Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How to be cool

Part 1

Young boys across the world do stupid things to impress girls but nowhere have I ever seen anything quite as foolishly macho - or is it masochistic - as the customers at the mobile pastis bar at the Clarensac village fete this weekend.

To give you some context, every year the villages near Nimes hold annual bull runs. The Gardians - or bull herders - from the Camargue are challenged to drive the bulls through the village streets. Their objective is to keep the young bulls sandwiched between the protective cordon formed by their white horses. Meanwhile the villagers try and break the bulls free and steal the garlands from their horns. Successful competitors paint bull motifs outside their house and the front door of a champion bull runner is covered in enough hieroglyphics to make a pharaoh jealous.

Most of the village cowers behind bull repellent iron railings while the young boys let off excess testosterone. Some of them stand directly in the path of the horses, forcing the rider to veer out of the way and release the bulls, others attack from behind and grab the bull’s tail allowing themselves to be swept along with the nonchalance of skateboarders hitching a lift on the passing fender of a bus.

But the really cool people ignore the surrounding mayhem and have a pastis at the bar. The fact that this bar has been wheeled directly into the path of the rampaging bulls is of no importance, for behind the padded walls of the mobile bar, a couple of the cutest young girls in the village are serving drinks. In this context displaying even a flicker of interest in the bulls is considered too big a risk - lose eye contact with the girl and they might lose her forever. And so with their hair slicked back, they drink their pastis and make small talk oblivious to the fact that their testicles are about to be skewered. Now that’s cool.

Part 2 - How to be uncool

Tanya and I were at the festival because Tanya’s sister Claire, who lives just outside Nimes had gone to England for the weekend, and asked us to baby-sit her children - Rosie (5), Tristan (3) and Freya (8 months). In the UK we would probably have had a walk in the park and got some videos out for the children. But despite their age, and only having lived in the village for a couple of years, the kids were infected by bull fever.

The first run was scheduled to start at midday, but as I confidently informed Tanya, this was the south of France and nothing happened on time. At about 12.15 we ducked our way through the protective railings and headed towards the centre of the village. Tristan held one of my hands and Rosie the other, while Tanya pushed a sleeping Freya. We walked quickly aware that we had to get back behind the railings before the bulls were released.

The crowd around us thinned suggesting the moment was approaching. As we pulled the children anxiously onwards, the air cracked around us, and a puff of smoke from the gunshot drifted across the village roofs. The bulls were about to be released and we were standing in their prospective path with two toddlers and an infant. At that moment we made babysitters who raid drink’s cabinets look like model professionals.

The second the shot was fired Tanya set off like an athlete from the blocks. I hoisted Rosie under one arm and Tristan under the other and frantically followed. Moments later we stood panting behind the barriers as the villagers looked on in bemusement, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was about, after all the bulls were so far off they hadn’t even wheeled out the mobile bar yet.