A different look at the South of France.

When I was 20 years old I moved to France. I lived there for ten months. It was for my Erasmus year as part of my degree. Perpignan is a small town 30 minutes from the Spanish border. It is situated in Northern Catalonia.

I lived in a small district known as Saint Jacques – the gypsy capital of Perpignan. It was populated mainly by North African Arabic people and French gypsies.  The women were hard working and settled. They had many children and sat in the street with them during the day. The women got up at 4.30am and worked the market until 1pm. It was desperately cold in the mornings, even in the warmer months.

The men in this district were quite different. On our first night, we were walked around the small streets of Saint Jacques. We were white women on new territory. Our landlord said it was to avoid problems by demonstrating to the street community that we were under the same roof and therefore not a threat.

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“This picture of a five year-old gypsy boy was taken on New Year’s Eve 2006 in the gypsy community of St. Jacques, Perpignan, Southern France”

Our community were very respectful of us and we had never had any problems within our district. I wish I could say the same for the whole of Perpignan but sadly I cannot.

Shortly after moving there I decided to cut my hair for two reasons;

1) I dyed it blonde and rekt it.
2) I received unbearable amounts of male harassment and attention.

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‘Blonde Bridie’

How do I know this? It was the first answer I got from every French person when I asked why was I being cat called, Followed and harassed – unlike many of my classmates.

I moved to France in 2013 to carry out two semesters in a French university as part of my degree. I was a typical ‘Bridie’. An Irish woman from the Irish countryside. I came from a place where boys and girls stood on the opposite side of the hall at the school disco. We were indirect, unassuming and painfully innocent.

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My long hair

Moving to France was a big culture shock. Not for the language, or the smelly cheese. But for the masochistic and direct behaviour of the people who made up my world. Men would follow you, whistle after you, stop at your front door and insist on taking you out. So romantic right? Wrong. It was a lot to take in. Our landlord was French. She told it like it is. If you’re pale and have long hair you are bait, she would say. What could be worse?

***Please read the next part with caution. This information is drawn from personal experience.*** There is one thing that’s worse… I was fortunate in that I had dark brown hair. I know students who had blonde hair and they suffered much worse. They had to put up with dreadful physical, mental and verbal harassment. I had a classmate from England was repeatedly harassed, called a whore, slapped, grabbed on the street.

On one occasion a man grabbed her by the hair on a busy train and tried to pull it from her head. This is a more extreme case but I mention it because there was nothing to ward the behaviour. She was a studious, attentive and diligent student. She did not deserve what happened to her. Another time, she was walking in the town centre when a man jumped off his moped and walloped her on the arse. He laughed and sped off. It was like I was living in an alternate universe. No one batted an eyelid.

Walking to college and visiting the town centre was a different story. “Vous êtes toute seule?” is an absolutely horrible thing to hear when you’re walking down the street. One could not walk in peace, sit on the beach front in peace, drink a coffee in peace. Men were constantly sitting next to us, remarking on how beautiful we are.

I suddenly begin to remember one time sitting by the rocks on Canet plage, I had just been for a swim and my hair was horribly matted and I had sand all over me. A guy came over and asked if I knew how beautiful I was. I was terribly naive and having watched too many rom coms I agreed to let him walk me to the bus stop. In this time he had said everything short of offering a marriage proposal. That night my Facebook was overrun with comments from him and he even shared one of my photos calling me his girlfriend. I blocked him and learned my lesson.

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After the chop

When I cut my hair, I noticed an astonishing difference in male attention. It was like I was sudddenly doing my day to day business in an invisibility cloak. No one noticed me and it was bliss. I was able to walk down the street with ease, I didn’t have to worry about being followed or pestered walking in town. I was alarmed by the difference in being brunette rather than blonde and having short hair rather than long hair.

It didn’t put an end to the harm however. I eventually moved

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Perpignan town centre

I spent ten months in Perpignan. I would like to say it got it easier as time went on, but it didn’t. From speaking with other students, I learned that these were not isolated incidents. Similar incidents were occurring all around the South of France. If you made a move to France, how did you find the intimate aspects of the culture?

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Perpignan on the map
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