Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Millau: harem pants, pink facades, ganterie survival

Collioure to Millau, 150 miles

I suppose in recent years Millau has become synonymous with the magnificent​ viaduct which carries the A75 autoroute across the Tarn valley about three kilometers west of the town. There is a certain irony to this because the very thing that has put Millau on the map ensures most people now zoom straight past it. We didn't. Since we used the town's lovely, yet inexpensive Deux Rivieres campsite, both on the way south and coming home, we never actually crossed the famous bridge, thus saving ourselves about €18 in tolls. It's this kind of serendipitous moment that provokes Gill to remark "All good!" Which she just has, as I brought news of our windfall to her attention.

Any conversation you happen to have about the viaduct with fellow countrymen inevitably will include an apparently off the cuff remark that the mighty structure was designed by a British architect. The visitor centre next to the bridge plays down this aspect, concentrating on the challenges of construction and its status as an icon of French engineering, merely mentioning in the 'small print' that Norman Foster was a design associate. Furthermore, to make doubly sure that passing international visitors have time to fully reflect on the essentially Gallic nature of the site, the place has installed Turkish toilets in the recently built sanitaire. Whatever the truth of the matter and despite the idiosyncratic sanitary arrangements, Brits have embraced the edifice as a stunning example of Anglo-French collaboration, along with Concorde, the Channel Tunnel, Café Rouge and Eric Cantona.

Which brings us obliquely to the question of harem pants. It was precisely​ because we did not opt to cross the viaduct that we found ourselves ensnared in Millau town centre's experiment in 'shared space' traffic management.

Driving gingerly past crowded café tables spilling out from where the pavement used to be into the area once regarded as the road, I happened to note a preponderance of customers wearing harem pants. Women, men, cute tousle-haired kids, all sporting voluminous floaty nether-wear. I was too busy trying to avoid flattening the local hippydom to jump to any broader cultural conclusions regarding this​ sartorial oddity. However, the conclusion I would have jumped to, given time, was that since our last visit here around 15 years ago, Millau had taken a distinctly 'green' turn, a bit of a leap to the left, to an extent that visitors might anticipate that every other shop will be committed to selling products prefixed by the words 'bio' and 'eco', and promises of resultant 'wellnesssl abound.

In the event, I was proven correct. Even the local hairdresser promised all products were vegan compliant and 'bio'. Although it's an unlikely scenario, if I was going to have a perm or my hair dyed aquamarine, personally, I would want the product to have been thoroughly tested on Dolly the sheep beforehand​.

Once I come across something that intrigues me, I have to investigate further. I am not given at all to Gallic 'c'est la vie' shoulder shrugging. So I ended up googling 'harem pants'. It turned out to be unexpectedly complicated. There are two styles: high crutch and low crutch. The former are simple garments resembling light weight voluminous jogging pants, the latter a more complex affair with a baggy crutch that hangs below the knee, resembling a DIY attempt to make a maxi-skirt that went horribly wrong. Both types are offered in vaguely sixties styled Paisley or ethnic patterns, apart from a black sheer varient, pitched primarily at devotees of belly dancing. 

The obvious question, if like me you are cursed with an insatiable curiosity, is where did the style come from? Not a harem, certainly. Vintage photographs of Ottoman and Berber harems in the nineteenth century show women in long black skirts.

The style of the modern garment seems derived from European colour prints from the same era depicting vaguely eroticised scenes of the mystic orient, which in turn probably draw on earlier French imagery of 'Araby' found in Rimbaud, Flaubert and the harem paintings of Ingres and Delacroix.

These influences, mediated through Hollywood (the pantomime costumes of Aladdin Disneyfied), vague longings for the simplicities of the hippy trail, or a sense of 'wellness' derived from scented candles, alternative medicine and small statuettes of Buddha - all this mumbo-jumbo I think is mixed up in the desire to don floaty patterned pants of voluminous proportions. 

