We lived in France from May – September 2016. We’ve been visiting as a couple for 11 years, twice annually on average. My wife Lydia’s grandparents live in Saint-Jores, part of the ‘La Manche’ region, a spit of land at the North-Western edge of Normandy, also known as Basse-Normandie.
3. Community, markets and fêtes.
If you were raised in England, you’d be forgiven for thinking France was a land of hateful souls, with bad habits and manners and zero culture – grumpy frog and horse devouring monsters, perfectly ok with calling a hole a toilet. The first time I doubted the reality of this particular brand of xenophobia was on my French exchange as a 13 year old. One taste of the snack Micado (once upon a time only available on French shores), was enough to shake off some of the anti-Gallic sentiment I’d imbibed during my younger years. Quickly followed the eerie thrill of empty roads, perfectly cooked steak (yes, rare) and the normality of warm chocolate milk with a breakfast of pastries every morning. I was hooked.
As I’ve grown older and grown to know and love France as an adult, not just for its food, I more and more appreciate the genuine existence of community and social togetherness. I should point out that my experience of this is limited to rural France, particularly in the North. I know that there are political and social problems in the cities, especially the lack of cohesion between Arab immigrants and locals. Anyway, for several years, Lydia and I made a point of making it out to Normandy for the D-Day celebrations in early June. The entire area unfurls an enthusiastic welcome and expression of huge gratitude to the nations of the Allied forces who liberated their land from the Nazis during World War II. Union and US flag bunting greets you in every village and every day sees some commemoration or celebration take place. Until very recently liberating regiment veterans attended parties and ceremonies and were treated like royalty. Honorary mass parachute jumps, WWII dress and community gatherings all mark the anniversary dates of when freedom was won in La Manche.
The regularity of getting together, mostly just to be together, is a beautiful French trait, which not only applies to war remembrance. This year we attended our first Carrot Fair – a bizarre celebration of the carrot harvest that seemed to include some sort of carrot fertility ceremonial dance ritual! Every weekday, Normandy plays host to local and regional markets and attic sales. Each summer, villages have their own individual festival, the point of which seems to be to celebrate just having made it through another year. The Mayor goes around and invites all inhabitants to a feast of spit-roasted lamb and copious wine, all provided and served by local volunteers. This insistence on any excuse to be together, to eat, drink and co-exist is so appealing. Life affirming. This is the kind of community I want to build and be part of in church – together in celebration, mourning and in the normality and mundanity.