Sunday, April 4, 2010

Family Circus

Over last weekend, enormous posters appeared on every light post in town: a photo of a white tiger on one side, and a white-faced clown in a spangly outfit on the other. Each poster of the hundred up in town was exactly the same, and advertised the "Loyal Nouveau Spectacle" to be held at the "Place du Cirque." Wherever that was.

These posters appear rather more frequently than you might imagine in the medieval hilltowns of the Var, but we hadn't hit a circus yet. Circuses are one of those things other people find fun and I find a little scary. When Grace was three, we took her to the Big Apple Circus in New York City and she nearly lost her little toddler marbles. I always thought that really small-town circuses, like this one, might be staffed by guys you might not want to meet in a dark alley. Although "staffed" seems perhaps the wrong word when you're referring to a circus.

I don't particularly like spangly clowns, or the threat of a white tiger. But for reasons I can't explain, I really wanted to go, anyway. It's been a long winter, and in a small town, the thrills can be few and far between. So we went. The next night, I interviewed Bill once again, in part to memorialize the experience, and in part because we really like sitting at the kitchen table, drinking red wine and making each other laugh.

Launa: So Bill, what were you expecting when we went to the circus?

Bill: Well, I was expecting a circus like the one that used to come to my hometown of Hanover, NH, before the town barred them from setting foot in the town limits. The people who ran that circus weren't so much performers as simply unsavory characters. They seemed to have no talents at all.

That includes animal husbandry. The straw that almost literally broke the camel's back was the way they used to beat their animals. You can't hang out in a pet-crazed town like Hanover for a few days spending your day beating animals. That circus was also characterized by a powerful dung odor. I think they didn't have enough bookings, because they always stayed and camped in the town far too long, so the ground beneath the circus became mushed up grass and dung and junk food. I was positively terrified by the clowns, because you could see under the paint that they had never smiled at all.

So, I was expecting something dingy when we went to the circus in Aups. I tried to coach the girls in what a real small town circus might be, because they don't get a lot of contact with that kind of stuff. I didn't want them to be expecting the Big Apple Circus, which is the classy outfit that took the place of the Scary-Carnies-Animal-Beater Circus.

The last time we went to the Big Apple Circus, we were with Mary and Alain -- who are super-talented people, and thus know super talented people. They actually knew the guy who rides the little tiny bikes. And then, at the end, Tiny Bike Guy invited us all backstage -- or do you call it back tent? He introduced us to the show dogs. The kids got to pet the elephant and the horses, and we met the other performers.

(I was beside myself, and could barely restrain my enthusiasm. But when I asked the girls later what they thought, they just said,"Eh.")

So with this circus, I tried to psych them up for the old 70's style kind of boring, kind of smelly, kind of terrifying circus.

Launa: It was a whole lot nicer than that, wasn't it?

Bill: Yeah. My expectations were completely wrong. I love that about France.

Launa: The posters and the guy driving around town screaming out of his microphone gave me a sort of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" vibe. And earlier that day, the weather had been positively freakish. There were strong bright shafts of light, and super-dark clouds, and then a hailstorm right at noon. These all seemed ominous. Abigail brought home that flier that listed all the acts, and I couldn't help but think we would be seeing something tawdry, dirty, and sad.

But I wanted to go anyway.

Bill: Yeah. me too. Because as we walked down toward the unused pool area of town, where we play basketball, I noticed that, as usual, there were animals in the pasture that abuts town by the court.

However, this time, instead of seeing sheep grazing there, it was camels and yaks, and there was a tiny little toy pony tethered to the chain link fence of the tennis court.

The camels and horses were wandering around together. They did have the little truck pens for the animals, but clearly they just let their animals loose in every town's open pasture land. And weirdly, none of the people in town thought that having camels and yaks, llamas and Shetland ponies frolicking around together was weird.

Launa: I assumed that there would be some jungle animals -- you know, Elephants or Tigers, mostly because the circus van that drove around and around the roundabout by school was decorated with a fiberglass tiger and an elephant. But really the yaks and llamas were the main attraction. Just the ruminant family.

Bill: I really liked the guinea pig display that they put out for the families waiting. There were really only a handful of us -- there was a portail, and we were all milling about. But the kids could look at the guinea pigs, the birds, and the rabbits in their tricked-out cage painted with gorillas and tigers and panda bears.

The kids were psyched that there were guinea pigs. They also had those two itty-bitty show dogs who were running around and playing with all the kids.

Launa: Wait a minute. They weren't really "playing," nor was it with "the kids." The dogs were more like humping the kids' legs, and it was really only our kids. The rest of the parents wouldn't let their kids touch them at all.

Bill: I was still thinking along the lines of the horrible 70's circus, so my thought was that the dogs were going to steal our money for some sort of Faigin character backtent.

