Thursday, 5 March 2009
We went to the Salon International d'Agriculture in Paris last week. It's taken me until now to recover. The French, as we all know, are big on farming and food and this is a massive and hugely popular annual event. It is to food and farming what the fashion shows are to haute couture with animals as perfectly groomed as catwalk models only better fed and less skinny.
The whole place was heaving even on a credit-crunch weekday and with tickets costing 12 euros, nearly £12 at current exchange rates. The metro carriage had became increasingly sweaty as we approached and pouring out of the station there were long queues for tickets. My American friend and I reverted to national stereotypes and thwarted several shameless queue jumpers who sidled in front of us by sending them to the back of the line. For our efforts we were treated to some fabulous excuses including: "Oh I am sorry, I was just trying to get a better look at the ticket office".
This year's Salon featuring 1,000 exhibitors from 17 countries and around 4,500 animals attracted more than 670,000 visitors. Once inside we spent our time trying to protect our toddler offspring from being trampled by the crowd and, like good city mothers, preventing them from being eaten or worse, dribbled or peed on, by various penned animals. Thankfully most of the farmers seem to have disappeared for lunch at the moment La Fille chose to do her impersonation of an urban wimp hopping on one foot and yelling "urgh, urgh, urgh there's poo on my shoe" after she trod in a cow pat. (It must be genetic; her elder half-sister once complained she didn't like the countryside because "it smells".)
The hangar-like exhibition halls were manned by no nonsense, ruddy-faced country folk who normally wouldn't be seen dead in Paris unless cattle prodded into coming here to wave angry banners and throw freshly-laid eggs at the Ministry of Agriculture. Last year one lippy paysan insulted the president and was told to "Sod off, you idiot". These are people who, on their rural home turf, are often happier to talk to foreigners than have an exchange with someone from Paris. Here they were chatting, God knows even smiling, to visitors most of whom were Parisiens and couldn't tell one end of an unsheared ovine from the other.
And some of the animals were magnificently weird: we saw sheep wearing hand-crafted coats to stop their eight-inch deep fleece getting dirty, chickens that looked like they were wearing those pom-pom type socks you see on Greek soldiers, cockerels with beady eyes and blood red combs, perfectly symmetrical 101-dalmation rabbits, pedigree dogs including a preened white poodle having a silly haircut and a couple of grumpy donkeys who were clearly not enjoying themselves. Somehow we missed the bulls altogether but we did come across a spectacularly well-hung prize-winning pig. My friend and I giggled like silly schoolgirls and assumed the children who were concentrating on shoving their hands at the animal's snuffling nose, hadn't noticed.
When we returned home, La Fille devoted a page in her school homework book to the Salon d'Agriculture. On the way to school Monday I asked what she was going to say when asked to explain her work to the class. She said: "I'm going to tell them about all the animals, especially the pig with the bizarre bottom." Thankfully she didn't hear me snorting into my scarf. It was one of those rare occasions where I was entirely lost for words.