Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Contrasts in Provence - Whose Provence are you coming to see?



I saw a comment this morning on a friend's blog that angered me deeply and I definitely feel that it merits discussion. The gist of what was written was by someone who professes to "love love love Provence" but yet expressed disappointment after her most recent visit (she has made 12 to France in the past 20 years so is no neophyte) "to see that the country is becoming more middle eastern than french" (sic) due to the prevalance of an Arabic population, including at the local markets where certain stalls sold Arabic goods such as "hiqabs" (um, I guess that would be a cross between a hijab and a niqab?). She claims to be "not a racist but" (and don't you love a modifier? As in "I am not homophobic but" or "I am not anti-Semitic but") that when she visits a country she visits it "for its culture" and that she feels that France "has progressively gotten less French," something that she finds "so sad."

Right. Extreme right, actually. Marine le Pen couldn't have said it better herself.

These are dangerous, divisive and yes, extremely racist comments. Can you imagine how it would fly if someone declared that they were terribly sorry but they could no longer visit the States because there were far too many Latinos? You would think them insane. I had to take the dogs for a brisk walk in order to calm down enough to respond properly. For while I am a foreigner, after ten years of living in Provence I have come to love it dearly and if there is one thing that I am fairly certain of: Provence is nobody's bitch.
 
 

Let's back up quite a bit, historically speaking. As the territory of Provence is stretched across the northern shores of the Mediterranean Basin, it has been a melting pot pretty much since civilization arrived in the form of the Greeks establishing trading posts in the 500s BC (earlier in more eastern areas such as Marseille). Then came the Romans (Italian), the Visigoths (German), the Franks (French-Roman-German), the Moors or Saracens (African via Spain)...this is all in pretty rapid succession. And with these conquerors, also came explorers from near and far. Remi has even floated an idea by that the Phoenicians were the first to start trade on the Rhone River. The Phoenicians! As what was then known as Gaul turned into France, the flow of immigration continued. 

Now, let's fast-forward to after World War II and Les Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of rapid economic and industrial expansion, when recruiters from powerhouses such as Renault and Peugeot went deep into the North African countries on the other side of the Mediterranean Basin to find inexpensive labor to work in France. The consequences of both that action and what followed merits a very long discussion* - so I will just stick to my main point and say that the "Arabic" population - who are of mainly, as I mentioned, North African descent and so there is nothing Middle-Eastern about them - living in France have been here for quite some time (often three to four generations or as long as my paternal ancestors have been in the United States). Born and raised in the hexagone, this is "their" France as much as it is anybody's and "their" culture is part of France's as well. Of course, they aren't always treated that way, nor were the Italian and Spanish immigrants who arrived in that same wave either. But they are here, this is their home. It is why when someone from the area speaks of being of pur race or pure blood, not only does it infuriate me but perplexes me as to their limited knowledge of their own region as there has always been a mixité sociale. Let alone "a perfect vision" of any culture reminds me of the Nazis that patrolled the streets outside my door not so long ago at all.

Can we return to the comment that started this discussion? I am wondering...which Provence do we think that this woman was referring to? Olive groves under blue skies certainly but what else? It is wonderful that so many people want to come and visit this amazing region from all over the world but...Provence does not belong to those tourists any more than it does to those of us who live here, really. We are just tiny pieces of the puzzle, quick blips in time that is always evolving, moving swiftly on. It is amazing that we have things of great beauty that stay - such incredible remnants of the past in our Roman masterpieces and Romanesque churches as well as such proud landscapes and traditions. But Provence is alive far beyond what one reads in guidebooks or in the tales of Peter Mayle. Even "his" Luberon doesn't really exist in the same way as when he started writing the series in the 80s...already...Do you see what I mean?  Are visitors coming with the hopes of seeing his Provence? Or Patricia Wells' or Rick Steeve's' or Lawrence Durrell's or Pagnol's? Or are you coming with open eyes to find your own...to enjoy what is here...now?**

Remi and I had a good conversation with someone who was in the region for a week on business concerning the end of an excellent art exhibition in Arles. He had gone to Avignon on a day off and yet did not make it to the Centre Historique because he had become so fascinated by the North African community by the train station that he had explored that instead - the tea shops, the hair salons, the interactions of Mom's picking their kids up from school. Granted, he is an artist himself but it was wonderful to see his finding the richness of diversity as worthy of being appreciated in its own right.