In America, however, the term 'harem pants' is not universally used; I am uncertain if this is this due to latent Islamophobia, or sensitivity around cultural appropriation among the chattering classes. For example, 'Forever 21' adopts the phrase 'bohemian pants', drawing on the garments' popularity among makers of badly crafted polished stone jewellery or vanity published poetry collections. Other terms include 'yoga pants' - their loose fitting style well suited to people bent on becoming inordinately bendy, or most bizarre all, Thai fisherman pants...here I decided to pursue my research no further, at what point does a healthy curiosity become a peculiar obsession? I think I have just proved I am somewhat hazy about that distinction. Anyway, I may have given the impression that Millau is entirely populated by hippies (both ageing and aspiring) and others of an alternative disposition - eco-warriors in cargo pants and waif-thin vegan therapists; this is not exactly the case, it is no more hippyfied than Hebden Bridge or Machynllyth, which is to say, "well, not totally, man."

This small but well established migrant population from planet Zog gives Millau a lively, youthful vibe quite different from how we remember it, as a sleepy southern town that felt remote and somewhat down at heel. The town noticeboard sums this up nicely advertising a mixture of forthcoming cultural attractions as well as election posters that indicate that the Left and the Greens are vocal if not actually influencial hereabouts.

It's not just the atmosphere of the place which has changed. Millau looks different too. The first time we ventured into the Languedoc was in the summer of 1994. The towns and villages of the Corbieres and Causse had a uniformly sludge-like palour, as almost every older building was faced in dull cement, much of it crumbling, though occasionally cheered-up by faded painted gable advertising Dubonnet or Gitanes. It's easy to get nostalgic about the France of yore, complete with clapped out Deux- Chevaux, elderly peasants in blue overalls wobbling homewards with a few groceries packed in a wooden fruit box tied precariously onto the back of a mobelette.

This is not some Stella Artois advert fantasy; rural France really looked like this when we became regular visitors​ four decades ago. In parts it occasionally still does, but for the most part the country has embraced retail sprawl like the rest of us.  As France developed economically, ordinary people became much better off and that is a good thing. The extent of this progress only becomes apparent when you revisit somewhere like Millau after a break of more than a decade.

One ​ change we noted immediately was that quite a few of the dull cemented facades had been colour washed in pastel shades reminiscent of coastal towns and villages of Provence. Why not! It looks much jollier.

Another change were new buildings in the town centre. The French are much less ambivalent than we are about 'la Moderne'. They construct boldly designed contemporary style buildings in the midst of old streets and celebrate the startling juxtaposition rather than worry about them 'fitting in' or grumbling about 'concrete carbuncles'. I particularly liked the way old and new had been melded together in the area around Millau's refurbished market hall. We promised ourselves breakfast here, but failed to get up quickly enough. Next time perhaps.

One of the more intriguing aspects of France is how it has embraced globalisation yet simultaneously supported local producers and to some extent traditional, rural based industry. I am old enough to remember a junior school Phillips Atlas with a map of British cities and their specialist industries - Stockport (hats), Wellingborough (shoes), Consett (steel), Sunderland (glass), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (shipbuilding), Stoke-on-Trent (ceramics). All gone, or foreign owned. A similar atlas of France would have shown next to Millau - leatherwork and glove-making. It's still going strong, not the odd craft shop here and there but two substantial 'ganterie' selling high end products with window displays reminiscent of the boutiques of the 1st arrondissement - and that lifts the spirits.

I realise France is not perfect, that unemployment among young people is endemic, parts of the de-industrialised north and east are deprived as much as the north of England, but at least the government seems to want to attempt to balance local with global rather than heading wholesale towards a casino economy run for the advantage of the wealthy.

We liked Millau, its 'alternative' vibe - how it seems to be thriving and investing in the future. I know I have been rude about some of its more crusty inhabitants, but that's because I recognise in them kindred spirits of a kind. I may not wear the uniform, but I have kudos, I have been published occasionally, and can boasts a volume of heartfelt poetry that hardly anyone bought. I would fit in...but only on one condition - that harem pants, crotch lo or hi, are not an absolute prerequisite, in my view, you don't need special pants to be a bohemian.

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