… till the cows come home….

We spent this weekend in Annecy… a beautiful lake town at the edge of the Alps… to see the annual “retourner.” It’s the weekend when they bring the farm animals back down from the mountains to spend winter where it isn’t so cold and, more importantly, where there’s some food.

Like everything else we’ve experienced here, we left with two basic thoughts. First, nothing here ever happens quite the way we think it will (let alone should). Organization is best left to someone else; you won’t find it here and we should learn to stop expecting it. Second, no place in the United States will a crowd of people be allowed to stand on a street too narrow for a mini-van in order to watch herds of cows barrel by.

Maybe it was the wonderful weather, but the event was far more crowded than we anticipated. I’d printed out a map that marked the spots where there would be demonstrations and bands performing. I did not expect there to be rows of vendors selling everything from baskets baskets.jpg to toys to wooden carvings lining every cobble of stone in between each promised venue. After about an hour of being bustled about, we went back to the hotel room to dump off un-needed jackets and my backpack purse. birds4sale.jpg

I’d really expected Kaitlyn to enjoy the demonstrations of the “traditional” ways of doing tasks in the Savoyard region of the Alps. (It’s the region that’s traded between Switzerland and Italy and France… and long resisted joining France altogether.) We saw men sawing giant logs by hand (ok, that was kinda dull), a man making rope (or trying to, but some old French man kept talking to him and distracting him), apple cider being pressed (which tends to eliminate any craving for apple cider). cider.jpg The one demonstration Kaitlyn wanted to watch was the one permanently emblazoned on my brain as the single most disgusting, repulsive, nasty thing I have ever seen… or smelled… EVER. There were a couple of men standing over a table making sausage. Using some gross looking white casing that I’m sure was fresh from some animals innards. Then I realized what was being put into that casing. One of the men was dipping a giant ladle into a plastic bucket of blood and funneling it into the casing. Voila! Fresh blood sausage. Which Bill says he’s been told is the only way to eat it. bloodsausage.jpg I don’t know what is more disturbing. The idea that people eat that crap or the idea that later in the day, that big plastic bucket that held the, uh, ingredients was probably used for mixing up popcorn or soup. The sight of it was like a horrible accident…. as badly as I wanted to look away I simply couldn’t. The smell of it was what I couldn’t stand. And it wasn’t just the smell of that bucket of blood… it was the aroma of the freshly cooked sausages mixed with it that was so repulsive. Just thinking about it makes me shudder.

After enough wandering to get that image out of my head and nostrils, we decided to walk the route that the cows were eventually to take. I’d also printed out the cow route from the internet. We turned a corner and spotted a barricade. It seemed like a promising place to stand. So we staked out a spot. I’d overheard some people saying something about 2:30, so I figured that was the appointed time for the bovine processional to begin. (Which, being that it’s France, really means 2:45 or even 3….) It was about quarter to two when we stopped. Bill suggested a couple of times that we give up on standing there and keep moving until it became obvious we needed to stop. Kaitlyn was not enjoying just standing there. But the sidewalk started to fill up; we were soon surrounded by others eager to see the cows. People started to stand and wait on the other side of the street… even though the sidewalk was taken up by vendors hocking jelly, breads and honey… and waiting to see the march of the cows meant waiting in the very street those cows would use for their journey.

A little after 3, a parade of sorts made its way to our street. We heard bands and saw a police officer bike by. Then the bands marched a different way and for a moment I thought that if we’d stood for more than an hour on a street that wasn’t even on the route that Bill would completely lose it and I’d have to go bail him out of some French jail. But then the second, uh, parade “act” marched by.

There were frustratingly long gaps in-between most of the parade entries. We saw bands playing accordions… accordionannecy.jpg groups playing those big long horns you see in pictures of Alpine pastures… bighornannecy.jpg carts covered in fall flowers and pumpkins… horseannecy.jpg a local military brigade… a band that played big sticks slung over their shoulders beat on with smaller sticks…. stickinstrumentsannecy.jpg people simply dressed in traditional garb…. farmers carrying old-fashioned farm implements high over their heads as if they were out to get the ogre….