All of this doesn't mean that certain happy clichés about Provence have disappeared or aren't worth enjoying...on the contrary, the quality of living here remains as important as ever. On a gorgeous sunny day like today - even in winter - you can while away the hours at a terrace café with your face upturned while snacking on briny olives and sipping on a too sweet wine...there just might be someone whose skin isn't white sitting next to you...and unless it is sported with irony, I highly doubt that they will be wearing a beret. I know that we all love Provence for its dreams - I write about them all the time - but let's not forget that the realities can be, can be, just as promising too.


*Ok, so yes, we will need to have a long talk about the North African immigration, being Muslim (or not) in France, integration and racism as well as how much this is an issue in current French society. It is a big discussion and one that is hard to reduce down to a post size form. I also wanted to ask permission from Remi to tell his part of the story. He granted me that today over lunch so it will be a subject that I will need to work upon. But in the mean time, if you have not already seen Indigènes or Days of Glory in English, I would highly recommend it. You can find more information here.

**I do think that this post applies to more subjects than what is local to Provence. I have written a good bit here about expectations and certainly they pay a great part of our experience when we travel. It is worth thinking about what they are based upon. I will admit my part in ignorance - my Mom and I went alone to Egypt in 1992 and for my part I was looking for the glamour of "Murder on the Nile"! The truth of it is that we live in a global world now and that cultures are not frozen. So unless you are going to a very curated Club Med type beach vacation (for which I do not judge you in the least, please pass the umbrella drinks) or are taking a tour through Walt Disney World's "It's a Small World after All" be warned for chasing after a land that no longer exists or you very well may be disappointed. Nostalgia can do that to a person.

 

The other posts in the Contrasts in Provence series can be found: here, herehere and here.

Thank you for reading.


59 comments:

  1. Excellent piece Heather and how glad I am that you wrote it. I am still muddling one in my head that I have yet to put to post about returning from my travels as an intolerant person - intolerant of those who have such opinions and notions as the person you wrote about. I've been writing about our travels in Egypt in December and have been amazed at the number of people who've been surprised that I found flourishing evidence of Christmas there as the notion they seemed to have had was that there were no Christians and when I pointed out the millions of Coptic Christians they still seemed to question it. Others - primarily Americans -, when I write of our experiences setting up a house in Greece seem stunned to find that many British and other Northern Europeans live there and travel there routinely to visit. The unspoken question in all of the responses seems to be, "Is it safe? I have certain preconceived notions about a place and you are shaking them with eyewitness facts and experiences that don't mesh with how I want to think about it." (Whew, you did it again. . .got me on my soapbox! I'll get down now. . .:-) and ponder that post.)

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    1. Ah by all means stay on your soapbox, Jackie! ;) And please keep writing too. It is so important...

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  2. Oh, what to say. Globalization is the key word here. I recently heard the same thing about London. We do have our misconceptions and must stay current on foreign affairs/cultures. Your post reminds us of that.

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    1. Donna, I think it can be tricky as the press often twists things to their own advantage to "make" us see things in a certain light as it suits them. I suppose that it is up to us to be guided by our own inner compass while staying informed.

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  3. Amen, Heather. Interestingly, when we moved to Northern California from Southern California a few years ago we encountered a mindset in the rural areas that blew us away -- all the problems in the State are caused by Latinos. Growing up in Southern California, Latinos have always been an important part of the fabric of California's identity in my mind -- they are friends, family, and co-workers. They are Californian as much (no, let me clairify, more than) me. California was part of Mexico before it was part of the US. So sad.

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    1. I agree, it is very sad Annette and surprising too. The Latino community is such a huge part of California's identity as you say! It is that "us against them" attitude that is just heart-breaking.

