International boundaries are odd things.
Staying in a motel a few kilometres south of France’s border with Belgium and crossing the border to visit the city of Ypres one evening, sausage and chips from one of the vans at the funfair in the city square seemed inviting. Not having a word of Flemish, it seemed courteous to order in French, Belgium being a bilingual country. The attempt was not received in the spirit that was intended. “Speak English, I am not French”, the woman replied, with the sort of vehement manner that one might expect of an Irishman who was called English.
The border which is indiscernible to the naked eye, it was unclear in one village where it had been crossed, was very rigid in cultural ways: road signs, place names, everything around seemed to be in Flemish and, if not in Flemish, in recognition of the historical resonances of the area in English.
At this end of France, the border with Spain is very substantial (one could not find much greater substance than the Pyrenees), yet culturally it is very permeable. On both Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts there is a great affinity with the communities on the Spanish side of the political boundary.
The Spanish influence could not be more strongly in evidence than in the local passion for bullfighting. For someone to whom the bull ring is a shopping centre in Birmingham, it came as a shock to find real bull rings in almost every town (and even in some villages). It is big business. The town of Dax, about twenty miles away, is midway through its annual feria and the local newspaper carries reports each morning. During the six days some 800,000 people were expected to visit the town for the festivities, which do extend beyond bull fighting, but the ring is the culmination of each day’s activities. Tickets for each evening are priced from €18 to €97 and are snapped up. There is even a scoring system which seems to run from silence, through a salute, one ear, and two ears, and culminates with a tail.
The feria is a sea of Basque colours, everyone dresses in white shirts and trousers and wears a red neckerchief. A curious Englishman who had paid €40 to a tout for a ticket for the ring answered my question about what happened if you felt awkward about turning up not properly dressed. “They have even thought of that – you can buy a white tee shirt and red neckerchief for €13”.
The problem with permeable borders is that traffic can go both ways, so the rugby club Aviron Bayonnais play their first home match not just down the road at their Stade Jean Dauger in the beautiful city of Bayonne, but in the city of San Sebastian some forty miles away, where the stadium is much bigger. To me it is crossing a border, to them it is part of one region.
Boundaries are odd things.