La foule

I used to love crowds. Losing myself in them. Feeling a sort of freedom, a safety in numbers. Being carried along on a busy street amidst people from all walks of life. There is something of that joy in this song, La Foule, as immortalized by Edith Piaf. But crowds can be temperamental and I have learned to distrust them. Especially in France.

At first I was fooled by the French word, la foule. It sounded so joyous, like something fun, a little wild and crazy, or perhaps a delicious dessert. Then I noticed the reaction of my Belle-mère every time the word came up. When I asked, she was categorical:

“J’ai horreur de la la foule.” Well, that was clear enough. Horror could not be good.

And then I experienced the crowds. The first time I remember feeling frightened in a crowd was at the Fête des Lumières, held each 8th of December in Lyon. From our first experience of walking through the streets of our neighbourhood to the old town to admire the candles, lumignons, in all the windows, it became a tourist event and they started busing people in from all over. There were so many people crowding to get across the footbridge to the presqu’ile that it was scary. All too easy to imagine the movement of panic that could easily lead to people getting crushed or trampled.

Then I began to notice that French squares and other public places like street markets and shopping malls on a Saturday afternoon were a little too busy for my liking. The crowds were too dense, in more ways than one. Much has been written about culture and personal space, and for the first time I became aware of mine. Apparently my personal comfort zone is about twice the size of other people’s.

Another place I discovered my fear of la foule was at concerts. There is a tradition here of standing at concerts. There are no floor seats – everyone just crowds together in the pit. This is the cool place to be, where the fun happens. Not for me. I’m short, for one thing, and I panic when surrounded too closely by beings taller than myself. Having a seat that defines a no-go zone is essential.

There is also navigation style. I try to weave in and out of crowds as quickly as possible without stepping on any toes. I am aware of the other guy, the one I’m trying to avoid. I stay on the right, then pass on the left. This also applies to supermarkets where I will park my shopping cart out of the way while studying the aisles (I’m a label reader); others have no compunction about standing in front of their cart and blocking traffic in both directions.

French shoppers tend to dawdle, particularly when out in groups on a Saturday. Inevitably I find myself bumping into other people or politely asking them to move. Nobody else seems to do this; I’m not sure why. But they have somehow cultivated a quality that I seem to lack: being oblivious.

To be fair, it’s not just in France that this happens. I just notice it here more because of the increased density. There are simply more people who flock to the same places at the same times. So now I avoid the busy times. Skip the events with the biggest crowds. Leave la foule for others to enjoy.

Do you have a particular memory, fond or frightened, of being in a crowd?

47 thoughts on “La foule

  1. I hate crowds too, in general. The fear of being trampled if anything happens, or not being able to get out, from a concert, for example. Probably due to getting older… But the one time I loved it was in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Faces from all nations, reminding me of history lessons at school (Phoenicians, Syrians and Greeks etc…). As soon as stall holders heard us speak Greek, they would invite us in and give us tea…unforgettable

    1. That’s a wonderful memory. I know what you mean about certain kinds of crowds, where you feel welcomed and accepted. But being wary is definitely accentuated by age — guess that’s how we survived this far!

  2. My husband and I were nearly crushed to death between an ascending ramp and a metal guard rail by a crowd trying to get to the top of the platform in front of the town hall in an attempt to see the Gutenberg’s Birthday fireworks better. Germans belong to the top mindless aggressive pushers and shovers in Europe. Quoth the raven…when in Germany, watch it, whatever event it is, on television.

    1. Wow, how scary! Enough to put you off crowds for always. Luckily you escaped without any injuries…I presume? I didn’t know that about Germans per se…but will bear in mind for any future visits!

