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?