What time is it? 10 p.m., not even. And it feels so much later. Once again, I’m wondering when or if I will ever be warm.
The day started off beautifully, when I met up with Carlos, Kate and Alexandre to go see the Courses Camarguaises in St-Gilles.
Who are Carlos, Kate and Alexandre and what are the Courses Camarguaises in St-Gilles?
Carlos is probably one of thre or four actual FRIENDS I have among the assistants. He is a Spanish assistant from Colombia. We met at an assistant party at the Fox Tavern, a British bar in town. While the Plastic Girls and the other anglophone assistants spoke English among themselves and lapsed into French only to order drinks or flirt with the occasional demobilized soldier or pretty chick, and the assistants from Germany and Spain stared around looking lost, Carlos was in a deep, backslapping conversation with a French bricklayer. I immediately thought, ‘That’s more like it.’ The three of us talked for hours, about school, the work world, drugs, Colombian culture, whatever else was on our minds. Alexandre was the bricklayer. In one of those weird, how-small-is-the-world moments, the bricklayer’s girlfriend turned out to be Kate.
Kate is a second-year English assistant and one of our unofficial social directors. It was she who invited everyone to the bar in the first place, and who organized the trip to the Courses Camarguaises. She’s super outgoing and adores the region, which makes her a great travelling companion.
Carlos and I came over on the regional bus, which took an hour to go 15 miles. Kate and Alexandre came two a side on Alexandre’s motorcycle…lucky Kate!
Courses Camarguaises are a traditional sport around here, and a big festival event. Carlos and I got to the arena early and were offered free pastis by a few members of the organizing committee, who were amused to see foreign tourists. We watched the crowd file in- 90 per cent elderly people, some dressed formally or in early 20th century costume, speaking in thick regional accents…they sound a little bit like Spaniards.
They were followed by a brass band in red and black suits playing “Toréador”- with a remarkable bandleader, who danced instead of marching, a spry elf of an old guy with his leaps and turns and lunges. Then Kate and Alexandre arrived– breathless, red faced and a bit deafened from the ride, helmets in hand– and in we all went. It was a holiday and few buses were running– more on that later–so we got close enough to hear the runners swear when they were gored by the bull.
High cement bleachers encircled an arena covered with sand. A red wooden fence marked off the area where the course would take place. The band played a warmup tune and a big black bull was released into the arena. A dozen or so men in white bodysuits with their names on the back leapt the red barrier.
Courses Camarguaises is a nonviolent form of bullfighting– nonviolent, that is, if you’re the bull. The bull runs around the arena with a brightly colored ribbon glued onto its flank or tied to its horn. The runners are all trying to be the first to rip off various parts of the ribbon without getting gored in the process.
The spectators may be older but the runners have to be young and in shape. We saw runners leap three feet in the air and over the red barrier to avid getting gored by the bull. I can only imagine how tired the runners must be after doing this with six bulls, each one bigger and meaner than the last.
The runners have a good incentive– a cash prize that rises constantly throughout the course. It is paid by the event’s sponsors. As the course plays out, an announcer reads out the progress of the prize in an auctioneer voice- “The mayor of Beaucaire adds ten euros. The head of the bull-sport association of Saint-Gilles adds ten euros. Café de la Gare de Saint-Gilles adds ten euros. The Midi Libre newspaper adds ten euros. The prize for the first ribbon is now at 190 euros.”
Six or seven times, a winner won the prize money. A few times, no one did– at the end of the allotted time, everyone applauded the bull.
There was supposed to be a procession, followed by a carnival with rides and games and then a running of the bulls just like in Spain. I was really looking forward to that. But it was not to be. Just before the last bull, the menacing gray sky opened and it started raining cats and dogs. It quickly became obvious that this wasn’t the kind of rain that just stops. Kate and Alexandre said goodbye and cautiously got back on the bike. Carlos and I started looking around for a bus stop.
The planned running of the bulls had changed all the bus stops around, but there were no signs telling us where to go. The driver coming down had just told us. We asked where to catch the bus for Nîmes, a festival volunteer pointed us left, and a cop pointed us right. We looked around, didn’t find it, stuck our thumbs out and did not get picked up, despite the sheets of rain. Two motorcyclists– I don’t think they were Kate and Alexandre but it was raining so hard I couldn’t see– zoomed past us and laughed. We went back to the bus stop where we started, because someone had heard the stops were back to normal what with the cancelled running of the bulls. We thought there was going to be a bus at 5:30, but no such luck.
Then someone at the stop told us that we had just misread the schedule. It was Sunday schedule today, not holiday schedule. How could we have been so silly? Never mind the fact that it wasa a weekday and a holiday. The bus was supposed to come at SIX thirty. So we had forty minutes to kill, grabbed a coffee.
I should say at this point that Carlos made an exceptional road buddy. He got frustrated at the situation, of course, but never AT ME. I can only imagine the total disgust that Roger or one of the people I went to Montpellier would have treated me with if I showed any kind of frustration. With Carlos, it’s almost like we took turns getting frustrated. One of us would go off in a corner and stomp around and curse our fate (“Hostie de calice de hijo de puta de mierda de…”) while the other would calmly stick his or her arm out and try to get us picked up.
The 6:30 bus came all right. It came, dropped offits passengers on the other side of the street, and drove off without even acknowledging the four unfortunates at the bus stop. Now we were really screwed. One of the women at the bus stop just stomped off, another called someone she knew with a car. The only person we knew with a car– Luca, the Italian assistant– was in Italy. We just stuck our thumbs out.
Dozens of cars went by in the rain and only three even stopped– an older gentleman, a trucker, and a car full of Moroccans, none of whom were going anywhere Nimes, but all of whom were very encouraging.
Now, what kind of society is this when people will just drive right by two kids stuck in the pouring rain? Does our fear of each other here in the West really outweigh our desire to help our fellow humans and even our desire to make a buck? In Russia, where I used to live, we wouldn’t have been out there five minutes when someone would have pulled over and named their price.
After a total of forty minutes, which in hindsight is actually not bad because I know people who had been stuck for four hours, one of the Moroccans came back. He said he would just traight up drive us to Nîmes for 20 euros. Considering that the taxi estimates people gave us were between 40 and 70, a motel room would have been at least that much and the only other alternative was more cold, wet waiting, off we went. Not even an hour later, the water is on for tea.