I recently attended the 40th Angouleme International Comics Festival, which is supposed to mean something to someone that hasn’t read a comic book since they reached puberty. In America, comic books martyrs champion them as works of art, even going so far as to call them graphic novels. In France, les bandes dessinées have been considered art since the ’70s. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that things are different overseas; the French have always been a more artistic bunch. Comic books, like regular books in America are seen only as fuel for movies. The difference is that with books you’re required to use your imagination. Comics have pretty pictures. Movies are pretty moving pictures. A French graphic novel will never become a Hollywood Blockbuster. That’s why you haven’t heard of any of them.
Angouleme, located in the southwest of France, is historically known for it’s paper production and printing. This made city a natural choice for the comic festival despite the art forms relative newness. During the festival over 200, 000 people flood the city, so the shift from faded European nowhere city into a tourist attraction probably eased the transition. Money makes everything more palatable.
When I arrived in the city, sleep seemed like a much more interesting than comic books. It certainly was something in short supply. I should have known that I wasn’t going to get any when I arrived at a dirt field (camp ground) the night before after a 10-hour bus ride from my college campus in Lacoste. If you go to bed filled with rage, chances are you’re going to wake up that way also.
Glamping, as it was described to me by one of my professors, is a pet name for the made up for the phenomenon known as glam-camping. The idea is that by adding the word glam onto the always-miserable act of camping will make it instantly more palatable. You wouldn’t get excited for a glam-colonoscopy or a glam-eviction, so don’t let anyone trick you into thinking that merging glamorous and camping is anything but an impossibility. This so called Glamping is what you’ll be doing if your study abroad program is too cheap to purchase a hotel suite for you inside the city. If you want to avoid ending up in a place like this, make sure your trip is booked well in advance and not through an institution.
One of the first things I noticed about Angouleme was the graffiti. Here, there was none; it truly is street art. In America, street art typically consists of the colorful spray painting of massive penises, vaginas, breasts, and the occasional graphic sex scene. Don’t think you can see any of that smut on the streets of Angouleme. Instead, observe the whimsical gems scattered throughout the city. On a historic building for example: did you see that a painting of Wednesday Addams? Over there: did you notice that spray-painted bunny rabbit on the curb? Heck, even that plain old brick wall has been transformed into a massive comic strip.
I quickly realized that to view massive penises, vaginas, breasts, and graphic sex scenes in Angouleme, I’d have to go inside one of the museums. The French are just classy like that. My suggestion is to stand in one of these museum galleries long enough to hear one of the meandering groups of pimply teenagers scream “sacre bleu!” It’s not pornography if your parents bring you to see it. Look little Timmy and Susie: the woman in the painting wants to show you her butt hole.
Speaking of butt holes, there is an abundance of dog shit on the beautiful cobblestone streets of Auguleme. To avoid stepping in it, you’ll frequently tempt to walk down the middle of the street instead of using the sidewalk. It certainly seemed like a practical strategy, and an appealing opportunity at one at that because of all the locals doing it. When a Fiat starts hurdling towards you, note that you are now boxed in at all sides. My advice is to start screaming obscenities and flailing your arms. This should make it clear that to everyone that not only are you separated from your heard of fellow Americans, but that you clearly don’t understand the local hit and run tradition.
Sticking to the sidewalks does have its downsides, even if they are feces free. During your trek through Angouleme, as in any city, a homeless person may ask you for spare change. I’ve often felt swayed by the suffering of those less fortunate than myself. But what’s important to note is that the Angouleme homeless, at least during my trek through the festival, dressed better than I do. They wear thick cotton scarves; expensive looking leather boots, and all seem to have an expression that seems to imply they didn’t spend the night in a concrete bunker. Clearly, tourist is synonymous with sucker during the Comic Festival, regardless of the language barrier. I hope that one day, I too can dress as nice as these obviously phony poor people. One has to dream.
