Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 13, 2009

Common Sense and Humanism in the Auvergne

To Sir With Love

I’m a pushover for films about teachers; in part because in a previous professional incarnation I was one for 32 years. That is why Goodbye Mr. Chips (either version) can reduce me to mush; or To Sir with Love, a film in which everything is wonderful in the end and all social problems are resolved. Hands up all those who remember Lulu and the theme song “But how can you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume….”? Cue the violins. Even Miss Jean Brodie in her prime can stir my pedagogical soul even though I always recognized her misguided idealism.

I realize that such films tend to be rather romanticized, which is also why they are relatively easy to identify with. However, Être et Avoir, (To Be and To Have), another “teacher film” shot in 2002 in France’s Auvergne, manages to deal with the subject matter without an excess of hearts and flowers, while at the same time giving an insider’s view of a travel region that is often overlooked or underappreciated.

The film is also an expression of some generic philosophical-psychological issues such as separation anxiety (in its many manifestations) and what I call “the loneliness of the long distance child.” Like the Auvergne itself, Être et Avoir is a film about learning the basics and, if you’re lucky, gaining a little wisdom along the way. As the principal person in the film says — he’s the only teacher in a one-class primary school in this part of rural France — “My father used to say that the ground was a long way down.”

If you haven’t seen the film in a while, it (like the Auvergne) is worth a second visit. Initially Être et Avoir may seem to pluck at the heart strings, but the feelings evoked are not superficial, nor are they trivialized. As a matter of fact the film is kind of scary in that its pastoral setting — quintessential Auvergne — emphasizes the solitude of the human condition using little kids and a kindly teacher as the lead characters. Each time I watch it, I am reminded of the expression au gré du temps et de l’espace (at the whim of time and space). The film is a documentary shot in situ, and is, to a great extent, a case study of the region — and how landscape shapes culture.

Located more or less in the geographical centre of France, the Auvergne is slowly being rediscovered, but primarily by travellers who are not interested in the fastest route to the beach. This is the Massif Central, one sixth of the total area of France, with over 80 dormant volcanoes, and where the forests, rivers, and streams inherent to such topography create many opportunities to get far from the madding crowd, and to remember what personal space is all about. I recall especially the sensations of standing atop Puy-de-Dôme, one of the younger volcanoes, and feeling a tremendous sense of liberation. It may be one of the best spots in France to get a renewed sense of perspective. It’s not surprising therefore that the Auvergne has also become a role model for soft adventure, green tourism, agritourism, and heritage travel; niche markets that are increasingly of interest to aging travellers who have just a soupçon of immortal longings in them.

Être et Avoir, is also a story about protecting private spaces, because that is at the heart of the relationships between Monsieur Lopez, the reserved but gentle teacher in Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, and his unworldly but nonetheless complex young pupils. It is the environmental integrity and authenticity of the Auvergne that also resonates with me; two fundamental qualities that I as a travel journalist always look for in a destination, especially given that the travel and tourism industry is, quite understandably, all about marketing.

Selling a destination however does not necessarily mean selling out; however there can be a slippery slope. Reality-based travel can tend to become Disneyfied once the destination is put in the PR pot. But in some destinations — the Auvergne is one — fundamental human values are still the essence of the culture. What I find interesting, moreover, is that tourism authorities are now discovering that many travellers (especially those who prefer to engage with a destination rather than just come and look) are now actively searching out back-to-basics destinations where they can rediscover fundamental values such as human decency.

And this is the underlying theme in Être et Avoir — and in the Auvergne. It is also what director Nicolas Philibert has achieved in his beautifully subtle film.

As I often say, not all teachers are in the classroom.

For more information visit the Auvergne official website at www.auvergne-tourisme.info.

To watch a brief excerpt from this wonderful film, click here.

This article was first published in Emag, the inflight magazine of Eastern Airways, one of the UK’s principal regional airlines.

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