The paradox of moving somewhere else

by Terence MacNamee

Here in Switzerland a while ago there was a referendum about “secondary residences”. This means people building chalets or (more often) buying into apartment blocks in and around the Alpine ski resorts. The people who do this either live in the big cities in Switzerland or else they are from another country like Germany. These housing developments have been mushrooming, basically taking over picturesque Alpine villages and turning them into a kind of urban sprawl. Because they are not occupied for a large part of the year, the secondary residences are known as “cold beds”. In the Swiss referendum, a majority voted to put a cap on the construction of secondary residences, on the good grounds that the Alps are losing their character to this unchecked development.

An Englishman named Peter Mayle wrote a book called A Year in Provence about his adventures buying and fitting up an old house in the South of France – the picturesqueness of the landscape, the quaintness of the locals, and all the usual stuff you find in books like that. It turned out to be a bestseller, and soon British and Americans started buying up every other house in Provence. As a matter of fact, there is now a craze in the Anglo-Saxon world for buying up picturesque farmhouses in villages anywhere in France. The effect on the authenticity of the landscape can easily be imagined.

Secondary residences have something in common with immigration. They change the character of the place. That is the paradox: you go somewhere because you like it there, because it is different from what you know. But by going there in large numbers, you change the place and it starts to look like what you left.

Thinking specifically of immigration, I recall an American man who was helping out unaccompanied minors coming across the Rio Grande saying to a newspaper reporter: if they all come here, this country will no longer be what they came here for. Very astute observation! Secondary residences spell “change from above” and immigration spells “change from below” but the same principle is at work: people come looking for something – and because they come, it changes and eventually disappears.

There is not much can be done about either kind of change, as far as I can see. The trends in economic and social development worldwide are feeding them both. The prosperous Western countries now have little population growth, and the poorer parts of the earth do. The prosperous countries need immigration to keep the pot boiling, and people from the poorer parts can supply it. Meanwhile, in many parts of Europe, the countryside is dying, with peasant folk moving to find work in the cities, leaving picturesque, empty farmhouses to be snapped up by foreign buyers.