I was walking through the Wednesday market in the village of Monpazier, in the Dordogne, a few weeks ago, when a posh, pompous English accent broke through the low ripples of French chitchat that hummed through the narrow, echoing streets. A know-it-all woman and her friends, seated around a table at an outdoor café, were holding forth on the locals. The woman was opining on nothing in particular with the authority of someone who wants it known that regardless of anything else, she has opinions. “Obviously,” she began. Or ended. I wasn’t sure. I turned to look at them. They were simply an average-looking middle-aged group doing nothing other than having a coffee and speaking a bit too loudly, as vacationers do who think of a place as theirs for the having, as long as they’re there. Still, they bugged me. They were enjoying a part of France that I wanted to remember for myself.
But then, no part of anywhere is actually anyone’s, at least in how it’s experienced. I perhaps didn’t want the dreamy bubble of my special relation to the country, its language or its varied culture to be punctured by the reality of other people’s priorities – or the money that allows them to own property in this part of France and to make it as much their own as anyone has a right to.
The Dordogne is popular with the British – there’s even an English-language local weekly – who either rent on a regular basis or own homes here. The Dordogne is also popular with the Dutch – tall blonde families ambled about the markets and châteaux as comfortable in their temporary possession of the place as the rounder, ruddier English seemed to be.
I was just passing through, myself, so I was perhaps more of a stranger to the region than the returning Brits and Dutch who rent regularly or who own property there. My friend Raoul had offered to show me around the region, which he knows pretty well. He spends part of the year at the family residence he’d inherited, in Blagnac, just outside of Toulouse, and we had traveled from there to stay with a friend of his who has a home near Issigeac, a small medieval village with Roman roots that’s located in the Périgord.
His friend Richard, in fact, has a large property that runs down to the Dordogne River. Besides his own home, it has two nice-sized holiday houses that he rents out between May and October. His clientele is mainly British. He earns a living catering to the kind of people you don’t want to overhear at the outdoor market, or run into at a restaurant or cross on the narrow stone stairways of a château. The kind of people you avoid because you think that contamination with someone who speaks your language and who wants to create a personal experience somehow invalidates your own perception of what you take from a place.
At the Saturday marché at Villeréal, in the Lot-et-Garonne, where we stopped on the way back to Blagnac from the Dordogne, I also heard and saw many Brits. It was a far more touristy kind of market than the one at Monpazier, busier, with more t-shirts and trinkets than local breads and sausages. I searched for some tidbits to take back with me on the train to Paris the next day, but all I could find among the stalls that offered the kinds of products you could take with you and munch on were baked goods that catered to British tastes – ginger cakes and such that these visitors could have found back home. But that they were even sold there in France to begin with meant a market exists for such things, and that the taste of home is important to British travelers. Perhaps they sought other local specialties to haul back across the channel.
Richard had given me a small pot of his homemade jam to take with me, and I found another locally made confiture at the Villeréal market, to leave at my friends’ Paris apartment, where I stay, for other guests of theirs, guests who might want to sample the wares of a different region of France: authenticity by extension.
That’s what it always is, of course: everything is reconstructed, everything is secondhand, everything is only as authentic as you allow it to be, because you even fabricate your own memories of a place as a result of what you choose to remember.
Perhaps the snobbish-sounding Brits I’d overheard at Monpazier were the very reason for my remembering that market which, after all, resembles a lot of markets in southwest France. That I remembered the market for them rather than for the town with its charming covered walkways, or for the humble stillness of Monpazier’s Romanesque church, or even for its displays of regional foods, says more about my tendency to stiffen at a fleeting encounter with tourists from another culture than my ability to accept this town, or perhaps any town, for what it is: living on the commerce of people who come to experience something they don’t necessarily find at home (other than ginger cakes, perhaps). I became less present for what I saw because I chose to judge whom I heard.
Of course, another visitor might have overheard me speaking with my friend Raoul and wondered who might be the person speaking English-accented French, who seemed to be casting a curious and questioning eye over everyone. Or perhaps they were too busy looking at the actual sights of the town they were visiting to bother at the sight of someone who might, like they, not be from there.