(Aelbrecht Cuyp, Paysage près de Rhenen, 1650-55, Louvre)
The greatest mystery about other people, even greater than Why They Love That Person, or Why They Spend Their Money That Way, is What They Do For Kicks. One person who heard that we were spending six months in Paris said, "Better you than me!" like a malediction. But La Potiche is still a votary of the Great Mystery: it reminds us that we're not clones. Maybe your idea of pleasure, as somebody recently told La Potiche, is "Totally wasting time. You know, lying on the beach reading novels." Maybe not a Great Mystery to some people, but certainly one to La Potiche, maybe because she is a novelist. Bizarre bizarre, mystère et boule de gomme!
Recently, we have been confined to our studio more than usual by deadlines, colds, rain, and little logistical setbacks. However, we've gotten out once or twice for kicks. One day, we went to the Château de Versailles. One day, we attended the Salon International de l'Agriculture, the preeminent annual farm expo in France.
(left: Cuyp-like heritage breed of cow: the maraichine)
Now, when we first decided to decamp to Paris, the first date La Potiche noted on her calendar was the Salon: "We must clear that Friday night for the Salon," she told Le Prof. "We will not go to the Louvre Nocturne; we will not see an opera; we will not travel to Bayeux to look at any old tapestry. We are going to the Ag Fair, and if you will not go with me, I shall go alone and find a producteur bio to marry." A joke! In fact, Le Prof and La Potiche both enjoy an ag fair; that was the Reason They Got Married. They were both insanely curious to see if it would be any different in the City of Lights. And it was!
For one thing, everybody was wearing black. Even some of the animals wore black (OK, only this one). The only people not in black were the ones wearing 19th century regional costume to hawk gingerbread and whole boar heads.
For another, in one giant convention hall, a quarter of the stalls were devoted to Burgundy and cognacs. Another quarter was devoted to Champagne. Young drunk people (wearing black) lay on the floor, amidst bales of hay, guzzling flutes of bubbly from Épernay.
There were fried foods: whole seared foie gras. The candy stalls sold jars of salted caramel, Montélimar nougat, and candied clementines and angelica (big, glossy green stems of it). They had oysters from the Ile d'Oléron and more cheese stalls than we could count. At one cheese stall, next to the Goat Village, twenty women were handing out cubes of twenty kinds of goat cheese made from Goat Village goat milk. We could not get close to that cheese stall, though, because we got stampeded by teenagers clamoring for goat cheese.
(left: Regional expo poster, 1909. Musée du Quai Branly)
There was also an "American Sandwich" stand selling things that, from a distance, looked like hoagies: baguettes stuffed with prosciutto and gruyère and grilled till the cheese got nice and brown around the edges. The American Sandwiches looked delicious, but nobody was eating them, because they'd run over to stampede the Apple stand. At the Apple stand, they were giving away free slices of raw apple, one per person. The apples seemed no different from the apples you can buy at the supermarché: they weren't fancy ones like Reinette Clochards, which cost a couple cents more. But at any given moment throughout the fair, 200 people were elbowing each other out of the way for slices of raw apple.
On that note, there was a bouncy castle full of shrieking happy children! But the bouncy castle was shaped like a fruit bowl, and the little French children rattled around in it like rambutans. Did I mention there was also a rambutan stall? Rambutans grow, not in Paris, but in Polynésie française. All the départements d'outre-mer (overseas) get stalls, as do the départements of métropolitan France, and the aforementioned Americans and representatives of other countries. They try to outdo each other in throwing the best party. The winners appeared to be Corsica, Mexico, Guadeloupe, and Champagne. The New Caledonians were not even trying to party, though who can blame them?
There was a reenactment of the Trojan War, which le Prof watched from start to finish, though La Potiche sneaked away to Donkey Village, since one of her fantasies is to pull a Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cévennes. Also, a butter contest, in which contestants were to sample regional butters and guess where the best sample had come from. Wow. In the U.S., can anybody even tell the difference between regional butters, much less arrive at an incontestable, unanimous assessment of master churning? But I do not think it was fair of the contest's administrators to put mashed strawberries into the pot marked "Poitou-Charentes." That was just messing with people's heads. Or maybe I didn't quite understand the contest. It is possible that it was not a contest at all, but somebody's picnic dinner.
But in many ways, the Salon was like ag fairs back home. There were fascinating heritage breeds of cattle and swine with naturally distinctive hairdos, and poneys (they spell it with an E here)! There were a lot of visitors who'd come to get drunk and make animal noises at animals. It was a heck of a lot of fun. And it filled us with uncomfortable thoughts about the agricultural uses of animals, the foie gras, and the nationalism. For me, it was worst in the Hall of Plants. Just like at home, nobody was in the Hall of Plants, because you get nothing back when you moo at a stand of mustard greens. But the Salon's Hall of Plants was sadder than any other I'd seen, because it didn't seem to contain any plants, apart from an artificial glade. For some reason, the Salon takes place in February, when nothing is left in the ground.
