A Place in my Country
by Ian Walthew; Living in Auvergne France
Auvergne France is a
the Massif Central. Read about one
man's experience of moving to rural France and living off the beaten
track. And if you are looking for gites in France have a look
our page on French
farm holidays for that special gite or villa, and a
small tourist guide.
Read about the
author of "A Place In My Country: In
Search of the Rural Dream." Ian Walthew describes Auvergne from the
eyes of an expatriate living in France.
Why Expatriates Like to Live in Auvergne France
"Auvergnats always ask why you chose
their ‘pays’, can’t understand how you could leave yours.
You don’t want to disappoint with the
That you were searching for anywhere
with a little land, south of an east-west axis traversing Lyon (the
weather); more than 100 km from any airport that can take a Ryanair jet (to
avoid their passengers).
Somewhere to hide from people talking
about property prices, private schools and ‘plans for the weekend’.
That you were searching for a place
where you could still smell the soil and the ‘fumier’ and the ‘cave’ on
the clothes of your friends.
That you saw a house on the Internet in
a region called the Auvergne, a region you had never visited; that this
house was too close to a RN, but the contours rolled well over the map,
distant from the blue lines of auto routes – you’d pass by this place
your way back to Paris from the south one day.
And we did.
People think they can find good houses,
places, people. But you can’t. They find you. You set out, drift
around, and wash up on a friendly shore.
Most people are scared of the open sea,
the great expanse of the Auvergne, so they take the TGV to places they
know, places where they have friends and acquaintances, places where
they drop anchor with their urban determination to self-associate.
The Auvergne has no TGV, it's poor.
That's why the people are so welcoming and hospitable, says my
He's 86 now, a retired 'menusier', the
missing fingers to prove it. He speaks Oc, at the market – when it's
not too hot, too cold, too wet, too snowy, too foggy - when the
'troisieme generation' go down the mountain early in the morning to
talk a lot and buy a little.
Rich people, rich places, they’re not
so welcoming, they don’t give so much. Arms are held wide to greet you
but the embrace never tightens.
My wife didn't want to go too far
south, to the land of two seasons and burnt, aching, brown grass. In
the Auvergne, winter is long, but spring and autumn explode and implode
in shades of colors too fleeting to paint; the summer is hot and
languid, deserved by the trials of winter, not an easy given.
The People of Auvergne France
The Auvergnats like to think of
themselves as reserved, cautious, private. They can’t show their
endless curiosity about you, because here privacy is hallowed, so their
questions are absurdly roundabout or so direct so as to appear unlike a
question at all - more a statement of fact that you may wish to confirm
or not. (I do, they don't.)
But they do open up, and quicker than
they like to acknowledge. They are a kind, warm people with a brusque
facade but one which is easily chipped in the cold, melted in the heat
of shared seasons.
How would you describe Auvergnats,
'There aren't many of us left.'
He pauses, sitting on a bench in his
'potagare', made of a piece of wood rested on two old oil drums, in the
shade of June apple tree, green and hopeful. Reflecting.
'Amoureux,' he smiles.
And their faults?
'We have none. No, one mustn’t
exaggerate. Of course, I'm sure we do.'
He doesn't like to say.
They're not to be shared lightly, not
with the readers of a newspaper that Jean-Baptiste has only vaguely
heard of, and certainly never read.
So this 'foreigner' (and here that word
doesn't mean coming from another nation) will tell you things you know
but do not understand.
That 'radinerie' (stinginess) is a
virtue, nothing is wasted. And you dare to speak of reducing
consumption, of recycling and saving this planet.
That for the Auvergnats, land is an
obsession: their willingness to argue over a 20 cm strip of useless
ground; the story of a family picnic where two brothers end up fighting
over who would sit under the shade of which of two trees.
So how did we get here? We stumbled,
that’s the answer. Emotional refugees from a land of loss to the
Auvergne, a place of endless discovery.
The EU and one arm of the government
pours millions into the region to attract incomers like us, while
another Minister closed the maternity ward and threatens Ambert
hospital that brought us near this town, where our third child was
I asked Brice Hortefeux (when he was
sent last year from a place called Paris to win over the bourgeoisie in
the valley) why this was, why one hand could give so much while the
other took away life, our future.
That's a good question, he said.
(His suit looked very expensive in our
marketplace, positively gleaming, his tie so fat and silky, his hair
coiffured like a woman’s: that must be what they call 'French flair'.)
So what's the answer then?
His bodyguards hustled him away. He
didn't stay long.
The Auvergne: apparently a part of a
country, 'une et indivisible'. But I see no proof.
A place where the poor own their homes
and their land, and have done for generations.
Where everyone has the right to build
their own home on their own land, however ugly-pink and destructive to
the Auvergne's greatest asset – the 'patrimoine' that serves the
tourists – and turn the roads leading to its towns into messy,
A place where Jean-Baptiste, the third
generation of his family to live in his house, who has had three
neighboring families in his family's life here, his place, greets an
Anglo-Australian couple with two children and a removal fan from
Brussels without missing a beat (nor when his dog kills our cat two
days later, nor when our dog kills his chickens). Curious. Calm.
It was close to misery here; people got
by on 3 or 4 cows. They ate beef only once a year, even the rich who
could live well off 10-15 cows. The Fete du Pays, August 10th, a beef
We eat more beef now. There is little
misery, not much money. But life in the Auvergne is a life apart:
simple, straightforward, our table the farm food of 'petits
producteurs' (still); clean air and cold water that slide off and out
of primordial mountains; stories old and new, jokes, a small universe,
an immense space of freedom."
Photos of his mundane rural life from his place in the
Auvergne can be found at A Place in the Auvergne.
An edited translated
version of this article was published in the French
magazine L’Express (31/07/08) and can be found at L’Express
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