Launa: At first, the circus seemed to be fronted by these two skinny Russian sisters, and I assumed there was a whole grand operation behind them. But the longer I watched, I realized that the "whole grand operation" was being run by three families, two spare boys, two magician girls, and one grandma. There were a mess of kids, and in between taking the tickets, ripping us off for popcorn and doing flips off a high platform, the circus performers were being normal parents of toddlers.

Bill: I was impressed by how tiny, and clean it was.

Launa: The next day, when I was grocery shopping, the little circus family was, too. They had the toddler in the cart, and while they were browsing the organic section, he was chucking things out of the cart one after another. One of the blondes drove a shiny Beamer to the store. So they're doing OK for themselves, even without the tiger. Or maybe because they don't have a tiger, and they get free grass for the animals in all the towns. I guess their only expenses would be gas for the little Elephant car that drives around whipping the kids of each town into a frenzy.

Bill: You know, even though it was so little and cute, and there were only about thirty of us watching the show, it was still sort of gripping emotionally. You'd think that the fact that the ring was only about 20 feet across would make the acts less frightening. You'd be less worried about the performers hurting themselves.

But I thought the opposite was true. It was more moving, because they were doing things on a scale I could imagine. One of the blonde Russian-looking moms did that act where she did a backbend, dropped onto her hands, and then flipped down. First she stood on a platform one foot tall, then two, then way high up in the air. I just kept thinking, her family is watching this. There is no safety net. No smoke and mirrors. She's just standing on a tall stool, bending in half backwards, and letting herself drop.

Launa: And in between, she would writhe like a pole dancer. Don't forget that part.

Bill: Yes. I believe I remarked, at the start of her act, "This one is for the Dads."

Launa: Yeah, she was a big step up from Princess the Pony. Things really picked up after that first act.

Bill: I viewed Princess the Pony as the sort of Grande Dame of the Circus. She walked around the ring in a stately way, although she was kind of dirty. She did her best on arthritic knees to kneel -- which is a move we were subsequently to see from a number of different animals, including the goat, the llama, and the camel. The anaconda couldn't manage that move. It just kind of got set on the floor mat, and lay there, staring at our children.

Launa: I was glad those two little dogs were darting around right then. I was pretty sure the snake would prefer a little dog to Abigail.

Bill: I think the snake was asleep. But I enjoyed the snake act.

Launa: In what way could you describe that as an act? Two guys just set it on the floor, and left it there for awhile.

Bill: Yes, but in regular life, you sometimes forget the pleasure of a good long stare at something strange.

Launa: The just-staring effect was improved for us, because although they were giving the audience Anaconda Facts, we had largely no idea what they were saying.

Bill: But my absolute favorite part, was the goat, standing on top of six successively smaller stools, that were meant to symbolize the Eiffel Tower. I think that goat deserves a Circus Oscar for making it to the top of his tower of stools. We were so close to the act that we could see the goat's stools were tippy. They weren't all safe and professional and boring.

Launa: I loved him too. But halfway through the act, I started rooting for the goat, and against the Ringmaster/Goat Trainer/Toddler's Dad. He did five levels of stool, then that mean circus man brings out ANOTHER STOOL, from his pocket or something. It seemed so unfair to make Mr. Goatie do keep climbing on successively smaller stools. Talk about emotionally gripping; I've never empathized with a goat before.

Bill: The last stool was tiny! How did Mr. Goat even fit his hooves on that?

Launa: It was like Princess's act had been multiplied. The horsie stood on that one table and turned around. But then the goat had to do it six times, six times higher.

Bill: I know you didn't think much of Princess, but she did more than that. She walked slowly across a broad seesaw. She turned herself around in three circles, she walked around the ring.

Of course, the one part of the Princess act I would eliminate if I worked at the circus was the part where the portly animal trainer got on the other side of the seesaw and balanced with Princess, thereby revealing that he weighs almost as much as a medium-fat horse.

When you and Princess can see saw together, you know it's time to hit the Stairmaster.

Launa: "My name is Princess. My hobbies are: Walking in circles. Turning Around in Circles. Standing on Tables While the Audience Listens to Yanni. And see-saw."

Bill: I also thought that the trapeze act…

Launa: Hmmmmmmmm.

Bill: OK, let's get this out of the way first. That woman is gorgeous, and she has an incredible body. But that's NOT why I am saying it was a great act.

Because she also had a stunning outfit on. I would call it Spandex Cowgirl Stripper. The part I liked the best was the shoes. I don't think I've ever seen a trapeze artist walk out in five inch stilletos. They were like an amuse-bouche for the rest of the act.. They just piqued your interest in the lower half of her body.

So she walked out, then she took her shoes off after 20 seconds. At the end of the performance, they were placed back in the middle of the ring so that she could put them on again.

But come on, Launa, don't you think that her act was just way, way better than you could have imagined a trapeze act could be. I mean, if she had fallen, her whole family -- including her toddlers -- would have seen her break her neck.

You're being awfully quiet.

