A Multilingual, International Community Has Made Its Home in a Rural Village in 'La France Profonde.' (Villiers-le-Bois in France)

By Davidson, Ian | New Statesman (1996), August 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Multilingual, International Community Has Made Its Home in a Rural Village in 'La France Profonde.' (Villiers-le-Bois in France)


Davidson, Ian, New Statesman (1996)


You can see Villiers-le-Bois from far away, because this northern tip of Burgundy is open upland country: rolling farmland with large fields of wheat and rye and rape and sunflower, interspersed with thick woods running down into the hollows and valleys. This is a working landscape, without hedges or fences, adapted to vast tractors and combine harvesters. It is not obviously picturesque like the Dordogne, nor pretty like the Ariege, nor spectacular like the Haute Savoie. But it is big country, around 1,000 feet up, and as the road wends up and down across the intervening miles, the silhouette of Villiersle-Bois sinks and reappears, and the large fields with their curving slopes on either side block out bright shifting patterns of light and colour beneath a vast sky.

To look at, Villiers-le-Bois is just another French farming village - really rather beautiful in an unassuming way. It is not immediately obvious why anyone would want to put down secondary roots there. The village has no public facilities and there is nothing to do: no shop, no post office, no swimming pool, no tennis club; the solitary cafe was converted to a private house years ago. The nearest village with shops is 12 kilo-metres away, the nearest town (and railway station) 25 kilometres.

On any late summer evening in the holidays you will see a group of adolescents sitting on the ground in the middle of the village, just chatting for hours on end; they have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.

What really sets Villiers-le-Bois apart from so many other villages in la France profonde is not just the quiet, nor the brilliance of the stars in the night sky, but its flourishing three-layered community of foreigners. And when I say "foreigners", I don't mean non-British, let alone non-French; I mean non-villagers.

The first layer of "foreigners" are in fact Parisians, because at 200 kilometres Villiers is fairly easy weekending distance from the capital; indeed, we started going there when we lived in Paris. Our house is just off the main street. It has a spacious farmyard, a couple of barns, a vaulted wine cellar and an orchard with plums, cherries and a quince tree lying on its side. It is not beautiful; but it is always cool, even in the hottest summer.

The house next door to us belongs to a leading financial journalist who comes down every Friday night. A little way up the street there is a couple - the husband is in the television business and the wife is a senior judge, and they, too, come every weekend. Just up from them there is a tax expert, whose wife is also in the television business. And there are others.

The second tier of "foreigners" come from further afield. There are two top civil servants from the European Commission in Brussels, one Welsh, one French. There is an American medical consultant from Amsterdam, who has just taken Dutch nationality. There is a Harley Street doctor.

Foreigners are now an important factor in the ecology of the village, contributing to the tax viability of services such as water, roads and garbage collection. …

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