Thursday, August 30, 2012

Circle games: la rentrée and la vogue

France has five seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and La Rentrée. 
Our neighbor's grape harvesting machine emerges from its shed.

La rentrée means “the return,” and refers to the period during which economic, educational, and professional activities start up again after the summer holidays.  

La rentrée is a nebulous, liminal time.  In Alba you know it has begun when the food stands outnumber the souvenir stands at the Sunday market, and you can find a seat on the terrace of the café at 11am. That following week you see the vintners drag their harvesting equipment out of the sheds and barns, and the pharmacy marks the sunscreen for clearance. 

The rentrée is something of a relief, because it’s tiresome to wait in line at the grocery store while a tourist in flip-flops buys the last carton of your favorite ice cream to take back to a camper that’s parked in your spot in the parking lot of La Roche. It’s also a bit sad, because you know that life is about to get much colder, and much quieter. 

The rentrée is a fleeting season, which ends as soon as the air starts to smell of fermenting grapes and the sycamore leaves take on a silvery sheen. It’s then that a troupe of white, unmarked trucks inches into our village like a silent invasion of furniture deliverymen, filling up all the parking spaces and blocking the views of the houses on main street. If you peer beneath the trailers’ flaps, which are half-lifted to let in the light, you’ll see they’re not actually full of furniture, but rather of carnival people lining up rows of stuffed animals, BB guns, lava lamps, beach balls, and toasters; filling gambling machines with piles of glittering tokens, tubs of plastic ducks with water, and frying vats with grease; and unfolding machines for people to whirl and spin and bump around in. The occasion of this invasion is the vogue, also known as the fête votive. 

Vogues are a traditional event in our corner of southeastern France, and their two names indicate their two purposes: fête votive because they celebrate a village’s patron saint (votive from the verb vouer, to promise, to vow, to devote, to consecrate), and vogue because they are organized for the benefit of a village’s youth (a vogue describes the forward motion of a boat, made through the coordinated effort of multiple rowers). Long ago, vogues helped raise pocket money for the young men departing for their military service; now they’re a kind of going-away ritual for the kids who graduated high school earlier in the year. Each year’s crop of eighteen-year-olds raises money by going door-to-door selling pogne, a sweet, eggy bread flavored with orange flower water, and then, during the vogue, by selling drinks at the buvette. For that one weekend, Alba is transformed into a glittering array of frivolities, and though adults and children frequent the vogue, too, it truly belongs to the teenagers. It’s their last interlude of giddy freedom before the rentrée and adulthood begin.

During the day, a vogue offers various ways to demonstrate strength and skill, ranging from bumper cars and petanque competitions to donkey races and tractor pulls. After 9pm, you’ll notice that it’s difficult to move your limbs at a normal pace, because the air is laden with a mixture of fry grease and sexual tension. The official drink of the vogue is marquisette, a mixture of white wine, rum or vodka, carbonated lemonade, and chopped up citrus fruit. As the night wears on and you drink more and more of it, someone is sure to remind you that the vats of marquisette are mixed by foot, and someone else is sure to tell you a story of an unsavory thing that took place in the marquisette vats the year of their vogue.

Each village’s vogue takes place on a different date in the summer, and Alba’s is the last of the season in our region. Even though it’s a festival of departure, in many ways it is really a celebration of eternal return: no matter how many years you are away from home, when you come back again, the fête votive will be the same. The same families of carnies return every year with the same stands and the same rides. On the carousels, children grab at the same pompoms their parents grabbed at a generation ago. When the disco balls come out at night, the songs, with few exceptions – I Told the Witch Doctor is now played in a dance remix – are the same as they always were, too.

Alba’s vogue is one of the region’s more sedate ones, but it is still a raucous, unruly event: it lasts into the wee hours of the morning, and when day breaks the village is full of stink and debris. Flowerpots get broken, trash gets strewn, people urinate in unseemly places. Half the village flees the weekend the vogue comes to town, and last year the town council voted to move the whole thing to an unpaved parking lot outside the village. But though you might be able to displace it or flee from it, the vogue in Alba isn’t a phenomenon you can escape. 

Love it or hate it, behind the brash music and the flashy lights and the cloying sweetness of the marquisette, the vogue in Alba is the ultimate symbol of the rentrée, the ever-recurring return: the grapes will ripen and be picked, the last of the blackberries will harden on their canes, the figs will soften and fall to the ground, and children will head to school on Monday with memories of merry-go-rounds whirling in their heads. And this year’s crop of eighteen-year-olds will start rowing toward adulthood knowing that wherever the vogue’s forward motion takes them, there will always be another rentrée, and another vogue. For them this was the year everything was different, and next year it will be exactly the same.  

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