By Miles Andrew
Standing atop a nearby hill, with a ruined medieval watch-tower at our backs, we look over the red and silver rooftops of Aspet – a small commune of less than 900 people – nestled in the Pyrenees. The Cagire, a mountain that resembles a pyramid cloaked in grass and trees, looms over us 900 metres high. Now 80, although still tireless, my Grandad does take a little longer to catch his breath. Admiring the beauty of the valley below, he smiles and nods his head in approval. Grandad doesn’t often get sentimental, but moments like this give him cause.
‘I’m so lucky to have met your grandma,’ he says, with a twinkle in his eye. My Grandad has told stories about his life on loop for as long as I can remember, and this story is one of my favourites.
Grandad, a Francophile studying abroad, and Grandma, an Anglo-Française teaching assistant at the local catholic school, met in Saumur in 1952. Grandma could tell that this man, with his immaculately ironed shirt and tie, was English from a mile off. The only thing that was French about him, she says, ‘was the cigarette that hung from his mouth.’ She circled around him several times at the local post office without getting any attention, because he was far too shy to even acknowledge her. To cut a long story short (as Grandad never would do), they got married and had three children.
Fast forward to 1990, my grandparents went on holiday to Aspet shortly after retiring – the second time they had visited together. Both their sons had met and married British-Caribbean women, and begun to start their own families. Even though Aspet was where Grandma’s maternal family was from, I have always suspected that it was Grandad who had fallen deeply in love with the place. He always seemed to be in his element in the sun, the countryside and embedded in a small, close-knit community. On that visit, they saw a picturesque white house with bright blue double doors and Grandad – who wouldn’t even pay for heating if Grandma would allow it – bought it without hesitation. And that is how my own love affair with France and Europe began.
When most Afropeans think of Europe, it’s often of trendy cosmopolitan quarters, concrete suburbs and occasionally sandy beaches overlooking crystal-blue oceans. The pictures in my mind are dominated by towering mountain ranges, lakes to cool off in and tiny villages made up of stone houses with colourful shutters; and that is because I’ve been lucky to visit Aspet almost every year of my life.
I can’t ever remember there being many Black people in Aspet. There was one nun I remember. A quiet lady who would sometimes come to our house to smell the flowers that grew over our fence onto the pavement. One year my canerows were beginning to come loose and my Grandma innocently asked whether she would be able to redo them; a request she politely declined. There was also an institution opposite the house for children who needed additional support and you would sometimes see a Black boy or girl come and go. In fact, the first time I realised that French rap was a thing was from the loudspeakers they would disturb the sleepy town with. I now listen to it as much as I listen to British or American rap. You would also see one or two Black or Asian people at the weekly local market that came from nearby villages. However, there was nothing that could constitute an Afropean community in Aspet. In many respects, my own family were the Afropean community in Aspet.
Of my ten cousins, eight are Black or of mixed ethnicity, and often many of us would all visit at one time, along with Black aunties, uncles and grandparents. It was a wonderful place to be as a child: an infinite natural playground. If there was any hostility towards us, I was too busy having fun to notice it. But as you grow older, you begin to become more aware of the way people’s eyes lingered on you for a bit longer than was polite – the ‘head snapping’ Caryl Phillips says non-white children must learn to navigate. When I was speaking to the Black members of my family about visiting Aspet, this was something they all mentioned, but they all also said that they had experienced far worse in other parts of Europe.
As an ethnic minority, navigating any space where you are so visibly different puts you on alert. However, in my Pyrenean experience, people’s gazes tended to be a source of curiosity, often vanquished by a simple ‘bonjour’. But the discomfort you feel is real. Last time I was in Aspet I was invited to an evening fête, so I went to this tiny village at the end of a pitch-black country lane along with my sister, girlfriend and cousin. We arrived at a small square, packed with people dressed in red and white (the colours of the fête) and it felt as though everyone was staring at us. Before we reached the bar, my cousin asked if we could leave and I think everyone was relieved to do so.
On the same trip, we were all on a walk in the nearby hills. My cousin and I walked a little in front and lost sight of the others as we went around a corner. I suddenly heard a panicked call. Returning to where I left my sister and girlfriend, I saw a serious-looking farmer in an unbuttoned off-white shirt and a flat cap, peering over his fence and saying something to them, neither of whom could speak much French. I assumed the worst and prepared for some sort of a confrontation. Getting closer, I began to understand he was trying to tell them a story about the donkey and the sheep that stood side-by-side in the field just next to us. The sheep’s mother had died while giving birth and the donkey had adopted this lamb, and the two had been inseparable ever since. No drama – just an old farmer wanting to tell a pleasant story to a group of strangers passing through his farm.
It is possible that we had such a positive experience because we had family ties to the area. As my auntie told me recently, they knew us because ‘we were the Black people that came every summer,’ and so we were welcomed. It could also be because one of the major problems of the area is depopulation, and so anyone – regardless of skin colour – is welcome.
However, I’m sure Aspet has its fair share of racism that I was sheltered from. I once visited during a presidential election at a time when I was becoming increasingly interested in politics. The high-drama of a French presidential election is always gripping. I read the national and local newspapers and watched the news every day. One time I was picking up leaflets from all the different canvassers on market day and I caught sight of a leafleteer for the far-right Front National gleefully handing out campaign material. I approached to take one out of curiosity and the leafleteer recoiled in shock, not quite sure what to do. I took the leaflet and wandered off back to the house, wondering how welcome he, and the hateful politics of his party, were in my peaceful Aspet.
When I asked my auntie about her experience of visiting Aspet, she told me about when she went to do shopping for the week. Arriving at the till, a cashier, who had been casting evil looks at my auntie while she wandered through the supermarket, told her that her card had been declined. My auntie immediately rang her bank and was assured she had enough money and it seemed as though the card was rejected by the cashier, which they can do if they think the cardholder is ‘suspicious’ (and we all know what that means). But apart from that, I can’t point to any experiences of overt racism. My auntie said that, despite this episode, visiting Aspet was always a positive experience; like visiting ‘a second home.’
And that is what it has been to me. It was the place I honed my French and where I began to fall in love with French rap. It was where I went for peace after exams or to relax far away from work. It fuelled my interest in politics and it’s where I felt part of a community. In short, it is where I built my deep feeling of connectedness to Europe and so it is also the source of my Afropean identity.