Launa: Well, perhaps I was less moved by her than I was by the goat. So I'm trying to decide whether or not I should comment on her talents. You know, that whole if you can't say something nice, you shouldn't write a blog....

Bill: That isn't very nice. You shouldn't hate her because she is beautiful. And supple. And strong. And lithe.

Launa: And sells popcorn.

Bill: Anyway, I realized that the closer you sit to a trapeze, the harder it looks.

Launa: I still think that the act was a little more pole dancing than trapeze.

OK, now let's see if we can remember all the acts:

First there was Princess and the fat man. Then there was the girl doing back flips to "Please Don't Stop the Music."

After that was the little boy and his father: the 10 year old boy who would lie down on the ground, and then his father would pick him up by the ankles, and throw him up for a flip. I kept wondering if he had to do CNED, and what the rules are for circus-schooling your kids.

Bill: Then there was the magic act, where they pulled a bird out of a flaming fry pan.

Launa; That didn't seem very French to me. The French thing would be to cook the bird and eat it.

Bill: Don't forget the Trapeze! And the Little Pony, just after Princess. She also kneeled.

Launa: That was the tiny pony who was kicking the stuffing out of one of the llamas out in the pasture earlier. And the llamas. And the camel! I was so afraid he was going to drop a few quarts of loogie on our kids.

Bill: No, that wasn't a camel. It was a dromedary. Not Camel. I went to Morocco, so I know these things.)

Launa: The scary huge snake.

Bill: The goat. And the juggler! he was good. I always like a juggler who drops something at some point, then picks it up, and gets it right. This proves that it was HARD for him to do. I was hoping he would break out the guinea pigs for his act, but I guess he's not at that level yet.

Launa: Plus the clown. But I think that's it.

Bill: It was nice to see the nice town Medical director out with his son. We haven't seen him much since he helped us get those swine flu shots in the fall. I noticed that he was enjoying the trapeze artistry as much as I was. Another gent who can appreciate the finer things in life.

Launa: I think that the clown act might have been a little funnier if we had understood the French. Because the kids in the audience were going completely bonkers.

Bill: All in all, it was a very tidy, small, family event that was just perfect for children. None of that weird scary clowny carny stuff. They weren't even whipping the animals, just shaking this thing that cracked near them.

Launa: In fact, all right, I will admit something. There was a little part of me that was a little disappointed that there were no scary, toothless, meth-addict carneys. They weren't selling any of the weird circus food, like the candied nuts that are 10 year old. There was just popcorn. And all the acts were child-sized. They were just at the top level of what a child could imagine being amazing.

And what a Dad might be interested in watching.

Bill: As I said, something for the dads too. Unfortunately , there wasn't anything for the moms, was there?

Launa: The juggler was OK looking. But he smelled bad, from all that juggling exercise. We could smell him from where we were sitting. Not as bad as like an elephant, but worse than the horse, and also the goat.

Bill: But not scary, except in that good way, of being anxious, and then relieved. Lots of ruminants, a snake, some good backflips.

Launa: You know my very favorite part? At the very end, they played a sweet-sad song about the "Fin du Spectacle:" the circus being over. The whole circus staff came out, holding hands, and waving to the crowd. They walked in a little line, and everybody was smiling. The audience was smiling. The trapeze lady and the ten-year-old, and the boys who carried the see-saw and the snake. All really smiling, not a fake smile anyplace.

But smiling biggest of all? All those toddlers from the circus families. They must have seen this show a hundred times, and they still were rapt. They watched their moms and dads stride around the ring, clapping their little hands in time to the sad music, and grinning ear to ear.


  1. These traveling, french-school-vacation-break circuses are an amazing institution, and your description is uncanny. Over the years we've gone to a few, and our favorite was staffed by just one (rather small) family, and their animals. Including the cat. A trained house cat.

  2. This made me laugh out loud: "... in regular life, you sometimes forget the pleasure of a good long stare at something strange."

  3. David's comment reminds me about another act in that small "trained house cat" circus we saw in Meylan (close to Grenoble): the six different ruminants who all performed the same trick, one after the other: climbing up on a small round stool, turning all the way around, and then lifting a front hoof. Every single one of them.

    The smallest circus I ever saw was here in Quinson: One family of four. The mom was ringmistress and in charge of ticket and concession sales. The dad was the main trainer, main clown, and the bottom/strong half of the acrobatic act that featured his young (six-year-old?) son doing handstands on dad's feet and hands. The young teenage daughter was the trapeze artist (and not bad at all).

    I was the only one in the audience of 20-25 people who paid for a real chair (as opposed to sitting on a narrow bench). I felt very conspicuous.

    (I would rather post as myself, but apparently google prefers one of my pseudonyms better.)

  4. I too liked the line about "the pleasure of a good long stare at something strange." Unfortunately, I am not well-trained enough NOT to stare at strange things and people...

    You and Bill have some very funny conversations. Thanks for sharing some of them with us.

    Have a great time in Firenze!