We'll Always Have Paris | Pushing the Wave

We'll Always Have Paris

Opinion, 8 March 2024
by L.A. Davenport
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, in March, 2000.
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, photographed with a disposable camera in March, 2000.
There was no column last week because I was away, in Paris. I have been to the French capital many times over the years, most often for work, as there are conferences there for me from time to time, but on this occasion it was for both business and pleasure.

While they say you should see Paris in the Fall (or autumn to me), I somehow usually end up in the City of Light in late winter/early spring. Despite that, and the inclement weather that typically accompanies my trip, I love wandering the grand avenues, taking in the latest exhibitions and visiting my favourite haunts.

Although I have often been to Paris, the grey clouds, windswept streets and occasional showers on this trip reminded me very strongly of my first, back in March 2000.

I was 26 at the time and, despite my receding youth, had travelled relatively little outside of the UK, other than family trips to parts of Italy and France, and a weekend in Vienna for my 21st birthday. Even within our fair isles, I had hardly explored beyond the limits of the East Midlands and the coast around Skegness, the odd trip to Wales or the South Coast aside.

It would be easy to say that the primary reason for my lack of travel experience was due to my relative poverty, as I had spent the years after I left university living a rather hand-to-mouth existence while I toiled in low-paid publishing jobs that I eternally hoped would lead on to better things. However, I also have to confess to a rather embarrassing lack of curiosity.

I suppose that was partly because we never took holidays when I was a child, largely as my father didn’t want to take the time off from his self-employed work. As I subsequently spent my adolescence in a situation that was fairly close to penury, the idea of travelling for pleasure was so perpetually out of reach that I assumed it was simply something that other people did.

At university, I watched my fellow students travelled far and wide, but I could never afford it, so I dismissed it from my mind, much as I had done with expensive champagne and the other trappings of a luxury lifestyle. Far better to train oneself not to want the things one cannot have than to torture oneself with striving after the unattainable. Or so the argument went.

But, with a few more pounds in my pocket and my student debts finally cleared, I started to widen my horizons and, with the encouragement of more worldly friends, began to appreciate that ‘abroad’ need remain a foreign land no longer.

So on a cold and rather unforgiving spring day, I and my companion took the Eurostar, which had opened just six years and still retained a sense of exotic glamour, and spent just one full day in the French capital.

If memory serves, we took the earliest train we could from the then-departure point of Waterloo station and the last one back from Gare du Nord in the evening. Armed with a few francs and a disposable camera, we crisscrossed the city, trying to see and absorb as much as we could in the little time we had available.

It was all so eye-opening, and I fell in love with the place. I knew France, of course, as my father lived for years and years in the countryside west of Toulouse and I visited him fairly regularly, but this was first city I had visited that was of a size comparable to that of London.

What struck me at the time was not so much the style and graceful beauty of the place but how there could be a global city just a few short hours on the train from our own, that was so utterly different.
Searching for Oreillette at the Salon d
Searching for Oreillette at the Salon d'Agriculture, Paris, 2024
While I have long got over my initial shock at the new of Paris, I do try to include something out of the ordinary each time I come. This time, we hit upon an event that has been running every year since 1964 and is, in every sense of the word, extraordinary.

The Salon International de l’Agriculture is quite a revelation, even to someone who grew up in the countryside and knows his way around an agricultural fair, so to speak. Running for nine days from late February and taking place in the largest of Paris’s exhibition centres, it covers the world of farming from all angles, and offers an opportunity both for business to take place and for the public to get close to the life, and animals, on which we all depend to have food on our table.

Ever the journalist, I didn’t go in via the standard entrance gates but took along my press card and was issued with an official badge. I didn’t want simply to wander around marvelling at the sheer number of cows, goats, sheep, horses, rabbits and other livestock, and munching on tidbits from stalls proffering their wares, although I did a bit of that too. Instead, I wanted to dig a little into the state of farming today in France, and what can be done to ensure that it has a future.
FNSEA at the Salon d
A spokesperson for the Fédération nationale des syndicats d'exploitants agricoles (FNSEA, or National Federation of Farmers' Unions) told me he believes that, while French farmers, like those in Britain and all across the European region, face many difficulties, there is way forward.

The most important task facing farming today, he stressed, is to create a “level playing field” in the European Union and ensure farming standards are applied evenly across member states, as well as to underline to the European Commission that “we are here to feed the European population."

There also needs to be an end to the idea that agriculture and the environment are somehow in opposition, and instead appreciate that “the two must be in symbiosis” and find out “what we can do to live better” with the environment, based on robust research, which has not so far been the case.

“We have a new generation of farmers who are ready to work with the environment,” he added, noting that older generations learned methods that, in effect, acted against the natural habitat so as to grow enough food to feed the population after the Second World War.

“Today, there are young farmers coming up who want to change those methods [and in doing so] will ensure that agriculture will be even stronger in the future.”
Jeunes Agriculteurs at the Salon d
To find out a bit more about young people can be encouraged to take up farming, when every headline seems to portray it in a negative or hopeless light, I spoke to the Jeunes agriculteurs (Young Farmers).

Their spokesman explained that their goal is to show that it is possible to “have a career in farming…to help the local economy thrive” and to not “let the countryside die.”

“That’s why we focus on youth.”

Agriculture is “not just a passion,” he continued, but also “a job we can live on,” rather than simply relying on subsidies to get by. Taking the example of profitable sectors such as cheese and wine production, the organisation hopes to help create financial opportunities across the board, so that farmers can find a path to market for their produce.

“That’s why we defend all the models” of food production, whether they be organic or conventional, to “meet the demands of the market,” he said, adding: “We hope not only to achieve a form of ‘food sovereignty’” for France, “but also to continue to export.”

The spokesperson for the FNSEA agreed, saying: “There is no model” for farming.

There are lots of different types of agriculture, he underlined, “and we need all of them,” whether large or small.

Crucial to that is explaining the realities of modern farming. However, for the past 40 years, “we haven’t communicated” with the public.

“We let our young people leave [the industry] and today everyone says ‘my grandfather, my great-grandfather was farmer’,” with the result that they have an old-fashioned idea of farming and do not understand that it has “evolved.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t show enough of the diversity of French farming,” and instead focus on the “clichés around organic farming” or small producers, “but that is not farming.”

He continued: “It’s many things, and that’s what makes farming strong…but I am convinced we have five or so difficult years ahead of us before the country accepts that farming has changed.”
I may have been swanning around Paris over the past week, but that does not mean that progress has not been made on my writing.

A play is taking shape and edging ever-closer to (hopefully) seeing the light of day, while I am putting the finishing touches on two publications, one non-fiction, the other an update of my first novel, Escape, both of which will coming to an online store near you in the coming months.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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We'll Always Have Paris | Pushing the Wave