  3. I was in London for Jan. 1, 2000. Right on the Thames River. In fact, right on edge, next to the wall. As more and more people pushed in, I got really scared that I would be pushed over and into the river (I can’t swim. And anyway, the water would have been so cold as to make it hard even for a good swimmer). It didn’t happen, happily. (Less happily, the “river of fire” fireworks didn’t go off.) And our kid got quite freaked out by the crowds in the souk in Casablanca–like a river of humanity, a river with a strong current that could sweep a person away.
    In general I adore being in crowds, like the Bastille Day fireworks here, or walking down the pedestrian shopping streets. But those crowds are happy and unhurried, and I, too, am unhurried and revel in sharing space with fellow humanity. What gripes me is when people stop, say, at the market, to greet friends or to rummage through their bags, and they not only stop right in the middle of traffic but they always do it at the narrowest spots. There could be a missing vendor stand–a gap–just two steps away, and they won’t migrate toward it. Meanwhile strollers and caddies and dogs clog up on either side and people without those encumbrances try to push their way over and through….the obliviousness to the flow of people seems extremely impolite to me. My mother would have told me, “Nobody else cares about your problem. Get out of their way.”
    As for supermarkets, I will enter them only between 12h and 14h, when they are nearly empty.

    1. I am with you all the way! If you have a choice, avoid. If you want to be part of an event, be wary and bring an extra dose of patience for the oblivious factor. How scary in London — I can swim but would not want to be thrown in the Thames at any time of year, never mind January! As for Casablanca…I’m sure the souks are fascinating but — non, merci.

  4. Two painful physical memories . In the town called Pau I had to struggle for my life when I tried to buy one of the last tickets for a Franck Zappa’s concert . It seems a mass of other guys had the same stupid idea . I don’t know how I could get a ticket but when I tried to leave the window there was such a pressure from the hundreds behind that I couldn’t even breathe . It took me minutes of merciless and soulless efforts to extract my body from this human magma, so much that my jacket was pulled above my head, it disappeared forever and I had to leave it as a sacrifice to feed the monster . No news since, snif …
    The other one was in Mexico City, queuing for a football match ( el Estadio Azteca was the world’s second in size and I had been impressed on TV by the height and verticality of the bleachers so I wanted to be in) . There were several doors to get into the stadium enclosure but for each gate we were a lot of men progressing very slowly . Before the gates I felt something hard against my foot and I could see there was a low wall rising diagonally . Unfortunately I was going above the wall . Bending my body, I chose its right side but then an incredible pressure increased madly from the right, while the wall was rising and I felt my leg bones ready to break . I shouted but violence is not noticed in Mexico . I escaped using some guys parts as stepladders and I got to the gate walking on top or the thin wall, this time using heads to keep my balance . Nobody seemed to notice anything strange though I was the only one doing so . I still don’t understand why I was the only one, but if you dive into the people of Mexico you see they are not from the same planet .

    1. Those are two extraordinary memories. I can’t begin to imagine being squished to the point of losing a jacket in a crush. But I suppose if you went to all that trouble, you were a diehard Zappa fan? Hope the show was worth it! As for Mexico…that is very scary indeed. I want to make a very bad taste politically incorrect comment about Mexicans being good at climbing walls but…I will restrain myself. 😅

  5. Not too bad but I could never cope with a music festival like Reading again. In my teens I went to them all. I once spent the Saturday afternoon getting a great position to watch the Stranglers. Then, just before they came on there was a huge surge in the crowd and I felt something warm and wet on my back. Yeah, the guy behind me had relieved himself on me! Unthinkable! I was so distressed that I (obviously) had to leave and go jump in the River Thames before going to the tent to change and calm down. Because of those festivals my main crowd anxieties are based around getting burnt by someone’s cigarette and men who need to pee…

    1. That is just. Awful. When you said the Stranglers I was expecting something along the lines of choking for air. Never expected that getting urinated on was a risk. Yuck. Sounds like you are a braver soul than I to have gone to so many music festivals. I can only remember a couple of packed concerts and the odd festival. I think Deep Purple was one of my first but more recently at the jazz festival in Montreux, the crush of the crowd on the floor had me hanging by the exit.

  6. I have all the above issues these days.
    Until maybe five years ago I was happy to be crushed at concerts and pressed at public events, but no more.
    A big barrier came down from nowhere a while back, now set in concrete by a life changing experience earlier this year.
    I desperately wanted to see Robert Plant at the Carcassonne festival, but the thought of standing in what is essentially the mosh-pit no longer put me off.

