I’ve just had a couple of very pleasant days in Bordeaux. The French city on the River Garonne is defined by its passion for wine, food and a cuisine-based culture that draws on the traditions established and prized in the region of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine. With many cafés and restaurants supporting locally grown and created produce, a brief visit is steeped in a rich heritage and sense of civility.
What first struck me about Bordeaux is the strong sense of local identity, with a clear and widespread pride in the products that come from the region. This pride is reflected both in the physical investment that has been put into the buildings, creating a world-class heritage settings of the city. But also the investment in the living culture of the people of the city, which is on display everywhere, and was evident in the level of service, politeness and encouragement that visitors should partake in the same culture by trying food and wine.
Bordeaux is a busy place, with large numbers of people taking their time to chill out in the many shops and markets. We visited the Christmas Market and a Vintage Market, which are on for the next few weeks in the run-up to Christmas. We managed to take a stroll through the regular Sunday morning food market on the riverside, which is always a pleasure when so much fresh and locally made produce is on hand. Many French prefer their market to the supermarkets and convenience shops, as having a direct relationship with the producers is valued and maintained.
I was struck by a couple of things that really stood out to me in general, and in contrast to my life here in the UK. First, people are much quieter when they meet in the cafés and bars. There is very little music played in the cafés, so the predominant sound one encounters is people talking and chatting. Even in a busy bistro, it’s possible to have a conversation without raising one’s voice to be heard. I’m used to restraints and cafés in the UK playing load music, and people talking quite brashly. Here there was an active murmur, but nothing distracting.
Second, young people are socialised from an early age into meeting in cafés and restaurants, where they sit and chat respectfully and quietly to one another. There is none of the attention-seeking boisterousness that accompanies young British people when they get together in groups, and while there might not be as much money to spend as older generations, the fact that small groups of friends commune together in this way marks the process of generational-socialisation as an ongoing process.
Third, the fashion sense is fascinating. There were three main looks. The super-smart, where people wore clothes that were impeccably neat and tailored. Then there were the casuals, which were mostly jeans, boots and outdoor jackets. There was very little sportswear, and colours were much more eclectic. Then there is the French alternative look, which can be a bit hipster, with beanie caps and moustaches for the guys, with a mix of new and retro fashions combined, with trainers, scooters, and skateboards.
The city has quite a lot of independent food and clothes shops, with the chain stores integrated in a less dominant way than in a UK town centre. They are more likely to be spread out rather than clustered together. Because the old town is a maze of backstreets, we were able to stumble upon different squares and courtyards just by wandering aimlessly about, and following the flow of people and sounds, rather than sticking to the map and the main routes.
After a couple of days of feeling like I have been in a dreamland, I’ve realised that this level of civility, which is found in the simplest social interactions in Bordeaux, is normal. There is clearly some thought going into the school and the social systems that give rise to a strong sense of identity based on local pride.
Perhaps it is the low level of investment in culture, socialisation and the civic realm in the UK, that makes the experience of living here feel like it is going backwards and becoming more basic. Investment in the civic realm and cultural socialisation is the norm across Europe, and is increasingly rare in the UK. I’ve come back to the UK convinced more than ever that Brexit is a massive error, not just economically, but also culturally. Brexit needs to be corrected sooner rather than later, otherwise the sense of life falling backwards will take hold and fatalism will set in.
Changing the culture of the UK will probably take a massive programme of cultural assimilation and social development. Consigning the cheap and cheerful boozing break, for example, that many Brits think is normal, is going to take generations. We’ve become a nation that can only race for the bottom. The lowest standards of employment, the most divisive forms of education, and a complete lack of pride in socially democratic local identity.
The weekend visit has taught me that we need to get back into the European family as soon as possible, so we can reintegrate, not just our economic systems, but our social and cultural systems as well. The pride and sense of belonging that was tangible in Bordeaux, combined with an attention to detail about the shared and integrated culture – just look at the trams – is a lesson for anyone wanting to figure out where the UK goes next. Investment in people, place and purpose has taken decades to make Bordeaux the economic and cultural powerhouse it is now. It will take decades of similar action to truly level-up the UK, so we have cities that are it’s equal.