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  4. THAT WAS BRILLIANT!
    I hope the woman you are referring too READS YOU TOO!!!!!!!
    I might add I have the fondest memories of the AFRICANS on the ITALIAN beaches selling their wares......They remembered me year after year..........."AMERICANA where have you been!"I knew them each my first name and of course was a CLIENT as much as I could be!
    BRAVO...........GO GET A GLASS OF VINO NOW!THATS AN ORDER!!!!
    XOXO

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    1. My goodness, well, I did at the time! I listen to your orders! ;) And no, I don't think that she reads here but I still needed to write this anyway.

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  5. THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!!! When I read that comment on the blog, I was gobsmacked. I wanted to respond, but I had no idea what to say. Thank goodness you said it for me. Like our dear Contessa Elizabeth has said...I hope that commenter READS YOU TOO!!!

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    1. I too was so shocked Rebecca. It was as if Provence is her playland and so it has to fit into her version of it regardless of the people who actually live here. Such entitlement...

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  6. Thank you Heather, for addressing these important issues. I also read the blog responses from Ellie's post. The negative comments about the Middle Eastern and Muslim population in France was sad & surprising. We all enjoy the familiar in life, but diversity is part of living and growing. I'm sure that French people get tired of living with demanding Americans from time to time.
    The fact that things are different in France from our American lifestyle is also a contributing factor in the desire to experience and live there.
    I have lived in New Mexico for 38 yrs. and we experience some of the same complaints from visitors & transplants.
    We have diverse cultures and our cities are not as "polished" as some in other states. Fact is, we love NM the way it is.
    We all have a right to complain when things don't run smoothly, it's part of the process in dealing with the day to day. We should not, however, blame other races or their culture, for ruining our ideal European fantasy.

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    1. Exactly. So perfectly said and I could not agree more, right down to things not being perfectly polished - Arles definitely isn't and that is one of the reasons why it holds my heart. My friend Anthony called me to talk about this post and said something along the lines of "Provence is not just all little cabanons in the midst of the lavender fields!"

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  7. Heather, intolerance seems to be the name of the game these days, and not just about religions and cultures. I firmly believe in the right of free speech. However, when a difference of opinion turns into violent action, I get upset. I believe in dialogue, which is what you have started here. Good for you.

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    1. I am so grateful for all of these wonderful, intelligent responses Cleo. I truly am. You are all so amazing and I am so proud to have such a community on this little blog.

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  8. Well, dear Heather, you've said a mouthful. You are one good woman. Thank you so much for your important and beautifully written counter to an ignorant and racist comment. I swear, if I live to be 100, I will never understand why someone would not only feel the way the commenter appears to feel, but also think it's okay to tell others all about it.

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    1. Yes, as if they know best! It is mind-boggling. Katherine, perhaps racial tensions are not quite as strong where you are as here in Provence...or are they? I would love to know...

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  9. I could kiss you for this wonderful piece.

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  10. Well said and well-written. I think the cosmopolitan nature of Provence--and France--is part of the magic, n'est-ce-pas?

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    1. Oui, oui et oui! I don't know if you have ever been to Marseille but the cosmopolitan mix of the faces that one crosses in one street block is fantastic. The energy is so positive in that too as opposed to a nostalgia for a "history" (aka all white) that never really existed in this neck of the woods.

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  11. I echo the reaction and sentiments of the commenters above, and sincerely thank you for writing such a civilized and sentient response.

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    1. I am so grateful that you appreciated it. Thank you...

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  12. Heather, you know I just pressed the "book now" button for the flights to Provence, beginning of June, feeling ambivalently strange about it. And now I got your new post.

    I feel ambivalent because more than ever it is clear for me how priviledged I am to travel with absolutely no sorrow and absolute ease to France as a tourist. I know as a tourist I am part of a cliché. Knowing at the same time there is a huge migration taking place of people who try to escape war and extreme poverty. People who once had a home and are forced to try and settle elsewhere. Where they probably do not belong to the "cliché". The worlds -and especially Europes- face has always changed. You have described it impressively. And it is constantly changing. And isn't that what our existance is about? Change? Evolution? Movement? Mixing? And isn't that what's interesting about history?


