The thing is, I don’t like crowds. And the Paris Agricultural Salon ‘s web site says that I was one of 681,213 visitors; it felt like most of them were there on the same day I visited. One of the many reasons for the timing of my late winter French trip was the Salon. Imagine the biggest state fair that you can and then make it bigger. No, bigger; and more crowded, too. I’d been there some years ago and enjoyed the wide variety of exhibitors and exhibition subjects from animals to growing stuff to regional food product.
I arrived in the morning and tried to head to the back of the show area, thinking maybe fewer crowds, but got distracted by cows. I’m tall, and cows are big enough to see over the heads of others. The French maintain many regional varieties with distinctive coloring for each; brown spots, black spots; the Normandy cows have a distinctive black ring around the eye. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such variety. I even sat in the judging area while judges slowly reviewed cows for features beyond my comprehension and watched a few (cows, not judges) make victory laps around the ring.
I finally tore myself away and decided to get back to my plan. Heading to the back exhibition halls would also put me near to the food area and it was getting to be lunch time. No rush; which was a good thing as the crowds were getting so thick that you could only move at the speed of the people around you.
The back of the hall was also the location for the small booths where vendors were direct-selling food products. It was an incredible assortment of cheeses, cured meats, wines and herbal remedies. But I had to keep moving; I wasn’t staying in Paris and didn’t want to try to carry the stuff around. Most of it wouldn’t have been allowed back into the US, even if I’d tried. I did think that the number of wholesalers that I remembered (who offered free or cheap tastes of their products) had been replaced by retailers who wanted to sell you something. Meeting the eye of someone behind the counter risked a high pressure sales encounter.
Lunch was yummy if simple; salmon in a white sauce, roasted potatoes and salad at a Scandinavian restaurant; simple trestle seating, delineated by timber and bright banners from the rest of the similar restaurants. After lunch, I intended to wander gradually back through the displays and to the front halls, this time through the dogs and cats.
The most remarkable, if somewhat scary events happened as I was wandering back through a section that narrowed between two of the exhibition halls. Between me and my destination were cameras and bright lights everywhere and a crush of people. Since I couldn’t tell exactly where the crowd was going or why, I decided to find a spot and hold my ground until I could see an escape. It became obvious that there was a person at the center of that mass who was the focus. At some point, I asked a person near me who it was and I heard “Mitterrand”. Being a badly raised Tasuni, with a poor knowledge of French history, I didn’t realize that this notable was deceased and thought he was the reason for the crowds. Holding my ground became harder as the notable at the focus of attention moved toward me. The mass shifted in my direction then flowed around me as he moved toward the man next to me and shook his hand. (It feels like moving water under your feet, btw, and you have to keep them under you in a similar way.) My irrational thoughts at close encounter, (flight/fight must have been kicking in) were first that I was much bigger than this notable and could easily take him in a fight and then that his bodyguard, placed firmly (and somewhat intimately) between me and the notable was a small man, too. Hand shaken, the moving mass pulled away from me as I congratulated myself on my crowd surfing survival skills.
There is a certain excitement in these things and even disliking crowds, I’m not immune. I found what I thought was a safer place, near a wall, and took commemorative photos of the crowd, the high hanging microphones and bright lights. Speeches were made and shouts sounded in acclamation. Once again the mass started to move. It started to move through the area by my wall, and then shifted direction again, toward me! No place to go; I once again held my ground as the notable moved toward me. This time, the women next to me got firmly kissed on both cheeks. I probably could have shaken his hand that time but for the camera in hand, doggedly videotaping.
When I could, I decided to leave by a side door rather than try to make it through the crush in the hall. There I found his cavalcade of cars, more security and police. And cameras; real French paparazzi! Someone asked me who and explained that it couldn’t be Mitterrand, maybe Mélenchon, who was slightly left of Sarkozy and doing well that week in the poles? It made much more sense that a candidate would put himself through that craziness. I cattily wondered about the big American (probably armored) SUV parked with the outside security guards and whether a French politician could actually afford to be seen getting into one.
Circling back to follow the plan, the dogs couldn’t be seen behind the crowds. Children were out of luck unless placed on the shoulders of parents. And the crowds had raised the temperature in the pavilion, along with hundreds of other animals, to the point where everyone was uncomfortable. I let the crush move me to the door, found the Metro and called it a day.
Back at my hotel, watching the evening news, along with the headline that the show was setting records for attendance, I saw a familiar face being featured. My close encounters were with François Hollande, the Socialist Candidate for President. And he had worked closely with Mitterrande in his day so I may have heard the name and misunderstood the reference.
And isn’t that just like travel! You start off with a destination and a plan for what you want to see, plants and animals, and all of a sudden, the topic changes to culture and politics! And your trip is richer for it, enhanced with small dangers and the chance to learn new things through intimate exposure. Suddenly, an ignorant Tasuni has a motivation to watch French elections more closely, to see how the petite, hardworking, courageous and affable Socialist candidate influences his country. Whether he wins or not, his leadership of the Socialist party will drive policy for the near future.
I would hope that my candid musings are not offensive, because if I had the chance to talk to him I would tell him how much I respect and admire the people of a country where gardens and gardening are so valued. I come back time and time to France to visit because I know that I’ll find inspiration; beauty and history, expressed through plants. I know that people need jobs and justice, but I selfishly hope that those problems can be solved while preserving the cultural values that I love.