During my wanderings I have met the nomadic peoples of France.
Several times on the road as I looked for a place to stay, I saw signs for “Aire pour gens du voyage”, “site for the travelling community”. I hesitated. Technically, literally, those are set up for people like me. But “gens du voyage” is the politically correct term for gypsies, more commonly called “gitans” or “manouches”. I simply have no idea of the reaction I would get if I parked up on one of those sites, but I doubt it would have been friendly, so I stayed away.
I also met “teufeurs”, “keupon” and “punks à chiens”. “Teufeurs” are the people going to “teuf”, the verlan word for “fête”. “Uneteuf” is an illegal rave-party. “Keupons” is the verlan word for “punk”, and “punks à chiens” is just an observation that these people tend to have dogs. I found them to be open, generous, welcoming people, despite an undeniable penchant for drugs of all types, and their generalised anger towards society.
There are also the artists on the road. Musicians, clowns, story tellers, jugglers and slack line enthusiasts, festival volunteers, even chefs on tour. Coming across strangers and strange places is what they do all the time, what nourishes their arts and their lives. Dreamers. It is difficult not to feel inspired by those people, bringing life and art wherever they go.
Perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum, but nomadic nonetheless, are the camping-carists. These are mostly retired people during the spring and autumn, travelling as couples or small groups of friends. Those people have played by the rules of society, and won. They have earned a house on wheels, as well as a house. Their hard work, and Western Europe’s prosperity, allow them to fulfil both their sedentary and nomadic instincts. I have found them to be friendly, open, relaxed, curious about my life. But these were one-sided conversations, rather short encounters; they had no need to tell their life stories to a stranger. There are the campervanners; the younger, more mobile, sportier version of camping-carists.
In camping-cars you also find families with children, in July and August, with another feel; their escape from the daily grind is temporary. Those people are on a mission to pack as much family time and rest (if those are compatible) into a short time; encounters with strangers don’t fit into their programme. As ever in those circumstances, it is children (and dogs) who cross social barriers and approach strangers.
There are the seasonal workers, too. Working either in tourism or in agriculture, they live permanently in camping-cars. They work very hard; the former also play very hard. They tend to be fountains of knowledge; they have shared with me the wildlife and history of particular areas, given me insights into working conditions in tomato greenhouses in Brittany, the apple harvest season the Ardèche, the weather that makes or breaks the asparagus harvest, the best walk to do when I am on the other side of the country.
Friends had asked me whether there was a nomadic community; in fact there are communities. I have come to think that we all have both yearnings, one for home and one for travel. Individuals forge their own path to answer these two callings. But perhaps society would be less fragmented if it acknowledged both. We are all “gens du voyage”.