Monday, August 24, 2015

The Modern Bull Worshipers


In the Age of Antiquity bull worshiping was widespread in Europe and Asia. Now, the cult is restricted to India and a small corner of southern France, on the Mosquito Coast (check previous blog for location). It takes place during the warm months of the year, from April to November at the occasion of the fêtes votives (village festivals). The initial purpose of these fêtes was to venerate the patron saint. Today, not only have the saints been forgotten after decades of republican and anti-clericalism fervor, but the Christian origin has been lost on younger generations. If asked, a local youth will reply that fêtes votives are bull festivals. At the same time, the know-it-all Parisian will perplexedly stare at you, as fêtes votives are considered exotic events to people living outside the Mosquito Coast region.

The locals take fêtes votives very seriously, the longer the better. They customarily last a week; however, some bull-mad villages in the Camargue offer entertainment for up to 9 days. Activities commonly start at 10 am and finish at 4 am the following day, every day. Since many fêtes overlap, competition between villages is fierce. In Languedoc and Provence, there are some 2 000 days a year dedicated to fêtes votives. Obviously, they give ready ammunition to primal French bashing: Are they not another indication of the French lackadaisical approach to work? Wrong. As stated above, the fêtes votives pre-date the much derided 35-hour-work-week, the icon of social conquest, and are hard work for the participants, including the bulls, their sidekicks the white Camargue horses and regrettably for some, the bartenders.


                                       Racing through the village

Bulls are worshiped like rock stars. The bravest ones receive accolades, medals and their exploits are reported in newspaper articles. The private life of the fête-votive-celebrity bulls attracts the attention of paparazzi as the picture below shows. Champion bulls die in their beds, so to speak, contrary to toros (Spanish bulls) which are expendable: some 7200 toros have died in corridas (bullfights) during the summer of 2015.


Up close and personal with Greco, the celebrity bull (From MIdi Libre, Aug, 9)

Top Camargue bulls have their own grave with a tombstone describing their achievements, and some have been immortalized with a statue. Before WWII, the town of Beaucaire in the Gard department had a bronze statue representing a famous racing bull, but it was melted (to make guns) by the occupying German army. So in the early 1960s, the undeterred inhabitants put up a new one in stone. Many villages have statues to “generic” bulls and there are more bull statues than those of Charles de Gaulle’s gracing Mosquito Coast villages.

The wild Camargue bulls are smaller but smarter than their Spanish cousins. Their shiny black coat wraps 300 kgs of muscles and their lyre-shape horns make them distinctive. They are the kings of the bull-ring during the courses camargaises (Camargue bull racing) where they face the razeteurs, the players dressed in white who try to snatch the threads pinned between their horns. Bulls make their fame by not allowing the razeteurs to reach their goals. After participating in a couple of races, bulls learn the trade, become “experts” and enhance their value and the bets placed on their name. Fans are drawn to the races by the fame of the competing bulls, whose names are written in big bold letters on the posters. The names of the razeteurs are in smaller characters, as they play second fiddle to the bulls.


                          Course camargaise: close encounter

In addition to the courses camargaises, anonymous bulls are drafted for village entertainment by running in the streets. They are let loose under the “protection” of the gardians (cowboys) on their white Camargue horses. The thrill is to stop the bulls literally by the horns in their run and get one’s picture taken. Youth fall over themselves to compete in these events which take place twice a day during the whole fête votive. Unlike in Spain where some nine men were gored to death this summer, accidents are few. However, village festivals are not risk-free. When chasing a razeteur, a bull can jump into the grandstands and hurt seating spectators or distracted picture-taking tourists can be knocked down by running horses.


                     To catch a bull: attrapaire in Occitan language.

Bulls, too lazy or too dumb to graduate into fête votive material end up in the pot. At least, they have the satisfaction of having their meat labeled AOC, a French stamp for Controlled Designation of Origin and certified organic meat. Bull meat is increasingly popular with health conscious carnivores.

Fêtes votives have a not so negligible impact on the rural economy; the activities are funded by the mairie (village town council) and the local trade benefits for the economic windfall. Dedicated to bull racing, the manades (the bull and horse breeding ranches of Camargue) are the main beneficiaries. Without these rural traditions and related tourism, there would be little commercial incentive to preserve the unique bulls and horses of Camargue.


                                    To cool off after the action.

The Languedoc and the western part of Provence are quite exceptional in France for aggressively preserving their rural traditions, even if deemed dangerous. Surprisingly, young people are the most passionate guardians of this bull racing folklore; the danger is part of the fun, a rite of passage.

However, these long village fêtes have their critics. Many believe that this bull worshiping is pretense for week-long bacchanalias where kids drink themselves unconscious and put their life and that of others in jeopardy. In this crybaby era, the village mayors are compelled to increase safety and security to protect themselves from potential lawsuits. But risk-free and unexciting races are not to the liking of the bull worshipers, whether clear-headed or intoxicated. Gallons of pastis, a local anise-flavored spirit are consumed during the fiesta, to the point many argue that pastis not bulls is the symbol of the region. To limit boozing related brawls and accidents, some mayors are trimming the duration of the fiesta. The final blow comes from the purists who claim that nowadays, fêtes votives have lost their soul, becoming a caricature of traditions and a show to attract tourists.