    When we visited Arles two years ago (: we also made a trip to Aix. Aix was very beautiful. But when we came back to Arles in the evening and parked our car near the Rhone at the station (!) I thought: Ahh, those rough winds of the Rhone and the rough and mixed style of Arles is what I prefer to that perfect provencial dream Aix ... (;

    Heather, thank you for being so clear and determined. I also notice you accompanied that clarity with a new and very clear blogdesign. The photographs are even clearer. So sharp and minimal. Great! I love all that!

    Hope you are well, friend!!!!Silke

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    1. Ah, thank you for the reassurance about the tinkering with the blogs appearance - and yes, I wanted photos that were stripped down for this, thank you for seeing that too.

      I know that you see Provence without the rose-coloured glasses that many do because you love it for what it is and its complexities. And yes for Arles! I always feel the same after coming back from Aix or some of the more perfect villages in the Luberon. I think that you and I have talked about Christian Lacroix's saying it is "baroque farouche" which - while it can occasionally be maddening, especially in the macho sense - is spot on.

      Yes, I very much hear and understand that you are feeling torn about the ease of your coming to France as a tourist in the midst of those that are on the move for entirely different reasons. But I also know that you are a wonderful woman who will find a way to balance those emotions before June, most likely be doing something, no matter how small. There is so much that is going on right now that we, as outsiders, can not really understand.

      That said, I for one am quite happy that you did press that "book now" button. :)
      Much Love
      H

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  13. A proper answer Heather to all racists! Yes!

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  14. brava ! Ah, the real Provence, like the fabric...from where else might it come than the sun and light of Provence - unless you count India around 1648, followed by tax, diplomatic, and trade war. Or my Spanish friend, so proud of the real Andalucía, the very name from the Arabic whose land it was until 1492, who joined me, when I lived in Madrid, for a long weekend in Tangiers, and noted, w/o a hint of irony, that she was surprised at how Spanish it was. "Worry", we say, prayer beads/Rosary beads.

    Finally, I wonder if that blogger has any idea how far words, once on line, travel, what audiences they meet - often the very people being insulted. It is such bloggers who help to make the world " less safe." Confirming what IS or ISIL says about how we feel.

    A happier example, today I noted on Face Book that this was just a snippet of President Obama's almost one hour remarks at a Mosque near Baltimore today, and I'd post the full text/video as soon as I had it. The full video was sent to me in less than 5 minutes, by a Tunisian man in his 20s, living in Tunisia. He had clearly watched the speech and was reading what Americans were saying about it and about Muslims, in his case "from Africa."

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    1. Isn't that amazing? Yes, the world is listening and thank goodness for President Obama's speech to bring quite a bit of positive to try and balance out the horrific negativity that is most certainly fuel to the fire. Trump has certainly caught Daesh's attention and has become a mascot of self-rightousness.

      Joan, you know me well enough by now to understand that I was truly pissed off when I sat down to write and so wasn't trying to "do" anything other than respond but I have been thanked by those who felt that I was speaking for them and that made me glad that I did.

      And it is interesting that you bring up India (amongst the other examples) as when I was talking all of this out with Remi over lunch before writing, that was mentioned! There too it is too easy to cling on to a certain cliché that does not accomodate the bends of history. I countered with the idea that if someone really wants to see an "intact" culture, there are very few places left to go...we are all influenced and connected now. Even in the most remote corners of the world...

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  15. Thank you...thank you. I read the other comment also and wanted to respond...

    You said everything I would have said if I was as articulate as yourself. I will never understand how people can travel to other countries and cultures and have the nerve to expect what they left back at home could somehow be found in another country. I thought people traveled to learn about ....the other....not to chalk up just another notch on their belt of life.

    Ali

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    1. THAT SOUNDS Pretty ARTICULATE TO ME!!!
      BUT I Know what you mean about HEATHER!!!!!!!!
      Her WORDS are MAGICAL..........and ones's head is ALWAYS bobbing up and down in agreement!

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    2. Thank you so much Ali, I agree with my friend La Contessa...that was perfectly said! Truly. I can't tell you how many times when we were travelling and would see groups of tourists that literally formed a bubble around themselves that was so strong that it was as if they were just at home watching everything on television instead of being there!