    It’s very hard to explain and it’s not all about getting older.

      1. Well, at least I learned a new word. ‘Mosh’ eh? As for predictive text, my husband is also fed up. Last week he wrote an email to a work colleague in India who is called Vinit and it ended up saying ‘Dear Vomit’. 😂

  7. I hate crowds…aargh…I like space and being in an eatery that gives me room and not have people standing next to me and waiting for me to gobble my food and leave so that they can take my table.

    1. That must be challenging in lil red dot! I can only assume the density in your tiny country is worse than any European country. I know what you mean though: who can enjoy anything when someone is queuing up behind you?

      1. Yes we are indeed tight in space but not as bad as HK. We have 5 million people in our tiny island but we do have parks. Eateries are carefully selected by me and I like al fresco style or restaurants with wide berths between tables haha.

  8. I must say whenever something is billed as a massive attraction and likely to pull in big crowds I think, nah, not safe… in all sorts of ways. But that said, some of the best fun has been at massive events!And I will always regret not going the the march to oppose the war in Iraq that I thought would turn ugly but did not. Perhaps we just have more time (and experience) to make us worry about the possible consequences of the unthinkable!

    1. Alas, the times they are a-changing… Nowadays it’s not just the crowd effect we fear but the (sadly, too real) threat of terror attacks and mass shootings. So we stay safely behind our screens but no doubt about it, it’s not the same as being part of something with others.😢

  9. I agree, crowds remind me of the collective stupidity of humanity, to be avoided at all costs. The French word “foule” sounds like fool in English,, a very appropriate term.

    1. How did I miss that? You would have to be a fool to take a chance on getting crushed in a crowd. That said, danger seems to lurk everywhere these days and we must not give in to it by hiding at home. I think awareness of a potential danger, without letting it ruin an event, is the half the battle. Always know where the exit is and have a plan in mind just in case.

  10. Mel; you seem to be heavily surrounded by peeps of a certain age…. and you can count me in too!
    I have an additional handicap: I’m really small and I tend to ‘get lost’ in a crowd easily. I also have absolutely no sense of direction and being blind as a bat (they do see a bit, don’t they?….) I can fall over Hero Husband 10 inches away from me without taking him ‘in’ (he’s 6’3…).
    I had some nasty experiences with crowds but won’t go into it for fear of having nightmares 😉

    1. Kiki you are a hoot! When I saw your Flickr profile I checked it out, hoping to find out whether you really do resemble your name (Vol au Vent). Alas, I found no self portraits… But I imagine you far better: a pint-sized persona feeling her way through through the crowd to a friendly giant of a husband. One day you will tell me about your crowd stories!

  11. For a tall gal, I can make myself very small … this is a direct result of not liking it when strangers bump or jostle me. Mostly I avoid situations where I know there will be humongous numbers of people but if I am forced I draw myself to my full height and cut my own path through as quickly as possible. I wasn’t always like this …. it just sort of grew exponentially with age and certainly began to crescendo when I had children … maybe it was the mother duck instinct that really triggered it. Who knows. But I do know that the more space around me, the better!

    1. Love the idea of this self-contained smallness in a crowd. In general I am in admiration of tall people who are light on their feet. I am short and increasingly clunky, bashing myself into doors and edges of furniture all the time. I feel like I take up too much space wherever I am. Which is no good in crowds. The weird thing is I enjoy having others around me — but at a distance. If you enjoy so much space, I can see why your heart is in Cantal!

      1. I put it down to always having been tall … I learned early on that I didn’t like I was noticeable wherever I went on account of my height so I learned to sit whenever possible and not spread out!

