Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Organising Events in Provence

I've lived in Provence for seven years and have known the region since the late 1970s.

One of the admirable qualities of the people of Provence, or the culture if you like, is their gigantic ability to organise large and complex public events as if they were simply setting out tea and biscuits.

The market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a good example. It's set up every Sunday, come hail or high water, and takes over the entire town. From the quais where the river flows, to the shady Cafe de France in the heart of medieval Isle, stalls groaning with produce spring up like early morning mushrooms and spread right across town. There are stalls selling fruit, veg, oil, bread, cheese, olives, paella, espadrilles, cotton frocks, sausage made from donkey meat and wild boars, cheap jewellery, CDs and - the speciality of L'Isle - antiques and bric-a-brac.

The market appears in the morning like an image conjured up by a sorceror and disappears just as quickly at the end of the day. It's like watching magic, transforming the town dramatically twice in one day. Oh, and they do it every Thursday too, on a smaller scale.

What's remarkable is that there's no fuss and no confusion. It all appears entirely casual. Stallholders amble about unloading vans, loading their stalls. Drinking coffee, munching croissants, having a laugh. And smoking, obviously. No-one puts a foot wrong. No-one forgets anything when they leave or drops litter in their wake.

But I wasn't going to talk about the market. I was going to talk about 7ART. 7ART is a project, a campaign really, run by local artists and citizens who want the old medieval Tour d'Argent - the old money tower or counting house in the centre of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue - to be turned into an art gallery and cinema, with space for performances and a lieu de convivialité. Their website is here.

It's a good project. The centre of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is often dead at night. It's true that there are relatively frequent seasonal events - a procession to light the lights at Christmas, outdoor theatre in the summer and so on. But often you walk through town late in the evening and the bars are closed, the shutters on houses are closed and often even the restaurants are closed pretty early outside the summer season. Meanwhile, the Tour which is a wonderful medieval building right opposite the old church, has been quietly falling into ruin for decades.

Empty and neglected, it houses a huge space that could be turned into the heart of L'Isle once again.

I'm a member of 7ART and last weekend was impressed by how well organised it is. A weekend of events was staged in the local Salle des Fetes with the title En Attendant Votre Tour. There was a public debate, performances by a jazz band, a 'slam' poet, rock bands and a nationally acclaimed comedian, Vincent Roca, who happens to be a friend of the 7ART organisers. The mayor of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue came along to the public debate and the events were well attended.

During the week before the events, volunteers were sought to set up the stage, equipment, catering and decoration. The commune itself set up the seating. When I turned up to help out, there was the usual relaxed atmosphere towards getting things done. Blokes were unloading sound equipment from a lorry, others were on high scaffolding, fixing up lights and decoration. The guys from the municipalité were setting up the seating stands. Someone else was covering the high windows to screen out the daylight. Crates of beer arrived. The caviste from the local wine shop delivered wine. Food was packed in fridges. A local carpenter arrived and set up a mini-Tour d'Argent where children would be able to scribble and draw. I'd brought along sets of tiny lights that would hang like a curtain over the entrance. They needed to be untangled and someone appeared instantly to help.

There was, again, no fuss and no lack of co-ordination. Everyone seemed to have an idea what they needed to do and got on with it, helping one another with great good humour. At midday, a huge table laden with pizzas materialised and everything stopped for lunch.

Local graphic designer Marc Peyret, who leads the campaign, was at the centre of things and had clearly done a mass of organising over the preceding weeks. He had bought, begged and borrowed the materials and people he needed to make the event work.

The story was the same on Monday when we all turned up to dismantle everything. Just as the market in Isle magically goes away at the end of every Sunday and Thursday, the Salle des Fetes was restored apparently effortlessly to its normal state.

Which made me think how easily the town could restore the Tour d'Argent and breathe new life into the centre of this beautiful town.

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