(right: Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem, Bergère trayant une chèvre/Shepherdess milking a goatess), 1648-50, Louvre)
It is strange to hold a Salon in a season and in a city when there is no harvest. For one night at least, the French people around us were as touristy, or some of them even more so than we were, in a half-real, half-imaginary countryside. I think that the crisis of French agriculture is not so different from that in the U.S.: a crisis of distance, between urban consumers and rural producers, and between the interests of corporations and the interests of both farmers and consumers. This year's Salon had the theme of attracting people back to farming, to try to close that distance, to un-imagine the countryside. Terroir is a big thing here, but it doesn't extend to the majority of things that people need to eat, which is to say, to most agricultural products--and where you don't find terroir, you find the risks of environmental degradation, industrialization, spiraling debt, and the destruction of viable livelihoods in agriculture. So, the day after the Salon, La Potiche was thinking about all the big banks offering loans at the Salon, and feeling grim about the latest emails about Monsanto in her inbox, when, upon reviewing the pictures from Versailles, she sensed a blog post theme....
Versailles! First, a few of our favorite things at Versailles:
Cycling. Whoosh! If you rent a bike, you can get past the crowds, past the gardens--which are nice, but in February, stiff and unvarying--and follow the waterways out to the park. Way out there, you can see that the bombastic cross-shape of the canal and the regimented lines of squared-off trees do have an aesthetic end beyond rigidity: to make you concentrate on the wind in the branches; the muted, varied colors and movements of waves; the smells of soil, moss, and sap; and, half-hidden among the fallen leaves, hundreds of thousands of snowdrops, ephemeral and porcelain and terribly difficult to photograph. It's beauty in details, which is SO not what you're expecting out there. But unless you're on a bike, you might freeze to death before you make it there and back. (right: Philippe Cognée, painting from Echo installation, Versailles)
And po-ta-toes! Baked potatoes! Seriously, the best food deal in all of Versailles? We avoided Ladurée (meh macarons, wildly overpriced) and Angelina's (good hot chocolate, overpriced), to get potatoes! Piping hot, roasted over charcoal, with crispy edges. The paper salt packets contained flakes of gray sea salt! It was just like that scene in Farmer Boy where Almanzo and Alice gnaw on the roasted potato that's the best potato they've ever had....except WE were in FRANCE eating potatoes. And Le Prof had his topped with potato salad. Isn't that wild?
We also liked the absence of the squeamish conservatism of taste that derives from uncertainty about what IS good taste. Tastemakers don't worry about making things look tasteful. They go crazy with gold leaf cherubs and flocked wallpaper and upholster their settees with tapestries of their own faces emitting the rays of the sun. When the Royal Upholsterer asked, "What pattern does his Majesté wish for the new settees?" Louis XIV answered, "Oh, well, maybe some fleur-de-lis...or, you know, a nice houndstooth, or...who am I trying to kid? WE'RE GOING WITH SUN KING! SUN KING ALL THE WAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
But the real reason La Potiche dragged Le Prof to Versailles was to see the recreation of the Petit Hameau de la Reine, Marie Antoinette's little hamlet, which contained a model farm. Click on it to see a larger picture.
If you like, you can refer to the Internets for information about how Marie Antoinette's court enemies and Revolutionary propaganda distorted the purposes of the Hameau. The historians of 18th century France wish you to know that Marie Antoinette did not dress up as a dairymaid or shepherdess; she is not known to have ever milked a cow or cavorted with a sheep. She did like dairy products. She liked to throw strawberries-and-cream picnics for her friends. And she hired a full-time farming family to work the Hameau, to supply the tables of Versailles and the royal family's Parisian residences. Which is to say, she started what amounts to a Versailles CSA.
It goes without saying that the mis/appropriation of the resources of, say, an entire nation, in the pursuit of one's own pleasure, is bad. So, leaving aside Marie Antoinette's place in history as a whole, I'd like to suggest that there are other, and, I think, more provocative ways to look at the Petit Hameau. Marie Antoinette got her kicks by commissioning a model farm and entering into a relationship with an actual farmer for their mutual sustenance. There's a lot worse you can do with misappropriated funds; there's a lot worse you can do with your own earnings. It seems to me that, in this respect, we would all do well to be a little more like Marie Antoinette. There are so many good reasons to take an interest in agriculture: the environment, politics, and the health and well-being of your community, wherever you live. But for people who can't be moved by Goodness, there's still pleasure. That's finally what we took away from the Hameau, as from the Salon: pleasure in handiwork, pleasure in the animals, pleasure in connecting with rural life, which is badly threatened here as in the U.S. Despite the gravity of the situation, the Salon and the Hameau need to be fun. We all have to come together in experiencing the Great Mystery, because pleasure is what it usually takes to make urban people realize that farmers' interests are also their own.
(above: waiting room upholstery, Versailles)