  12. I think that age thing has something to do with it. I do miss a lot of interesting events though. Perhaps living on a small island is a factor. I love going into our main town on a Saturday and watching the tourists watching the locals and dreaming of living in our tiny paradise.That crush of people is interesting not threatening. If we want a dose of crowds we get on a ferry and visit a city.
    Ali

    1. Perhaps the secret is small doses? I can just imagine the thrill of imagining others envying your island life. And the ferry – my favourite way to travel!

  13. La Foule – New Year’s Eve 2000. In Melbourne of all places. The crowd was so dense we were like sardines, the ex in front, the Offspring in the middle, me bringing up the rear. I wasn’t scared for myself but was terrified the Offpsring would be crushed or ripped away. Not a bit crowd person either. To me crowd can too easily become a mob. Love the Piaf though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of her live performances. Fantastic.

    1. Mobs are scary. Glad your scare with the Offspring was only a bad memory. And the Piaf was a real find — had never seen any clips of her live either. She moves like music herself!

  14. Loathe the crush of a crowd and not being able to control how and when I want to move. I fear the unpredictability of a giddy throng and avoid large concerts or public event for that reason.

    1. Yes, there is something very frightening about feeling that (potential) loss of control when emotions run high. You are right, I think it is the unpredictable nature of it, and on top of that the fact that crowds are now targets for acts of terror. 😦

  15. I can tolerate crowds but there is a limit. When it gets too dense then I will get out. We have lots of outdoor free festivals in Montreal and it can get very busy but the crowds are always well behaved and it is OK. I get annoyed with too many tourists in the same place and then I will get to the side streets to see the off-the-beaten track stuff. I wouldn’t want to be in crowds where the mood is aggressive as it can get dangerous. Now that we are both retired, we try to frequent busy places during the week and leave the weekends for people who have no choice…(Suzanne)

    1. That sounds like a smart approach, Suzanne. Not to avoid crowds completely because it is to cut ourselves off from many experiences, but to be wise about it. I also enjoy the wandering behind the scenes part of the tourist experience and often give the most famous sights a bare glance in favour of checking out the side streets. As for taking advantage of being retired to go shopping in off hours, that is a considerate attitude that unfortunately too few older people share! 😉

  16. I agree with your observations 100%, Mel. I don’t know if it’s an introvert thing, or the fact that I’m too short to see anything but armpits, or maybe the knowledge that people are cattle and therefore easily spooked. No matter the reason, I generally dislike crowds too, and actively avoid them if possible — or at least stay on the edges, where you can outrun the tear gas. (Can you tell I’ve accidentally been caught in a manif or two? 🙂

  17. I too had a horrible crowd experience at Lyon’s Fete des Lumières – one crowd entering a square down a narrow street, and another crowd leaving. There was a real fear of getting crushed, and children being trampled underfoot…
    I wonder if now there is also the underlying fear ( I know there is for me!) of the possibility of terrorist activity? It’s highly unlikely, even nowadays, but there is that “what would happen if…” feeling.
    Due to a bad back I never go to concerts where you have to stand…so I don’t have that problem!!

    1. That’s interesting about Lyon. The event has become so big and those streets are so narrow, it almost seems doomed to produce injuries! And yes, that fear of some random lone wolf or organized group taking advantage of an unsuspecting crowd is ever present, sadly.

  18. I agree I agree I agree! I can’t go into the city center of Lille after 2 PM on Saturdays anymore. Sometimes I jokingly say that some people on the street lack depth perception and are oblivious to others around them when they are blocking the street for everyone else around them. Grocery stores, standing room only concerts, no thanks 🙂

    Another favorite is that people in Lille dont seem to know how to make room for others on the tram. They all cram up by the door, even if there is tons of space in the middle, in the aisles! drives me mad! 🙂

    1. I have never been to Lille but have heard of the famous braderie. I fear I would have to miss it if I do visit one day as the crowds would undo me. As for the tram behaviour, I’m afraid it is pretty common elsewhere in France. Also those who try to get on before letting others out. Argh!

      1. The crowds last year weren’t terrible because they had reduced the size of the Braderie so much after first having canceled it in 2016 due to the Nice attacks, and then slowly bringing it back in 2017. Let’s see what happens!

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