      Contessa, you are lovely.

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  16. Thank you sweet Heather. Wow, I could feel the steam coming out of your ears.! I not only read that comment, but read it to my hubby, since we are headed to Provence in April. His response was " oh dear have we made a mistake". You have set us straight....Thanks,.Janey

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    1. Oh no, Janey you will love it here. It is so beautiful! And yes there are many different races and religions present and that is what makes it so alive too. You know, I still am so baffled by her comment...especially the bit about the markets...the man who sells the best olives at the Wednesday market in Arles is from Algeria! And you can't get more Provençal than olives now, can you? ;)
      Will you let me know your travel plans please?
      And ps. You should have read the first un-edited version. Eh oui, once a redhead always a readhead!

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  17. Thank you, Heather, for what you have so articulately and persuasively written in this post. I couldn't agree with you more. Having been raised in a place that was in almost every human respect homogeneous, I very much appreciate the "richness of diversity" in its own right, and the diversity of people living in Provence is inherent in what I most relish about that part of France. An American complaining that Provence is no longer sufficiently "French" exhibits an ignorance, not to mention gall, that is beyond the pale...shameful and frightening. With steam coming out of my ears, Leslie in Oregon

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    1. Good, it is good (and not at all surprising) that you are upset, Leslie - it will give you a bit of fuel to keep doing your work that is so important. And yes, "gall" is the perfect word!
      xo

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  18. I am so glad to have you(your blog)in my life and in the world.

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    1. Merci beaucoup Julie, ça m'a touchée beaucoup.

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  19. To change the subject just a little: I see that your gorgeous magnolia is blooming!

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    1. Too much Bonnie - you know that it is freaking me out!

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  20. It’s very sad when people show intolerance, exclusivity and narrowed opinion. The world needs more compassion to those displaced by war or poverty.

    You have more signs of spring.

    Mrs. Abstract and I have visited Aix-Provence once, sevral years ago.

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    1. While I absolutely agree that those who are displaced deserve our compassion and aid, here I was more talking about those who have immigrated to a country by choice as well - diversity is what makes our world great.

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  21. Please keep speaking up, Heather! The world is changing and we can't allow intolerance to go unanswered. I am terrified by the Republican rhetoric I am hearing here in the states. Our voices and our votes are powerful weapons.

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    1. Yes they are Judith! Thank you for saying that as I often feel paralyzed with fear over what is occurring in the States with the Republican race right now. I don't recognize my country.

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  22. So perfectly written Heather! Non-racists will almost never understand racist remarks or mentality. I think you raised so many essential points in your post and I wonder if someone who could make the remark that you responded to would find any logic in your thoughts. Know what I mean? Racism and discrimination is that strange. And I share Judith Ross's fears about the Republican voices in the US!

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    1. I do know exactly what you mean Michelle but I still have to try, I can't help it! ;) And oy, don't get me started about the Repuplicans. People the world over are scared of what they are saying...

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  23. I have to admit, I noticed the striking photos in this post first. (Blame it on my day job!) Each one made me pause. And reminded me of how much I enjoy seeing Provence through your eyes. Of course, then I scrolled back to the top to begin reading the words you chose to accompany these beautiful images, and this sentiment of mine only grew stronger. We're all lucky to experience Provence through your eyes, your words, and most importantly, your heart. Thanks for sharing this!

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    1. This means so much, coming from such a fantastic photographer as yourself Meredith, thank you!!!

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  24. A great piece! Thank you again, Heather! You can imagine the populistic and racist tones public 'discussion' about the present storm of refugees has reached in our country with a population of some 5.5 million and a minimal share of foreigners, these days that is. Immigrants brought us industrialization and the capital to start companies in the first place, 350,000 people emigrated to the USA to find a better life not to mention that we needed and were given international aid after the war but now some people have the nerve to riot that we can't afford to keep the borders open for the asylum seekers. A few lessons in history would be badly needed here, too, to give a bit of perspective.

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    1. I could not agree with you more. I am so deeply upset by so much of the news that is happening - so much hatred, so much divisiveness - when history has already shown us that immigration (and before that migration) is a natural part of the evolution of our culture and a positive one too.

