OUR location? La belle France. Our temperature? 32 degrees. We’re many leagues into taps aff territory here, through warm fields of vines, and parched Cathar castles, and Cyprus trees. Cicadas electrify the woods. Crickets keep up dry and woody symphonies in the underbrush. And my current complexion is what my mother would describe as a “healthy puce”. Hypertension red.
I have become the traditional lobster ecossais which results whenever anyone from this country is exposed to anything like natural sunlight for a sustained period. Rudolph has nothing on me. I might use my face as a reading lamp, or perhaps deploy it to power a modest solar energy scheme – if only Ms May’s new government hadn’t shuttered our renewable future and squandered all my ruby phizog’s potential energy.
But as the rays beat the terrace outside ruddy, I loiter sweltering in the back cave of a local bar. A rugby match rumbles on, on the telly.
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The hooker takes out a prop and the referee misses a gruesome tackle. Offside rules are flouted, provoking only the occasional outraged Gallic interjection. Our audience is principally French, sipping little beers and lining the snug, watching one local team leather another.
The atmosphere is convivial.
But in their midst? Our John Bull, ex patria, is determined to give the citizens of his new home a passionate defence of why he voted for Brexit. Their incredulity is general. My ears burn.
If recent experience is anything to go by, once the French work out that you aren’t a fuzzy-faced Irishman, or an itinerant American hipster, their first words tend to be of commiseration. You encounter the occasional bleached Front National poster here and there, claiming that Europe is sick, depicting Liberty with a black eye, concussed by stars of the European flag. The socially conservative far right here seem unashamed about co-opting the rhetoric and imagery of women’s rights to justify their reactionary and illiberal political agendas. The brass neck of it.
But most of the French folk I’ve met during my sojourns contemplate Brexit with a kind of bewildered and pitying sympathy. They beam you the kind of expression you’d reserve for someone who negligently burst their colostomy bag in a prank, and faced a long, sticky road home. They think we’re crackers.
But our British ex-pat is having none of this. He may have voted in a way which seems startlingly inimical to his own interests. His right to live in France may have been protected by EU law. His whole future may now rest, uncertain, on raw-edged and nervy negotiations between London and Brussels, and heaven knows, a series of unpredictable bilateral deals with all of Europe’s governments. His right to stay in his new home, to move and resettle freely within Europe’s borders, his family’s future and his plans for his dotage – may have been contingent on his rights as a European citizen – rights he rejected. And the consequence of his vote may be to deprive him of any entitlement to remain in France, and even so, impose visas and paper work and costs and currency exchange hits he has thus far been able to avoid.
But here he sits, in the well of the bar, going great guns about the virtues of Brexit, entirely unabashed. He is unperturbed. And he is not alone. On my travels, I’ve encountered remarkable numbers of British exiles, who’ve sought a warmer life abroad, who nevertheless decided it was a grand scheme for the UK to leave the European Union. The younger British migrants are uniformly appalled by the result. Bright, connected young things, worried about their futures and their jobs.
The auld yins, by contrast, with their broken French and sexy knee-high white sock and sandal combos, seem remarkably, even perversely complacent. You wonder if part of this is a perverse consequence of the European Project. The vision of a – largely – borderless Europe re-framed travel as a right, not a privilege. For the Eurocentric traveller – of which I am certainly one – visas remain a largely abstract idea. I once had to fork out a tenner to get into Turkey as a tourist – a bored official pocketed the Bank of England note and affixed the stamp in my passport – but many, many travellers have never seriously contemplated the rigmarole which is often necessary, to move and settle beyond Europe’s frontiers.
They don’t understand themselves as immigrants, or even migrants. “I blame the European Commission” one Brexit voter says, complaining about the pound-euro exchange rate that has gobbled up his savings since July. The logic of our barfly Brexiteer is even more surreal and lacking in self-awareness. “I’m not a xenophobe,” he says, only a little defensively, by way of explanation to his new French cronies. A swag-bellied character in his sixties, he is built like a brawler, run to fat. The circle of faces around him crease, clearly unpersuaded. Our debater reaches for his winning line, the coup de grace. “After all, I wouldn’t be here if I was a xenophobic, would I?”
A muted burble of assent passes around the table. But this citizen of the world can’t resist a post-script: “But you see all these Eastern Europeans? These Turks? They’re a different bloody story.” As I choke on my pastis, the gentleman’s tun chest swells with something like triumph. Inevitably, the migrant lecturing the French about the perils of immigration has no consciousness whatever of himself as a migrant. But his nod and nudge and leer and wink are unsettling and colluding. It is the logic of “we” and “they”. This fellow clearly sees himself and his new French friends and comrades in arms, a “we” lined up against a sinister and general “they”. He assumes his audience agrees with. As he sinks the last of his pint of imported bitter. He misses the sceptical glances and strained smiles his tablemates exchange.
O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us, I thought. I don’t know what the locals made of him. But listening in, he seemed perfectly ridiculous. He’s in for a rude awakening.