Americans have a cultural memory of a time in the 19th and early 20th century when The Circus Comes to Town. One night the caravan shows up on the outskirts of town and people wake the next morning to the magical site of a gaudy, colorfully painted tent–the Big Top. Animal wagons are clustered together, with a makeshift corral holding strange animals. All over town, light poles, fences, and store windows are festooned with posters announcing the arrival of the circus and show times. The Circus is here! It will only be here for a day or so.
There is excitement. Kids flock to the field, watching the circus coming to life, unfolding before their eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of, well something...maybe a peek inside the tent, maybe a clown half-dressed preparing for the show, maybe an elephant, or a tiger, or a camel. Maybe an offer of a free ticket for lending a hand. Then, just as suddenly as it arrived, after the last show the tent will come down and by morning the circus, the trucks, the wagons will have disappeared down the road to the next stop.
It’s all a fading memory now, something of a myth. These days going to a circus in the US means a trip to the nearest large town or city to the Arena, home of wrestling, monster trucks, and concerts. Not in France, not in Europe. Here, The Circus still Comes to Town.
If you spend any time driving around France you will inevitably come across a most strange site–wild animals, circus animals, grazing on a traffic circle or a roundabout on the outskirts of a town, sometimes in the middle of town. It is, to our amazement, not an unusual sight. It means there is a circus in town. Drive a bit further and you will come across it–the tent, the trucks, the animals, and the people–circus people.
It happens all the time. It is something we have witnessed regularly as long as we’ve been coming here. Not long ago Anthony and I were in Le Mans to do some shopping. We were in a heavily developed commercial area, when I looked out the car window to a small open area among the stores.
“Ah, Anthony, that is a camel over there, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It is.”
One day recently Karen and I were having lunch at a restaurant…not in Le Mans…when I looked out the window to a field next to the parking lot, and there were two camels grazing, usually a sure sign a circus is somewhere nearby.
In a normal year lots of circuses roaming through Europe. Many seem to be Italian. Some are big, with massive, gaudily painted trucks, huge tents, and large companies of well-kept animals. Others, unfortunately, are poor. They are raggedy affairs with tiny tents, unhappy-looking animals, and only a few trucks. They and their posters are quick to let you know they are “for the children,” code for, don’t expect Cirque du Soleil.
Most surprising, when you happen across one of these circuses in preparation mode, the area they have taken over is largely open to the public. You are allowed, almost welcomed, to wander about as they prepare, to look at the animals, watch the work in progress, and to talk with circus people who mostly seem happy to interact with you. It is not unusual to see parents with kids wandering around the trucks and vans and tethered animals–camels, horses, emus, and other non-threatening creatures, or queuing up near the cage trucks with lions and tigers while the roustabouts go about their work.
Several years ago when we were staying in the Aude in a small village a few kilometres from the large town of Limoux, we came upon a circus being set up in what had been up until that day an empty field not far from the grocery store that was our destination. Sensing a photo op, we got out and struck up a conversation with a gentleman who was busy setting up the tents. When he found out we were Americans he immediately began apologizing for his circus, saying it was “Not like Barnam and Bailey.” We assured him we were glad to hear that. Later that evening we experienced something magical in that tent, and we discovered the man we had talked with was the Ringmaster.
It is all uniquely European, and despite any misgivings about the nature of zoos and caging of animals, utterly charming.
“Ya know, that’s just something ya don’t see a lot of back in Maryland.”