An Afropean in the UK

Every time I would meet someone new, they would tell me how beautiful Europe was and how much they enjoyed their holidays there. It confused me. We were in Europe right now. Europe was literally the ground under our feet. So what were they talking about? Soon, I understood that Europe was across the Channel (the small bit sea between our respective countries).
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An Afropean in the UK

As a second-generation migrant who grew up in Paris, most of my travel has been to places like London, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Geneva, Florence, Athenes, or Brussels. Places designed in a semi-similar way to Paris. Places where a myriad of culture interacts every day. Places where nobody knows I’m not a local until they ask me for directions. Places where I can blend in and explore without feeling like an outsider. Places that resemble home.

There, I can wake up, go to a café and order some baked goods and a mocha. Then I can visit the museum of natural history or a few contemporary art galleries. If it’s cold or rainy, I might venture in the national art gallery and play the game of ‘how many paintings from their permanent collection have I already seen during a temporary exhibition somewhere else?’. Most of the time it will be a few Monet, Cezanne, Pissarro or Renoir because I pay for temporary exhibitions if they’re about the Impressionists. If it’s sunny, I could walk along the river bank or take a stroll in a park and enjoy some nature time.

For lunch, I probably will grab a sandwich and a bottle of juice. For dinner, depending on my mood, I could have avocado and salmon sushi on the counter of a Japanese restaurant, or something along the lines of chicken and mash potatoes in a traditional restaurant, or even a home-made vegan burger in a trendy hipster outdoor venue with lots of pallet furniture.

At night, I would wander in the old town, under the street lights. Admire how the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Modernist buildings flow seamlessly into each other. After a couple of hours, when I start to no longer feel my legs, I would get a cab and go back to my rented flat and have a glass of wine by the window. It’s comfortable. It feels like home, but with a holiday twist. And I am grateful for being able to access it,  grateful to know that other Black women not very far from me are having as much fun exploring similar places.

Things changed when I moved to the UK. Neighbours and colleagues in my new town referred to me as ‘the French girl’. It felt weird. No one has ever referred to me as ‘French’ before. Yes, my nationality is French, and technically Paris is in France, but if you ask me, I am Parisian, born from Parisian parents. Back then, if I attempted to describe a French person I would’ve probably said:

  •  someone with an old family house in the countryside, where they’d spend holidays with their cousins for Christmas and summer.
  • someone who knows the name of their great-grand-parents and will tell stories about how they were resistants during the war (yes, according to the French™, every single one of their ancestors was a resistant).
  • someone whose last name either is the name of a plant - Choux (kale), Poirier (pear tree), Sapin (Christmas tree), the name of an animal - Renard (fox), Loiseau (bird), Leboeuf (beef), or where they’re from - Dubois (from the wood), Dupont (from the bridge), Dufour (from the oven). 

But here I was. A French woman in Liverpool. I was French, they were Scouse. Liverpool had very different vibes from Paris. It didn’t feel like all the other places I’ve been before. No one asked me for direction in the street, it was more the opposite. People would ask me if I was lost and needed help. I didn’t blend in somehow. But I couldn't figure out why.

Every time I would meet someone new, they would tell me how beautiful Europe was and how much they enjoyed their holidays there. It confused me. We were in Europe right now. Europe was literally the ground under our feet. So what were they talking about? Soon, I understood that Europe was across the Channel (the small bit sea between our respective countries).

When I would ask if they ever travelled in the UK, the same way as I would travel through Europe, that was their turn to be confused. But eventually, little by little, I managed to get a list of recommended places to visit here: North Wales, the Lake District, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Chester, York, Bath, Bristol, Leeds, Edinburgh and Cornwall. (There were probably more, but they probably got lost in translation.) I pinned them all on a map and checked how long it would take to get to each by train. Then I realised that if I visited all these places in a year, I would’ve seen more of the UK than my own country. I also realised that venturing in more rural/less urban parts of the country was making me nervous.

As a child, I would spend every July in the same summer camp in a tiny village in the Massif Central (the middle bit of France). I loved it. But I was also well aware that I was probably the only Black kid hiking on those extinct volcanoes. From a young age, my father also taught me some basic navigation skills using the sun, the stars, and the wind around me. He taught me how to use a swiss army knife, how to do basic first aid with plants and how to quickly build a shelter with a rope and an emergency blanket. This was fun at the time. A bit less once I realised that it was a shared experience of many kids from Jewish descent: experts call it intergenerational trauma from having to flee the Holocaust. But anyhow, that’s a story for another day. 

One day, I decided that if I had been able to spend a month in the Andes without running water and electricity, North Wales couldn’t be that scary — ignoring that my anxiety was more linked to the people than the scenery. So I booked a B&B and a return ticket, packed my rucksack with a change of clothes, a spare pair of trainers, a camera, my swiss army knife and my precious first aid kit. It was only on the train that I realised that the station for my connection wasn’t written on the ticket. An older gentleman next to me caught the start of the panic in my eyes and reassured me: we were going to get off at Chester and he would walk me to the next platform. My brain screamed that I shouldn’t follow random white men, but I ignored it, actually got on the right train while the friendly stranger waved me goodbye.

Once on the train to Llandudno (pronounced “klandudno”), I sat by the window, plugged Solange in my headphones, and relaxed. Suddenly, something I wasn’t expecting: the sea. The train was literally two meters away from the sea. I felt like I was in Spirited Away, on my way to Zeniba. I smiled, captivated by this view. 

At the train station, impossible to book a car on my phone. So I walked. At the B&B, the host asked me where I was from. Apparently, it wasn’t often that international travellers would come here. I answered that I was from Paris, but could we really say that I was foreign since we were both European? She laughed, agreed and offered me a cup of tea. The next morning, I set off to catch the cable cars and take advantage of the views with the town still asleep, the dozens of wind turbines floating in the sea and the thousands of sheep looking like small clouds on the Great Orme. I spent all day walking among them. I even saw a mountain goat chilling on the side of a cliff. It was wonderful. I promised myself to not only start visiting the British countryside but every part of rural Europe.

A few months later, I was at a Country Festival in Cumbria, petting goats, cheering on shepherd dogs and holding baby chickens in my hands. Again, some people asked me what an international tourist was doing here. I answered that I was a European enjoying the European countryside. They didn’t seem happy with my answer. I didn’t care. I was reclaiming my connexion to this land. I am Parisian, therefore European, and Europe is not only a few megalopolises here and there. It is also the mountains, the plains, the lakes, the rivers, the forests, the wildflowers, the deers, the hedgehogs, the birds, and everything in between. Yes, not seeing people like you on the trail can be scary. Yes, I am terrified of every single flying insect - and there are so many of them. But I will no longer restrict myself to only explore places where whiteness expects me to. I am Afro-descendent, I am European, therefore my culture is Afropean, and you and I are not the only ones.

After Brexit and Covid, together let’s go skiing in the Alps, canyoning in the Pyrenees, horse-riding in the Algarve, rafting in Bavaria and dog sledding in Norway.

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