Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

February 13, 2002 - The Circus

The people of the Beauce have a reputation of being dour, crabby people who are too serious about working in their Kansas like wheat fields. While hiking through this region, I decide to stop for lunch at a small restaurant in the village of Alluyes. I enter through the bar and see that the dining room is empty. The bar is full of men drinking beer and to my horror some are drinking water. My friends in the Bas Vendomois warned me that the Beaucerons might act like this. I ask the lady at the bar if the restaurant is open and she directs me to a seat at a long table where an older gentleman is sitting. She sits me directly in front of this man even though no one else is in the room. There is an uncomfortable silence between this man and myself as we begin our meal. I try to make conversation but we have little to talk about. We finally agree that the food is pas terrible mais copieux. At precisely one o’clock all of the men in the bar enter the dining room and take seats at the table. This only multiplies the tension as dozens of blank faced, silent men stare at each other.

As the meal is being served a circus wagon full of lions and tigers stops in the square with music from the opera Carmen blasting on loud speakers. I want to get up and run outside to witness this unusual event but other than glancing over the shoulder, no one else moves so I settle for a glimpse of the lions out of the window. I ask the older gentleman who I now consider my best friend if this happens all the time. He says, in monotone, that things like this never happen here. Maybe these people are as boring as I have been told.

By the time I leave the village, I am solidly hooked on the idea of seeing those lions and tigers. When I reach the village of Bonneval, I hear the music from Carmen again but I can’t find the wagon with the lions and tigers. It turns out to be a small van with a loud speaker advertising the circus. I find a poster that gives the time and place. The first performance is today.

By the time I find the circus, the performance has already started inside an orange and blue tent but all the animals are parked outside. There are lions, an impressive Bengal tiger, a large black horse, a small brown pony, a large camel named Algie, and a gaggle of llamas.

The performers appear to be refugees from the Ed Sullivan Show. There is the guy on the ten-foot unicycle juggling flaming sticks and spinning hoops on his legs. There is the magician who throws colored scarves into a top hat then pulls them out all tied together with a couple of birds. There is also a comedian who tells jokes for the kids and two young acrobats who swing from ropes and balance themselves on chair legs. But real stars are the horses, camels and llamas that run around the ring jumping a steel bar.

I am impressed with the group. It is called the Franck Zavatta Circus. The performers are young, attractive men and women who are at all times professional and polite. I am more accustomed to the county fairs in the States that were seedy operations run by toothless middle-aged men wearing tobacco stained T-shirts. The circuses of Europe also had a dubious reputation before the turn of the last century. The worst were the Romanian gypsies whose acts were little more than distractions to help the band steal chickens.

It was the Zavatta family that brought respect to the circus in Europe. When the daughter of an Italian count ran off with and married the circus performer Demetrio Zavatta, their children and the name Zavatta took on noble origins. But it was not noble blood that brought this troupe respect. It was a reputation for honesty and professionalism that earned the Zavatta Circus the mark of distinction. The famous clown Achille Zavatta was the youngest son of Demetrio and his older brother Rodolphe performed and managed the Cirque Zavatta in Europe for many years. Demetrio’s father, Antonio Zavatta, was the first to use the chapiteau (movable tent) and developed the use of clowns in comedy routines.

Several times a year the fields along the Loir River fill up with grazing camels, llamas and water buffalo. I don’t have to see a poster to know the circus has come to town. Now I know why older generations always dreamed of running away with circus. It is too bad these small circuses don’t exist in America. There is now only a handful touring the countryside of France.

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February 6, 2002 - History of France
January 30, 2002 - THE BEST I EVER HAD
January 23, 2002 - Miranda This
January 16, 2002 - Charlotte Observer Interview
January 9, 2002 - Walnut Wine
January 2, 2002 - Sloe Gin
December 26, 2001 - Winter Solstice
December 19, 2001 - Relais d’Antan
December 12, 2001 - Winter Foods
 December 5, 2001 - Steak and Kidney Pudding
 November 28, 2001 - Pigs III
 November 21, 2001 - Pigs II
 November 14, 2001 - Pigs
 October 31, 2001 - The Ghost of Chateau Chevre
 October 25 - Battle of Poitiers
 August 22, 2001 - Confrerie
 August 15, 2001 - Liberation
 August 8, 2001 - Le Cyclop
 August 1, 2001 - The Finger
July 25, 2001 - La Resistance
July 18, 2001 - System D
July 11, 2001 - The Accident
July 4, 2001 - Ange Pitou
June 27, 2001 - Feu de Saint Jean
June 20, 2001 - Geoffroy Martel
June 13, 2001 - Saint of the Day
June 6, 2001 - Escapade dans le Berry
May 30, 2001 - Learning French
May 23, 2001 - Pete and Manny
May 16, 2001 - Les Journees des Aubepines
May 8, 2001 - Armistice Day
May 2, 2001 - May Day
April 25, 2001 - Les Manouches
April 18, 2001 - Trôo
April 11, 2001 - Le P'tit Jules
April 4, 2001 - Men and Their Caves 
Archive of Weekly Columns Jan-Apr 2001
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000


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