This blogger believes that it will be a cultural loss if run-away drinking leads to the demise of a vibrant tradition which sets this region apart from the rest of France. This pagan ritual centered on the bull is cherished by young people; it is up to them to protect it. The choice is theirs.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Mosquito Coast with a Gallic Accent


In 1981, American author Paul Theroux wrote a novel titled Mosquito Coast, which tells the story of a utopian American family destroyed by its patriarchal leadership in a tropical region. The name is derived from the local Indians, the Miskitos who lived on the eastern coast of what is now Honduras and Nicaragua where the family settles. The story has nothing to do with mosquitoes. The real Mosquito Coast is to be found in the South of France, in the Languedoc region on the Mediterranean coast between the city-ports of Marseille to the east and Sète to the west. Plagued by mosquitoes until the mid-20th century, it was known as the Malaria Coast. Some forty different mosquito species have been identified in the region.

During WWII, and the subsequent Nazi occupation, the region was regarded as inhospitable even by the occupying forces! In 1943, 200 malaria deaths were officially reported. Yellow fever was also endemic. Dreaded by people, this backwater region nonetheless offered an appealing and unique ecosystem with picturesque saltwater lagoons, pristine sandy beaches, swamps where white horses and black bulls roamed freely and more than 400 bird species mosquitoes’ sole predators! The fabled Camargue wetlands located in the Rhone River delta embody the rugged beauty of this land.


                                                                                                                                                            Camargue Birds (photo C.D.)                                                       




                                                                                                                                                                 Camargue Bulls in Swamps


The Languedoc was freed from both the occupying forces and the mosquitoes at more or less the same time. In 1944, the DDT pesticide was made available to France and was an instant game changer in the Languedoc. Development could start in earnest. In the late 50s, the government launched a mega-tourism project, and between 1960 and 1970, a number of new coastal resorts sprouted, of which the Grande Motte and Port Camargue are the most famous. Developers targeted middle class families which could not afford the French Riviera. La Grande Motte now receives over 2 million tourists a year and Port Camargue has become the largest European marina. In the summer months, some 6000 boats are harbored there.



                                  La Grande Motte Marina                                               

                                                                                                                                 In the early 70s, the mosquito-free resorts had become increasingly popular with the 30-day-a-year-paid-vacation French people when the bad news hit: DDT was banned. A carcinogenic chemical included in the DDT formula had entered the food chain. DDT was eradicating mosquitoes but people and birds had become its collateral victims. The pink flamingoes and water birds of Camargue are significant tourism attractions and had to be protected.

New generations of environment-friendly pesticides, used with abandon (though not as effective as DDT), have until recently kept the mosquito nuisance under control. In spite of this all-out fight, mosquitoes cannot be totally eradicated. Moreover, the globalization and global warming cocktail has stimulated the migration of aggressive species from Africa and Asia. In Languedoc, they are delighted to find warm weather, stagnant lagoons and plenty of victims freshly landed from Northern France or Europe. Among these unwelcome newcomers, tiger mosquitoes are the most feared, they bring diseases like dengue fever and chikungunya. Actually, the tigress mosquito is the one to fear; only the females bite, they need blood to mate and produce their eggs.



                                                                                                                                                         Aedes albopictus at work (Tiger Mosquito)


This summer, the Languedoc and neighborhood coastal regions deserved their moniker of the French Mosquito Coast. Mosquito attacks have been extremely disruptive, wreaking havoc on the French way of life. Mosquitoes predominantly launch their strikes during apéro time. Apéro is a major ritual in France, religiously followed by the French and eagerly adopted by the tourists. Apéro is short for apéritif, a relaxing moment to socialize with friends or strangers sipping rosé or pastis. It can take place twice a day, either before lunch or dinner, or on both occasions.

Scientists have recently discovered why these blood suckers love to target people enjoying apéro and how they chose their victims. At 50 meters away, mosquitoes can smell CO2 plumes coming from people breath and, when closer they select their next meal by darting in on a heat source, in this case body heat. The more revelers the better, the mosquito’s modus operandi is very similar to that of carnivorous mammals! To escape mosquito’s attack is mission impossible unless you generously spray jungle formula repellent on all exposed body parts. All the same, the unnerving buzzing of hungry and angry mosquitoes will spoil the apéro.

Fortunately, relief may be coming soon. A French company is testing a mosquito vacuum cleaner which mimics people breathing and perspiring (body sweat odor). When getting close, the mosquitoes are sucked into the receptacle where they die. According to the ongoing experiment in a Camargue village, 70% of the mozzies end up in the box. Price tag: € 500! Not cheap, but the French are ready to make the financial investment to protect their sacrosanct apéro