After leaving the parking lot and leaping across a big trench, we reached a decline. We were on the highest point of the field and could see out across the entire occupied property. Except for the dim light of the moon through an overcast sky the darkness was quite profound. Nonetheless, the many differently-sized islands of light strewn across the field made it quite evident that the area, as well as the whole operation, were a lot bigger than I had expected them to be. On the other end of the field, far off in the distance, I noticed a white line running down the slope of a hill. I didn't understand what it was, and I quickly forgot about it.
Soon there were people all around us, marching with flashlights in groups of 5 to 10, several of them stopping to greet Jérôme. Grown women and men of all ages, children, elderly: this event was clearly not specific to a generation. We headed down the slope, cutting through the grass; the ground was uneven. I didn't know what to expect.
There was a dumpster fire in front of a little hut. A couple of people were standing around, there were tables with various assortments of stuff laid out, towels and blankets hung from the clotheslines. "If you need a blanket later just come by here. They give things away. And if you have something you don't need you can leave it here," explained Jérôme.
There was a faint hum in the air: we heard it long before we could make out what was producing it. We passed the hut, landed on a little path, and followed the sound to its source. A generator. Its cables crept across the grass to a large construction with a roof, where rows of chairs were set up and a handful of people were watching an old black and white movie that was being projected onto a big white canvas, attached to what appeared to be the kind of old iron framed fence you would find at a construction site.
A short diagonally-left-bound wade through the black and soon we arrived at the largest tent. I was impressed by its size (which was considerable, especially given that it was only a temporary installation) and still, its interior was totally packed; people huddled together to make the most of the space. Jérôme and I hovered around the entrance where we got a pretty good look at what was going on.
In the middle stood two moderators and they were hosting the discussion. They each had microphones that were hooked up to a big amplifier and that were perpetually passed around to the numerous contributors to the conversation. I had opened a beer and had already given up on trying to follow the French, so I couldn't make heads or tails of what the discussion was actually about but I remember being quite amazed at how civil it was. The tent was full with maybe 80, possibly 100 or more people and they all sat silently and listened; those who engaged in the discussion let each other finish before beginning to speak.
Jérôme was listening intently and checked my face every now and again to see whether I was too. At some point he noticed that something was distracting me: the white line was a little bigger now, and standing next to the tent I had a clear view of it. "What is that?", I pointed to it. "I don't know. I noticed it earlier. Let's have a look." We headed towards it and away from the tent.
- Did you understand them?
- .. No, that was all a bit fast for me.
- Apparently, the police attacked earlier today during the afternoon.
Since I had only been to a handful of demonstrations and hadn't much experience with standing across from police in riot-gear, my mind began nervously to look for things it knew in particular about the French police force. It couldn't come up with anything (except for a couple of scenes from the film La Haine) but I imagined that they were likely to be a little more raw than what I was used to in Austria.
- The French police force doesn't happen to be unusually gentle by international comparison, by chance?
- The police.. do they have riot gear, shields, pepper spray, water cannons, batons, that kind of thing?
- Oh, no they are not gentle.
He pulled his sweater up above his nose.
- (muffled) If they attack with tear gas, pull your sweater up like this.
- You think they're going to attack again?
- I don't know.
He straightened his sweater. Down another slope below us there stood two stages at perpendicular angles to each other with a little stall between them. The main stage had its back to us, so we couldn't yet see who was playing, but there rang from it a voice so gravelly it made Tom Waits sound like Billie Holiday.
- What are we protesting against?
"We're protesting against the construction of a dam," said Jérôme. We had arrived at the next stop. The whole area was lit like a theme-park pirate cove, the warm light lending everyone it struck certain magical properties. Like the guy on front and center stage: we were looking up at the kind of 40 year-old man who looks like a 60-year old man, hunched, totally pale and with greasy thin black hair receding on all ends of his head and reaching down to his nipples, while he banged the broken nails on his hand against an old and decrepit Western guitar, growled like the devil himself, and madly stamped on the floor.
Sometimes - embarassingly - I catch myself with my mouth hanging open when I am in awe of someone or something. Whether that happened in that moment I can't say, but conditions were optimal in any case.
He seemed to care a great deal about whatever he was singing. "Do you want to stop and listen?", Jérôme asked. Well, yeah but.. the line. "Maybe we'll check out that white line first, and then we come back afterwards. I really want to know what it is now." - "Good, me too."
We left the party. As we did, we saw two of the nearby bonfires, the larger of which having already become quite an impressive sight. The diabolical growl faded to below a whisper, and a bass-heavy reggae beat from the next island took over.
A broad variety of amplifiers of all different brands and sizes were stacked in the shape of a triangle and covered in Christmas tree lights. It towered over the people amassed within its blast radius while they let the penetrating rhythm take total hold over their bodies, leaving them to appear to be performing a communal ritual at the foot of a species of shrine. Behind the crowd stood another little shack, where a DJ spoke chants into the mic while the whole pulsating island lay engulfed in a familiar-smelling cloud.
The reggae island had been the last of them, and when we stepped out of it, we stepped off the edge of the planet. Everything around us was dark now, and there were significantly fewer people around. The only thing between us and the line (closer now, yet still unidentifiable) was the large dark patch of grass that must have been where the fighting with the police had taken place.
We had found our way back onto a path running alongside the bottom of the slope that the line lay on. On the far side of it, a bright spotlight went on. Its light hurriedly zig-zagged across the field and finally landed on me, following me as I was drawn to it like #intentional ommission of too obvious analogy#.
"Stop", called Jérôme at some point who - without my having noticed it - had slowed down and come to a halt several paces behind me. I stopped. I was close enough to see now. The mystery of the white line was resolved. I think I laughed out loud.