“…I never saw so many roguish Egyptians together in one place in all my life as in Nevers, where there was a multitude of men, women and children of them, that disguise their faces, a our counterfet western Egyptians in England. For both their haire and their faces looked so black, as if they were raked out of hel, and sent into the world by great Beelzebub, to terrifie and astonish mortall men: their men are very Ruffians & Swashbucklers, having exceeding long black haire curled, and swords or other weapons by their sides. Their women also suffer their haire to hang loosely about their shoulders, whereof some I saw dancing in the streets, and singing lascivious vaine songs; whereby they draw many flocks of foolish citizens about them.
In Nevers, and elsewhere, Tom commits the sin we’d now call racism; it is more accurate, I suspect, given where he eventually travelled, to call this the fear of the “other”. In Lyon over dinner “Elvis”, one of those traveling wheeler-dealer whatever you want, businessmen talked a little about the troubles in St. Dennis, the northern suburb of Paris where I stayed, and where Turkish, African, Tunisian and Moroccan “banlieu” youth has rioted, over the years. “Those places, there’s a lot of trouble there, people are lazy,” he says. I liked my time there: it was a healthy antidote to the judgments of Paris. Elvis hadn’t been there for a while, he’d been in Indonesia, India, Thailand…but it was bad there.
There are so many assumptions we make about race; the elections here brought in a President whose position is – or has been – hard-line about immigration. In Lyon I watch a policeman (with a van of policemen parked outside) ask for papers before buying his kebab. “Sarkozy has a quota system. Numbers. People are going to suffer more now,” John says. At Lyon station I watch two young Tunisians try and buy a ticket without their passports, in the 30 minutes I queued they made little progress, and met several officials.
Somewhere out there is a heavily-trafficked website called “FuckFrance”. It’s American, I think. Political in its way; but not the way we like it: thoughtful, nuanced, balanced. It represents “freedom of speech”; there are plenty of counter-balances, of course, but because views, about race, politics or national identity, are genuinely under threat from the good side of globalization, the economic and social nomadism of so many people, as well as the bad side (the racism, the targeting of specific groups, the fear of “terror”) then perhaps the “centre” breaks. And with this breakage, the balancing toleration that should be a by-product of the digital modern. It hasn’t shaped that way yet: just read the news blogs.
Watching the Champions’ League Final in Abbeville it is obvious that the men at the bar were firstly Pro-Anything-Not-English (that’s to say, Liverpool). Secondly that each time an African (or home-grown player that wasn’t clearly white) touched the ball they shouted: “The Black, The Black.”
A few days ago the Lithuanian Football Association was fined thirty thousand Euros because it its match against France the home crowd waved a flag of Africa painted in the French colours, because to the great black players who have graced the blue shirt over the past 30 years.
Behind my attempt to understand Tom Coryat, and his journey, is a desire to “see” as he did; not what he saw, but “how” he saw. For, in Abbeville, whilst kids are SMS-ing whoever, wherever; whilst in Amiens boys are battling in online worlds with players from Iceland, Nigeria and Peru; whilst Zinedine Zidane, despite the “head-butt” is close to God here in France, it’s still an unsettling sight to see how little we’ve moved towards being “betwixt” when it comes to race.
In La Chambre, high in the Alps, I sit down to lunch. A local with a medicine-ball head, and an “Ethnique: Francaise” logo, says to his wife: “Thank goodness the tourist is white. And this one is all white.”
And there I was thinking I had a healthy tan.