And you have to understand that with each group that passed, the people lining the street not cleverly trapped behind a barricade pushed into the street to take pictures. And the mob slowly moved forward from each side… making the passageway smaller and smaller… like human cholesterol blocking the street. Some of the carriages that drove by nearly ran over the feet of the most stubborn. Some of the people who walked by with the procession were just people walking along who had nothing at all to do with the parade… but figured maybe they’d stop if they saw a good place. (One chose to stop right in front of us and I was fairly sure that Bill would have smacked her upside the head if he could have reached her.)

At long last (about an hour after it all started), the animals finally started marching by. There were the St Bernards… sporting long strings of drool and little wooden casks under their chins. If I’m ever in an avalanche and that’s what comes to rescue me, I don’t know how reassured I’ll feel. stbernardannecy.jpg There were geese. Yes, they march the geese down from the mountain. Yes, I do think they could probably just fly, but they don’t. duckparadeannecy.jpg sheepannecy.jpgThere were sheep, complete with a very intense looking sheep dog herding them along. There were a couple of rather big oxen pulling a cart that featured people riding along tossing hay onto the street and into the crowd. New Orleans has beads, Annecy has hay. There were goats. annecygoats.jpg The goats ate the hay. I suppose it was tossed down to get them to follow the path, like Pac Man gobbling up the dots. Then came the cows. They also liked the hay. This was quite a surprise to a woman in the crowd holding a big fistful of it. One cow charged right into her looking for a snack. I had another cow stick it’s face in mine looking for I don’t know what; I patted it on the head and luckily it went away. I will say that when the cows barreled down the street, all those people who’d been pushing each other to get into the street were suddenly pushing to get out of the street. annecycow2.jpg Bill had lifted Kaitlyn over the barricade so she could have a better view. annecykkinstreet.jpg When the cows turned the corner, he grabbed her and pulled her back to the relative safety of our spot behind it. The cows had on bells and sprigs of pine trees tucked into their collars. annecycow1.jpg They didn’t appear happy about either… or about the trip through town. I think they’d have preferred the bypass. Kaitlyn was very amused by the cow that stopped to relieve herself all over the street… and as the seemingly endless stream flowed toward the sidewalk it sent more pushers-forward scurrying backwards. I don’t know how many herds of cows went by. Four, five, six… I’m not sure.

At one point I turned to Bill and asked him how you’re supposed to know the parade was over…. the parades I’ve gone to before Santa or the fire trucks show up to signal the end. Here, there was no way to know. The band that had stopped performing at the street corner took up their instruments again, so we figured that meant the procession had finished streaming by.

So we joined the people who’d filled the street in attempting to dodge the freshly laid coating of, uh, fertilizer… as we made our way back to our hotel for a break.

A friend asked me if I’d go again. No, I don’t really think so. Because of the crowd. Now that I know that the parade includes zero crowd control, at least I’d be prepared for it. But that doesn’t mean I want to deal with it again. But am I glad I went? You betcha. You’re never going to see something like that at home.

2 Responses to “… till the cows come home….”

  1. D.A.D. says:

    You’re so right….nowhere in the US will crowds mingle among passing cows. But yes, what a memorable thing to do. I can just see the cow nudging close to your face and your petting it. What a perfect time for the camera to be rolling, but it sounds like no way could anyone deal with that, too. And you’d never know it was coming, either. Kaitlyn sure is developing wierd fascinations for obtuse things. This surely will lead to some career motivation, its just too soon to know what. But she will carve her role in society where nobody else is going, and hopefully fill a void. We should maintain a formal list of her intrigues (seeking world vacation spots with autoflush toilets, blood sausages, etc) and maybe a pattern will emerge.

  2. D.A.D. says:

    Annecy was used in late September for filming of a John Travolta movie “From Paris With Love”. The latest french location they are using, Montfermeil, experienced a bout of arson on the production trucks stored in a stadium parking lot & adjacent streets two days ago. Apparently the french would rather have Jerry Lewis star in American movies.

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