Gigi is from Cavaillon, a town between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence in the South of France. She is in Calais for three days working in the tourist office, researching tourists’ responses to the town in order to improve facilities back home, where wonderful food and wine lure tourists from America, England, and the rest of Europe. She is thirty-one, and single. She thinks that Calais is nice, but, oh, the weather.
Gigi has recently returned from university in Colorado Springs, and a “sunny, healthy, happy life” in America. She is not anti-American, contrary to so many fixed ideas in the US about the French. But she was surprised by some of the questions she was asked on campus. “What about the French in Vietnam?” one boy asked her. Another said: “What about Napoleon in Mexico?”
“I didn’t know about the French in Vietnam, I wasn’t taught it at school, and I thought I had a good sense of history, with my education.” I tell her about the way “Ireland” was taught in English schools in the 1960s and 70s; of how in 1981 I had a knife to my neck on a train travelling through northern Spain. A group of young Basques had heard our English accents. “You killed Bobby Sands,” they shouted, “you killed him.” We didn’t really know what that meant, nor had a balanced view of Ireland, or understood why Basques would be in solidarity with the IRA. Two years before the IRA had blown up Airey Neave, famous here in Calais for very different reasons. Of course the teaching of Irish history has changed radically in the past thirty years.
Gigi smiles: she believes that showing a smiling face makes life easier. “I said to these American students: ‘I don’t know these things, I am just living my life.’ I think that Americans don’t want to be not loved. They don’t realise that in saying for example that we are against the war in Iraq doesn’t mean we are against America, or Americans. We don’t care that much.” But when she had a bad bike accident in Colorado and was rushed through hospital, “they want you out after two hours!” she found the comfort of strangers to be profound. “People on campus spent time with me, spent the night making sure I was ok, brought me food. But I was really sad because I suddenly saw how expensive health is in America. I felt sorry for the millions of people who can’t afford it.”
She says that the team she worked with in Colorado Springs was comprised so: a Russian, a Mexican, a Japanese, a German, an Italian and her – a French-Italian Corsican. “We lived as a team and a family, and we saw over the year together that we get stronger together, it was fantastic to see how close we became. Americans like to think about re-invention, about changing their lives, but I went to a Thanksgiving in Wyoming, real cowboy land, and it was clear that family and roots were incredibly important to these people, who came from all over to be home. One boy said: “wow, these flowers [his mother had cut] will sit on my desk in Los Angeles, that’s better than a photograph.”
Life in the south of France has changed because of tourism and travel. “That film with Russell Crowe, based on the Peter Mayle book. It’s like that, rich people come, buy houses, but they only come for the holidays, they don’t spend enough money. So there aren’t many jobs around, for younger people it is very hard now. We call it the “wave” (la vague). It makes it hard for the community to stay together, to keep its roots. I don’t believe in films, they can be good or bad, but they are rarely ‘right’ about a place. Like that film, Notting Hill, people die at your Notting Hill carnival, every year, right?”
Her uncle told her once that we are all like trees. “To be healthy we need good roots, and I want to be a good tree”. She has trouble keeping men, she says, because they are frightened of her strength, the fact she has travelled, knows who she is. “He [her husband to be] doesn’t have to be from my roots, but we must share values – about family, and the idea of roots,” she says. She lives in a small town where people are quick to make judgments. “I move a little and for other people it is a lot. They say you are special, I know I am not. Men leave me because they think I am too strong. Travel is the snake who bit its own tail. In travel I can find my balance, I believe in it, and yet I want to go home to Corsica. But it can be a vicious cycle, I think. Too much travel, and where do you belong?
Making money or not you still can’t afford Paris, she says. “I had a friend who went there from Provence. He couldn’t go out, have fun. Little by little he grew tired of the place, became very depressed. I like Paris, I study the History of Art, so I love the galleries, I had an internship at the Gare D’Orsay, on Mondays when it was closed I would walk the rooms, and study perhaps four or five paintings. But it’s not a good life in Paris, nor London. It’s ok for a few days.” Besides, she has cousins in New Malden. She knows London is far too rainy for a woman from the South of France. The key, she says, is to keep to the route, and don’t forget it.
“We have a problem in France, we call it the children of Don Quixote”. Homeless children, many who work, but they sleep outside. She took dinner with a policeman the previous night here – “we were both eating alone and so why not?” and he told me about Calais, about the homeless here. The “Sandgatte” people who have come from all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East in search of a better life. “They ask for money,” the Policeman said. “We don’t know who they are, and I wonder if they do,” she says.
Her identity is solid, she says. She is part of Amicol, a Corsican association, a kind of overseas fraternity. They speak Corse, listen to its music, read its poetry. “There’s a Sting song,” she says, (of course, there is always a Sting song) “that’s part of our tradition.” She laughs when she tells me about the habit of the local Corse singers with one hand to the ear as they perform; I tell her I’ve seen English folk singers do much the same.
She says that having Corsican roots – her grandfather came to France in the 1930s – means everything to her, if she ever moves again it will be there, to “home” in Corsica. “We are like ex-pats in France. I am proud to be a European, but I am a Corsican first of all.
“I am 31 and single, and where I am from this isn’t normal. I see so many girls, women who are forty or forty-five, and they don’t have children, and people look at them as guilty people. At the same time I don’t want to be them, I’m afraid to become like these women.
“Moving is painful, and coming home is hard too. You feel safe in moving, and safe in cleansing people you’ve known. Opening your eyes to people you know is not easy. How many people do you meet in a life, 5000, 10,000? If you really know two per cent of these people that is good.”
She would like to finish her doctorate, on nineteenth-century stained glass. “In the south of France the light is stronger, and the wind. So the glass windows are smaller, but the colours are deeper. I went to Oxford, the glass is beautiful there, but it is different in the South.” Where is the south, I ask. “It depends where you are. If you are in Marseilles, Avignon is ‘north’. If you are in Avignon then Valence is. We have a proverb, a quote, ‘where you feel good, this is your home’. And education is part of this.” She is for Europe but not the brutalities of “pure capitalism” ; she is worried about the new President, but his rival “had no charisma.”
She prefers rugby to soccer as well, following Toulouse, though she sympathises with the Marseille football supporters who travelled to Paris last week for the cup final, and lost. She thinks football is corrupt, part of big business, and is worried that rugby is following suit. “Taking all those drugs to make the body bigger.” Her great-great uncle was Jules Rimet, founder of the World Cup. “I didn’t know him,” she says: he is history, like the French in Vietnam; my grandfather crossing the Channel eight times during the Dunkirk evacuation.
But she knows herself. And is longing to go home.