Sunday, February 20, 2011

horses and panthers

I finally understand the appeal of horse races.

The morning was cool and misty and I stood outside a vast stadium. To my right, guarded by a gilded and elegant fence, an endless line of doors stretched off to the distance. Each door had a bizarre and fanciful name engraved on it in silver—Si Seulement, Ta Lisa du Gite, Quai d'Orsay. The courtyard was silent, but the air buzzed with tension as a crowd began to gather behind the fence. Steam rose from the gravel. The spectators murmured amongst themselves. 

Soon, several young men filed into the courtyard and one by one, the doors were opened to reveal dark, gleaming animals. The horses were led out slowly and a hush fell over the crowd. I myself was shocked by their immensity and grace, the way their muscles rippled beneath their perfect coats and the light in their warm brown eyes.

It was like something out of an old movie where people wear large hats and live in homes with doormen. When I finally tore myself away from the fascinating sight and was back on the trail, my running companion Robert explained to me that today was the Prix de Paris, a horse race held every year in Paris in February. A very big deal.

I had met up with a French running group early in the morning but they had turned out to be long-legged Senegalese marathoners who aim to finish the race in two hours rather than four. Nevertheless, I attempted to hold my ground for a little while, then veered off with a new friend to wheeze and listen to his stories about life in Senegal, the outcome of his first five Paris Marathons, and a baffling amount of detailed information about horseracing. American boys heads are stuffed with files of baseball facts. Is this an analogous cultural phenomenon? I have decided that the most efficient training program will involve trying desperately to keep up with interesting people.

Speaking of effiecieny, I experienced my first glitch in the ever-perfect metro system. It occured on the way back to the center of Paris:

I was discretely enjoying the music of one of the many accordionists that jump from train to train to serenade the travelers and ask for compensation at the first sign of enjoyment. Suddenly, the metro ground to a screeching halt. A soothing voice came on over the speakers, explaining that there would be a slight delay. I watched the faces around me immidiately darken as people calculated the effect these extra two minutes would have on the fluidity of their travels.

Not. Acceptable.

There was a cacophony of rustling and sighs. My eyes turned to the accordionist. To be honest, I was expecting a rather special performance. He now had a captive audience, wasn't this his moment of glory?
But no, oddly enough, he was looking just as irate as the others, and I could have sworn he reached down to check his watch. Did he have somewhere else to be? Was there another metro line that was endlessly superior to line four? Or was it, as I suspected, a mechanical reaction to the frustrating and très inadmissible break down of the system?

In the midst of my reflection, I suddenly had the feeling I myself was being watched, and looked over to see a couple across the car scrutinizing me carefully. They were both draped in enormous fur coats, and the man even had a fluffy cap perched on his head.« Tu ne serais pas aussi froide si tu avais les vêtements d'hiver » the woman told me critically. I was wearing my thin running clothes, and she was explaining to me that I wouldn't be as cold if I was wearing proper winter clothes. I wanted to tell them that they wouldn't be as scary if they didn't look like they had crawled into a pair of panthers. Alas, I didn't know the word for panther, so I smiled genially and admitted that I really should invest in a better jacket. They seemed satisfied.

The car shivered and began to move, the accordionist immediately broke into a rendition of La Vie en Rose, and the commuters let their brows relax... but just a bit.

The semester starts tomorrow. The arrondissement adventure starts Wednesday. The French word for panther is une panthère (obviously). 
Add it to the list of useful words—it could come in handy.