Americans I encounter for the first time are generally curious to find out from where I hail in France. When I respond that I was born and raised in the suburbs of Lille, in northern France, my interlocutors inevitably knit their eyebrows because they have absolutely no clue as to where my hometown is located. Sometimes, they think that I said “Lyon,” or ask me if Lille is close to Normandy… Pfttt.
Deep down, all Americans want every French person to be from either Paris or Provence, two places in France that are meant to ravish the senses and enchant the heart. And they typically know a bit about Normandy, but only because of their vague recollection of D-Day. No other French region seems to resonate with them. As far as northern France is concerned, it might as well be Uzbekistan.
For the longest time, I was an apologist of sorts for my region of origin. “You know,” I’d say, “Lille is not really a touristy place. It was an industrial town, whose economy relied heavily on a thriving textile industry that has severely dwindled down since the 1970s or so… Northern France was also coal mining country, but the mines shut down decades ago.” “Besides,” I would add, “the weather in Lille sucks. It’s always cold and rainy.” My voice would trail off, as I finally concluded, “no one ever goes there.”
Deep down, though, I was not comfortable with making excuses for Lille and its surroundings. I lived there until I was 23-years-old – to me, it was a lovely, and very happy place. Since 2001 (after I started a second career as a University Professor), I have returned there for a few weeks every summer and, each time, I have been reminded of how beautiful, exciting, and culturally vibrant my native city is. Heck, it was even the official “European Capital of Culture” in 2004!
With the release of Dany Boon’s blockbuster movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis in 2008, it suddenly became very hip to be from northern France and to be able to understand and speak the ch’ti dialect. For those of you who do not know what a Ch’ti is, this term designates a native of northern France – it is a contraction of the term Ch’timi, coined during WWI by soldiers to designate their peers from northern France, because, in their dialect, the pronouns “toi” and “moi” would become “ti” and “mi”.
In Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, Dany Boon, who is himself a Ch’ti, exploits every single negative stereotype about northern France and its inhabitants. To begin with, the protagonist, a postmaster stationed in the south, is ‘exiled’ to Bergues, a small town in northern France, as a punishment for having lied on a job transfer application. He has every reason to be wary about the region: its harsh climate, its weird dialect (which everyone from northern France speaks in the movie, even though hardly any person from the area is actually fluent in it), its strange, and somewhat disgusting food fare and abundance of beer, and its uneducated, moronic, beyond unsophisticated, and potentially alcoholic natives. But Boone exploits those stereotypes to debunk them more effectively. The region is, in fact, inherently beautiful, and the utmost generosity and kindness of all Ch’tis lead us to understand fully what Antoine, the Dany Boon character in Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, tells Philippe about northern France: “You cry when you first arrive [here], but you also cry when you have to leave.”
So, yes, I have every reason to be proud of being a Ch’ti and, instead of apologizing again for my city and region of origin, I am now their staunch advocate. As such, I invite all of those who will read this to take some time (just one hour on the TGV from the Gare du Nord in Paris) to go and visit Lille. You will be blown away by its gorgeous architecture and the friendliness of its city-dwellers. And don’t forget to enjoy the signature dish of my region: moules-frîtes with which, of course, you must quaff a good local beer (Belgian beers are highly recommended).Image credits:
1. Typical street in the Vieux Lille, the older part of town.
2. The Grand-Place in Lille, with the legendary statue of the Déesse.
3. This image is the Ch’ti magnet that I proudly display on my car.