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?

Belle lurette


The French use the expression ‘depuis belle lurette’ or ‘il y a belle lurette’ when it’s been a good long while since the last time you went somewhere or saw someone.

It had certainly been that. ‘Belle lurette’ since we’d set foot in the capital of the Gauls. So we decided it was time to go back and visit our former hometown of Lyon.

In late December, many of the lights were still out for the Fête des Lumières, the festive tribute to the Virgin Mary that sets the city of Lyon alight each year on December 8th – and now draws coachloads of tourists to witness its famous illuminations.

When we first settled in Lyon back in 1992, the event was little more than a tradition of lighting candles in coloured jars – les lumignons – and setting them along your window ledge.


We only lived in the city proper for five years, but they were busy, productive years. Lyon was where we made our first home in France, where our daughter was born, where both our kids went through the school system from maternelle all the way to the baccalauréat. It was where we found work, started our own businesses, made friends and put down roots. When we moved to the nearby Monts du Lyonnais, we continued to commute into town each day. Lyon felt like home.

It wasn’t an easy nut to crack. Lyon is known to be something of a secret city, whose inhabitants live by the motto, ‘vivons heureux, vivons cachés’. Meaning that a happy life is one hidden from public view. (An expression that eluded me at first but one I’ve come to truly appreciate).

Since we moved to the Haute Savoie we had only gone back to Lyon on flying visits to family and friends. We had not set foot on the Presqu’île formed by its two rivers, the Rhone and the Saône, in years.

So we booked a hotel and stayed in the heart of the city. It was a trip down memory lane for us (“You remember that time when…?”), with much of the city achingly familiar.


Yet so much has changed. The city has come up in recent years; there’s a livelier, more modern vibe. The streets are lined with trendy shops, bicycles are everywhere, more languages are spoken. There are still the traditional ‘bouchons’ Lyonnais, the simple restaurants that serve classic French bistro dishes with a lot of warmth and clatter, like the façade shown above. But they are not the only option, as they were all those years ago when we dropped a pin on the map and settled in Lyon.

Il y a belle lurette.

And there are still the other kind of ‘bouchons’ that Lyon is equally famous for. The traffic kind.


Have you been to Lyon? What do you remember?

Fête des Lumières

lyon-fete-des-lumieres-bougies-490One of my favorite local French traditions is La Fête des Lumières – Festival of Lights – that takes place in Lyon every year around the 8th of December.

It is said that the city of Lyon was spared from the plague by the grace of the Virgin Mary in 1643. The tradition of lighting candles in return for the favor goes back to the mid-1800s, around the time the city erected the Basilica of Fourvière in her honor – perched atop the city’s highest hill and featuring a statue of the Virgin that seems to watch over the city and its central square, Place Bellecour.

I remember feeling homesick and a little bleak that first year we moved to Lyon after settling in France. The end of October came and went with nobody celebrating Halloween – I searched all over and couldn’t even find a proper pumpkin to carve for the kids, which I found strangely depressing. And then it was November, which for me is always the hardest month of the year – it’s cold and dark and you know the shortest days of the year are yet to come.

LumignonsColoresSo I was thrilled to learn about the Fête des Lumières. The tradition is that on December 8th the Lyonnais fill their windows with ‘lumignons’ – candles in squat glass holders – of different colors. Like most city-dwellers, we lived in an old apartment building with several tall French windows to line with candles. Everyone participates so the effect is quite stunning, with entire facades lit by candles. Then you go out and walk around and perhaps head over to le vieux Lyon, the old town, where les illuminations (light displays) are the most elaborate. The air is fragrant with the smell of roasted chestnuts.

The event has grown over the years, and according the city of Lyon now attracts some 4 million visitors. It’s been a few years since I last went but even then, the crowds had gotten too big for my liking. They now spread it over several days so as to get the most tourists in as possible. Some of the light shows are positively spectacular though – so if you don’t mind crowds, it’s worth planning a trip to Lyon in early December to catch the displays.

Fête des Lumières, LyonLa Fête des Lumières is perfectly timed to mark the start of the Christmas season – along with the collection of lumignons, I know it’s time to get out my holiday decorations and get serious about shopping.  Even though we moved away from Lyon a few years ago, I kept the candles and light them every year.

I’m not a religious person but I give thanks each year for this lovely tradition.