I’ve chosen a rather unorthodox topic for my first blog post in a while, purely because it’s one of the most bizarre public ceremonies I’ve ever witnessed.
I hesitate to brand the organisers of last night’s tram inauguration ceremony as ‘weird’. It’s no secret that cultural differences can often be perceived as oddities by each camp on either side of the channel. The French’s befuddlement at the mention of beans on toast or the idea of any shop being open on Sundays is equalled by British revulsion at the prospect of eating frogs’ legs or extortionately long lunch breaks which mean the world stops between 12 and 3 in the afternoon. However, though I have not yet been able to ask a Montpellierain their perspective on the events of last night’s festivities, my incredulity forces me to come to the conclusion that the people who brought us the day long tramvaganza are in fact barking mad.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the promotion of a community spirit and finding any excuse for a party. Indeed, one of the things I admire about French culture is its emphasis on bringing people together, whether it be through food, art or (more likely) protest. It all began when my friends and I spotted people donning bright yellow uniforms and ‘TAM’ hats dishing out what appeared to be unlimited chocolate, there was no containing our delight. It was an afternoon well spent, following them around Place de la Comédie trying to figure out which ones we hadn’t been to yet, although they probably would have emptied their entire bags out for us if we’d asked. All this took place against a backdrop of some bizarre floating papier-mâché heads, the symbolic purpose of which remains unclear. There was a lovely festive atmosphere, but even then we mused that it was probably a little excessive given the relative frivolity of the occasion.
There was a full itinerary of the day available online, which happily brought the free buffet to our attention. No student is ever going to turn down free food, so our merry crew made its way to Place de l’Observatoire, where all the action was to happen. We arrived just as a man who I can only presume is the mayor was in the middle of a highly impassioned speech about the revolutionary achievement of expanding the tram network from two lines to four. The words ‘vive le tram!’ were actually said without the slightest hint of sarcasm, and were met by rapturous applause. The buffet turned out to be highly disappointing: there were platters full of oysters, which didn’t appeal to any of us (I’ve heard they taste like bogies and am happy to take popular opinon’s word for it), and the meagre supplies of cheese, meats and wine were devoured within seconds by the French, like a pack of starving vultures swooping down on the bones of a rotting field mouse.
With that, we did what any self respecting group of British Erasmus students would do and headed for the nearest English pub, the Robin Hood. We had a perfect view of the ensuing spectacle from the window, which featured an opera singer wearing a dress which matched the design of one of the new trams (Christian Lacroix designed them don’t you know?), followed inexplicably by a raunchy display from a pole dancer.
The pièce de résistance of the evening was to come later, however. After much preamble, a light show commenced at La Tour de la Babote a little after 9pm. It took the form of a story featuring ‘le petit tramway’, which was fully animate, complete with dreams and aspirations, who embarked on a journey through the four elements of air, earth, water and fire (supposedly representative of each of the four tram lines), communicating with the birds, fish, flowers and even the occasional elephant or giraffe along the way. The cinematics were accompanied by pyrotechnics and a firework display, which were actually very impressive. I’m convinced that the makers must have been enjoying a spliff or two when they sat down together to come up with the concept. It’s hard to convey just how trippy the experience of watching it was, but we were definitely all experiencing a ‘car crash’ moment; you want to look away, but you just can’t.
Again, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I fully appreciate the fact that the tram is important for those who don’t live right next to a stop. We all know how annoying it is when you have to walk miles just to get a transport link to somewhere even further away. But the tram isn’t even new technology for Montpellier. As useful as the two existing lines are, they’re overpriced and usually overcrowded and hardly ever arrive at a convenient moment. If you’re going to find a reason to ‘faire la fête’, Montpel, at least make it something worth going all out for: last night was the equivalent of holding a champagne buffet and award ceremony for the opening of a new bus route.
Little disclaimer: As of January, my love for Montpellier has been increasing exponentially with its mounting levels of craziness. And it gave me a good topic for a year abroad post which actually relates to the town I’m living in. This blog post is not a complaint, but quite simply an expression of utter astonishment.