I've just returned from a cultural manifestation I don't think I quite understand. In fact, I may have to live here a while before I really get it.
As the above image indicates, amidst Ricardo Bofill's hideously ugly, ironic neo-fascist architecture of Montpellier's Antigone neighborhood, today the associations gathered. In other words, today is the day of associations. Now, Marie told me that this was one of the things she most liked to do all year, something she looked forward to eagerly, but she was going to miss it because her granddaughter's getting christened today. I had no idea what this thing was, but hey, what else is there to do on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-September, anyway?
So I walked down there and took a look, and was pretty bowled over. Coming out of the Polygone mall, I hit a plaza that had been taken over by musical groups: choirs, music schools, dance groups, orchestras. Each one had a booth, and a bunch of girls dressed in cowboy hats, matching blouses and skirts, and cowboy boots were stepping to some loud pop music, American flags in the background. I never did figure this one out.
But, moving further into the melée, there was more culture: painting lessons, groups of painters, more dancers: there were African dance groups, Indian dance groups, Moroccan dance groups, flamenco dance groups, Brazilian dance groups...
And that was just the dance groups. As I pushed further, there were the friendship groups. The Jewish Association of Montpellier. Franco-Vietnamese, -Laotian, -Scottish, -Gabonais, -Spanish, -Bulgarian, -Australian, -Burkinan, -Cuban, -Columbian, and -I'm sure I've forgotten a dozen more friendship groups. There were language courses in Vietnamese, English, and Japanese. There was a group for boycotting Israel, another for being an au pair in America, another for Vietnamese cooking classes.
Pushing past a huge number of cowboy-hatted dancers all boxstepping to an old American folk song sung over a truly horrid electronic disco beat, who I later discovered were from the Crazy Dance association of country dancers, I found myself in the health section. This was huge, and covered every imaginable disease and condition. There were dozens of handicap-support groups, mental-health support groups, gay and lesbian and transgendered and HIV support groups, and at least a dozen stalls where I could have learned how to render first aid for a heart attack on a dummy. There was a truck offering mammograms, and another where you could donate blood.
Health gradually segued into hobbies and sports as the stands approached the huge municipal swimming pool, and drowning-victim rescue turned into spearfishing and scuba-diving. This was also where yoga and such could be found, with several stands offering information about sophrology, which is some sort of meditation system that seems to have only taken off in France. Pretty soon, we were onto more recognizable sports like American football, rugby (which is almost as popular as soccer here, and maybe more so), and tambourin, which I'd never seen before moving here. There were stamp collectors, coin collectors, model railroad enthusiasts, post card collectors, several chess clubs, and a large space for a Scrabble club, with the fanciest boards I'd ever seen.
By this time, I was almost at the river, so it was no surprise to see that boating clubs had set up in the water and were demonstrating.
Walking back, I found a few more areas, including religion, where a very intense young black woman stuck a pamphlet with the Gospel of John into my hand, along with a pamphlet about illuminating the world. There was a space marked Zen, with a small golden Buddha, a couple of cushions, no literature, and nobody in attendance.
I was dizzy: do French people join so many associations? I can't imagine something like this event in America or Germany. I was quite overwhelmed: I picked up the directory of associations for 2009, and it's 125 closely-printed, three-columned pages long. Not all the associations listed in it were down in Antigone, but that's not surprising. There's only so much space, after all.
And, interestingly enough, this week I made contact with an association that, as far as I can tell, wasn't at the Antigone today, the Association for the American Library. They've asked me to give a talk sometime later in this year or earlier next year, and, of course, I said I would. After all, who am I not to associate with the associations?