a few things that people say are more difficult to replace with an alternative.
Others were more open about the level of adaptation. One man said to me, ‘I don’t think you can just draw a line under 50 years of being in a country and expect to just change overnight’.
I once spotted an interesting ‘advertisement’ of Englishness on a building plot in the Ustou Valley. Cycling past I saw two deckchairs that had a St George’s flag on one side and ‘England’ written on the other. I passed by a year later when the house was finished and was sporting a cast iron English name plate. The people building the house had been happy to talk to me and originally told me they’d deliberately avoided English hotspots such as Dordogneshire. Just a year later they admitted that they were missing English culture, as well as friends and family. In fact they were fed up and already preparing to sell up to return to England. I think the continuing importance of English in their landscape was symbolic of their not-quite-adaptation to the new context.
The town of Mirepoix has perhaps the strongest reputation for being popular with the English in Ariège, and at the time of my research the tourism website ariege.com referred to a creeping ‘Dordogne phenomenon’ there, although that mention has now been removed. Perhaps many of the British have left?
The town still has an English-owned café in the square, and although the ownership has changed a few times in recent years, it’s long been popular with English tourists and residents, selling cream teas, toasted teacakes and that kind of thing. It gets other nationalities too, but I expect that it’s a home-from-home for some of the permanent English residents – a place to go if they feel like a bit of familiar culture, especially when Mirepoix is cold and deserted during winter.
Some of the previous café owners were in the habit of writing an odd mix of Franglais on the menu chalkboard, listing a melange like Thon (tuna), Bread Pudding, Full English Breakfast, Assiette de charcuterie. When I was researching I showed an image of the menu to the English incomers I met, to see their reactions. Almost everyone looked disdainful, describing it as ‘unnatural’, ‘a mess’ and even ‘a bit Torremolinos’. They mostly said they would never set foot in such a place. Yet when I explained which café it was, many of them nodded and described how they had visited it. Some might label this as hypocrisy, saying one thing and doing another. But the idea of the Brit stereotype is so strong that it can make people feel guilty for sticking with what they know and like. Even if it’s just an occasional treat. Even though it’s not exactly unnatural.