Summer Festivals

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Summer is over, and with it the annual celebrations of some of the villages that surround us. In Saint Remy de Provence, for instance, they hold a feria in mid-August, where cowboys from the Camargue compete in groups of five in running a small herd of bulls through the streets and trying not to lose one. On their white horses they form a V-formation, one guy up front and the other four on either side behind him flanking about four bulls. The young men from Saint Remy, out to show their courage and impress the girls, try to grab the last bull by the tail and separate him from the herd. The separated bull then has to be caught and brought back by a cowboy, but not before he has run wild through a screaming crowd. At one point, I was standing in a parking lot when a bull got loose and ran onto the lot where I was. Cars and trucks blocked my view but the screams told me he was near, and when he turned up again it really was too close for comfort. I cannot honestly say that I looked the bull in the eye but I was close enough to feel his spit! Quelle aventure! The whole event is very colorful, though, with lots of folklore–Arlésiennes in open coaches, cowboys dressed in the Provençal shirts of their “manade,” paso doble music everywhere–and at the end of it all the prize for the best manade, i.e. the group that lost the fewest bulls. Then, more music, dancing, and drinking to another happy ending. In Lourmarin they celebrate their Fête du Village the last weekend of August. The gypsies, who have come a long way since the days of the wooden wagons, set up a three-day carnival. Today, they have their wheeled houses pulled by Mercedes, and as soon as they set up “camp” near the village green, their fancy gleaming caravans unfold front porches, balconies, and satellite dishes. Then, the washing machine is rolled out onto the porch and for the next three days, their wash on the line becomes part of the local landscape. They run various carnival attractions such as bumper cars, shooting galleries, merry-go-rounds, roulette table, and sell chi-chis, churros and other fatty fare. And, of course, they play music, including tango and paso doble. This is always a great success with the older crowd. The women get dressed up, high heels and all, and dance with each other if their men folk won’t move, and Oscar and I dance the tango as best we can on gravel. But this year a special effort was made to get the younger generation interested, so after the usual gypsy band we got a special show. A cart was rolled onto the stage (the kind they use at airports to move luggage onto the plane) with half a dozen creatures in wetsuits and diving gear. Then, to the sounds of the James Bond movie theme, they started peeling off their masks and flippers and put on sunglasses. When the lead guy started singing into his flipper and the two back-up girls started undulating, I knew we were in for a treat. I am not sure the older villagers knew what hit them and I suspect they would just as soon stick to the tango, but you can’t stop progress! Around the same time, the village of Le Puy Ste Réparade celebrates its Fête du Pois Chiche, the chickpea! Yes, the lowly chickpea has its own festival, which shows you that nothing is too insignificant for a day-long celebration here. As so often, the party starts in church where the village priest blesses all involved (people, animals and chickpeas) and a Provençal fyfe-and-tambourine band escorts the procession from the church to the main square where the games begin. First, a hay wagon arrives, stacked high with chickpeas in the raw. For those who, like me, don’t know whether chickpeas grow on trees or in the field, it is a surprise to see what looks like small walnuts on dry twigs. These get dumped on a large canvas drop cloth laid out for this purpose. Next comes a big draught horse (I thought I recognized Hannibal from Villelaure) pulling a heavy stone roller. His handler guides him to the mass of chickpeas-on-branches on the canvas and, slowly and efficiently, Hannibal drags his roller over the piles and reduces them to broken bits and pieces. Now, an ancient-looking machine is pulled up, with a funnel-like top and a receptacle attached to its side. Two men heap the bits and pieces into the funnel, someone turns a handle, and the machine starts shaking and clattering and spitting “de-twigged” and unshelled chickpeas into the receptacle. The shells and twigs are removed and hauled away by the hay wagon, and the chickpeas are collected in baskets, to be given away later. Now the canvas is rolled up, the wine starts flowing, and lunch is served in the Salle de Fêtes where long tables are set up for a giant aioli (with chickpeas, of course). The whole village is there, kids and dogs included, and those who are still sober after lunch get a chance to take a ride on Hannibal’s back. Last time I looked, I saw a little grandmother in Provençal dress bobbing precariously on top of the huge gentle beast, her bonnet askew and her face aglow, screaming “Regardez, regardez!” the way we used to call out “Look at me, Mom”! The village band kept the good times rolling until dusk, Hannibal returned to his daily drudge, and I went home having learned the dark little secret of the chickpea.   — Anne-Marie Simons has worked as a translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races) and director of corporate communications.  Now happily retired, she lives in the south of France. TAKING ROOT IN PROVENCE by Anne-Marie Simons is available on Amazon.com. If you’re coming to France (or for that matter anywhere) you can 
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