While on the subject of coinage, it’s important to note that eating in the city, especially during a comic book festival, can be an expensive affair. You’ll need to save as much as possible so that later you can buy comic books that you’ve never heard, or possibly understand even if you tried. By eating the same sandwich over the course of several days, as I did, everyday will feel monotonous and draining. Don’t do this. Instead, consider saving your money for cocktails later. That way you can drink away the memory of the festival and stumble back to your Glampground. That’s what the homeless person you didn’t give your money would do. See; even I was able to learn something from a comic book festival.
If you’re set on getting something more out of the festival than life lessons, consider wandering into one of the exhibitions located for you convenience every 50 feet or so within the city limits. All of the exhibits, especially the small and uninteresting ones, have lines that you can wait in for at least 10 minutes. Expect to be herded like a cow in a long stretch of people whose primary goal is to do everything in their power to not move forward. They will glare are you like you’re crazy for trying to move forward. It’s best to just go limp and allow you body to be pummeled by the elbows of strangers. Remember the earlier foolishness in the street with the fiat.
Before entering an exhibit, expect to be frisked by a security guard that isn’t really equipped to stop anybody. Why did a man in a three-piece suit just feel up your backpack? How is he going to chase down anyone with contraband in those wing tips? Does he honestly expect to find, stop, or detain terrorists by giving a backpack a rough squeeze? What if someone actually did have a gun in there? What if it fires because Wing Tip’s too frisky with a bag? Does a bruised rib cage count as a medical emergency?
Expect to see a lot of Asterix the Gaul, Tin-Tin, and Mickey Mouse. They will be everywhere in the city, and every time I saw them I slowly moved from an open minded interest to a state of ennui. I know what you’re thinking. Wait-isn’t Mickey Mouse a cartoon? How did he get his own exhibit in the festival? Half of the things you thought were just horrible cartoons are also horrible comic strips. So, be prepared. If you are a parent planning to visit the festival, it appears that you can abandon them here for hours to watch cartoons. They should be safe with those security guards that aren’t protecting anybody.
Since the festival takes place at the end of January, expect to be walking around in the cold for hours and be driven in to the exhibits for the sole purpose of warmth. During my visit, the sky frequently opened up in a torrent of ice-cold rain, so bring you’re umbrella. Even if you’re not Glamping outside the city, the streets are dense with fellow tourists and the city it’s difficult to navigate even with a map. The city tends to become labyrinthine. Everything is beige cobblestone and just when you think you know where you’re going, prepare to find yourself lost on one of the twisting cobblestone streets. Have a map and an idea of where you are going.
If you’ve survived several days of the festival, do yourself a favor and eat a good dinner before you leave. If your experience is anything like mine was, it’s been a rough couple of days, and you deserve it. Perhaps you can go with a few fellow Americans that you bump into during your visit to the city. Perhaps you’re all cold and wet, and by this point, money is of no object anymore. Just remember: your attempt at saving money earlier by having the same sandwich for two days is wasted by the embarrassment that will inevitably follow your choice do something nice for yourself.
While inside a restaurant with a group of Americans that don’t speak any French, remember the expression “in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king”. Realize that this doesn’t apply to this situation. My small understanding of the language was being depended upon to decipher the menu, communicate with the waitress, and positioned me to ask for the check.
If you’ve ever had to explain to a waitress that you need a check split seven different ways in language you can’t speak, a tip of the hat to you, sir. To do this, I used my extremely limited French, hand gestures, and when necessary, a series dolphin like clicking noises. You can count on whatever made up communication technique not being understood, so arrange to pay Dutch. Otherwise, expect to spend a great deal money after dinner on necessary cocktails.
I tried to find some comfort in the fact that the streets were empty and easy to navigate after my own dinner debacle. The nights in Angouleme are wildly different after the museums and exhibits close. By the time you leave, you may not have any more money, but you’ll always have the memories. I also have something on my shoe-courtesy of the dogs of Angouleme.