The British are coming: Article
Things are changing fast in our isolated corner of France. The département of the Aude was just another forgotten backwater until a couple of years ago. Local people had been moving away to the cities for over two generations. In our village, as in many others, the residents were almost all aged over 65. Two generations ago five or six shops served a population of over 600. Now no shops at all serve a permanent population of just over 100. The village school closed ten years ago. The last of the three village cafés closed last year. In the last five years we have seen one wedding, no baptisms, and fifteen funerals. A dozen or so abandoned houses lie in ruin.
About half of the remaining houses have been inherited by middle aged sons and daughters who live and work in cities: Toulouse, Carcassonne, Montpellier, Perpignan, even Paris. Several times each year the sons and daughters return to their old family homes bringing their families with them. Every Easter, August, village fête, Toussaint (Halloween), and Christmas the village fills up with smart new cars, and the village springs into life. As in most villages here, houses are built close together with few gardens so the narrow streets are soon full of city children playing together.
If trends had continued ours would have become a ghost village in another few years. More and more third and fourth generation exiles would have populated it at holiday times like extras in a film set. More and more houses would have fallen into ruin. This prospect changed when an airline started cheap flights to France about three years ago. Carcassonne, our nearest local city, was one of the chosen destinations. An aeroplane-full of British visitors every day may not sound very significant, but many of these visitors liked what they found here, especially the property, and even more the property prices. They loved the area. They told their friends. Supply stimulated demand, which in turn stimulated supply. This summer the one flight a day became two flights a day. Carcassonne must be one of the cheap airlines' greatest successes. I notice that the special offers available on other routes are rarely available on this one, presumably because of its year round popularity. Last year daily flights started from Belgium, and it is rumoured that this year they will start from Germany. Carcassonne's tiny airport has already been extended, and its car park is permanently full.
Encouraged by television holiday programmes and newspaper articles, foreigners have been buying up property, and pushing up prices. Until now the locals have been delighted by this. Foreigners, especially the Brits, tend to buy property that would never sell otherwise. While most Anglo-Saxons want a crumbling ancient picturesque stone-built farmhouse, the average local would only consider a smart, small, modern, pink, brick villa with a small garden, commonly found in modern suburban estates on the outskirts of towns. Before the flights to Carcassonne you could buy an old farm for less than the ugliest modern concrete suburban horror. But no longer. All the farms are gone, and when new ones come on the market they sell for many times what they would have fetched three years ago. Prices are well on their way to Provence.
All this has had knock-on effects. For one thing the French who laughed so much at foolish foreigners buying ruins have had second thoughts. Seeing what can be done with decaying old farmhouse has revolutionised popular opinion. Tastes have changed. Perhaps those Anglo Saxons weren't quite as stupid as everyone thought. The charm of a traditional building, hardly recognised five years ago, is now seen as a most desirable feature. Also, the rash of suburban modern pink cement villas on the outskirts of nearby towns is being halted by new planning regulation. All these trends are pushing in the same direction. If the farms have been sold, and modern suburban developments are not available, what's left? What else but those stone built village houses that have been falling into ruin for years. French families and foreign ones are now buying them up.
Over the last two years our neighbouring village has been repopulated by young French people. They have bought old houses in the centre of the village and are renovating them. Some of them have found specialised traditional work - a stonemason for example. Others benefit from the revolution in electronic communications - web-designers, translators, writers, even a recruitment agent. It is sad to see the old ways of life disappear. But it must be better that villages live than they die. Better that traditional houses with character are restored than that they are replaced by those modern pink cubes. Births are more fun than funerals. In any case the old ways are not really disappearing. The young people carry on the old traditions. You can see them alongside the old timers at six in the morning collecting wild mushrooms, out in the afternoon sunshine drinking Ricard, and out in the rain collecting snails for dinner. In the potagers that flank the village they grow their own vegetables, planting and lifting according to the phase of the moon, just as locals have done since the Middle Ages.
JdeSt-F © 2004,2005.
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