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  25. Thank you Heather, your thoughts reflect both truth and eloquence. I am a new resident in Arles and I've already received a lecture on the 'Arab-ization' of the open market by a well-meaning resident. Unlike you, I remained silent and I have mixed feelings that I did so. I'm a blonde, blue-eyed Muslim and do not wear obvious Islamic clothing. I wear a mix of fashionable tuniques or dresses with leggings or a layered look with pants and a long shirt and short jean jacket. Most people have no clue as to what I believe. I like it that way because I want to feel the same acceptance from others that I have for their choices. If I do self-disclose, unfortunately it can be a jaw-dropping moment for the other person and their reaction is not always positive. So I said nothing to the woman who advised me about the open market. But I'll be there on Saturday mornings (inshallah), feeling tempted to buy a tarte tropézienne, carrying a bag of veggies like everyone else, and with a friendly smile on my face - my heart as open as the blue sky above me.

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    1. Oh this is such a beautiful response, Patricia and I am so grateful for your honesty. Shukraan.

      I did not end up doing the piece on Remi's story (yet, at least) but I can tell you that I have been standing next to him while he has had the exact same experience many times. While not Muslim, he comes from a métis background - his mom is White, his dad from Algeria and Morocco. Because of his big blue eyes and not "typical" North African features, he has heard so many anti-Arabic comments. Depending on the person and the circumstance, he would respond or no. Often he did. But it is a tricky situation.

      I am so curious if you have lived elsewhere in France before and what your experience was there. In general, there is a lot of tolerance in Arles. But there is also a lot of racism too - or just in general extreme distust from anyone that is "new" - and by new I mean that hasn't been there since five generations - literally. Actually, it is so very Arles to say that as it is a town of polemical tensions in some ways, not all bad. You will quickly see that for yourself I believe.

      Regardless, welcome to Arles, it is an amazing place to live, truly. And you have arrived at such an incredible time - you will see the wave rise with the Gehry tower completion.

      My email is robinsonheather (at) yahoo dot com. Please, please feel free to email me! If I can be of help with suggestions, I would love that. And there is a lot of info here too if you use the search area on the right hand side. But I have so much to say about Arles. Wishing you the Best as you get settled,
      Namaste,
      Heather

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  26. Thank you Heather! I hope that some day you will write about your husband's experiences. You have a nice way of telling stories that encourages the reader to reflect. I'd be eager to see your choices of photos too.

    I've lived in the Paris area for 13 years, my husband is French and we've been together for 12 of those years. Most of the comments I've had in Paris have been more what I'd consider ignorant than racist. For example, people have assumed that my husband is North African (who are all Muslim because "it's their culture and they have no other choice") and that he forced me to convert. In reality, he is what I call a 'seasonal Catholic' visiting church for the occasional wedding or funeral, but otherwise non-practicing.

    To be fair, I have met Muslims whose views are insular as well. If there is a wall of distrust between people, the responsibility of all good people is to dismantle the wall rather than add bricks to heighten it.

    When I think of what defines "racism" one of the first attributes that comes to mind is ignorance. It can be a simple lack of awareness or exposure to the unfamiliar. People like this may be open to listening and learning. Or ignorance can be a deliberate intent to filter out anything that doesn't fit the person's view of the world and becomes an entrenched habit. I find it very difficult to create a dialogue with these kind of people and just leave them to simmer in their own poisonous juices. lol I'm sure I will soon discover those "polemic tensions" in Arles that you describe, wish me luck!

    We had a look at LUMA, it's indeed impressive! I will send an email but will not impose on your kindness with a million questions about Arles. Your blog is a marvel of info already.
    Friendly greetings,
    Patricia

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    1. I am going to send you an email in a bit but I just wanted to say that I completely agree with you about everything that you have said here.

      In travelling, I have seen that insularity and distrust in peoples of all religions, just as I have seen the beauty of faith in all religions as well.

      While ignorance and distrust often seem to be winning the day in our current Western societies, let's not underestimate the simple power of even things like repsonses to a blog can bring...

      My Best to you, Patricia...

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