Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Urban Safari

To appease the children, we decide to visit the safari park at Thoiry on the west of Paris. We miss the correct turn which would have taken us down the speedy A12, and instead end up meandering through Plaisir and other connurbations. Plaisir is appropriately named as it is mainly known for its large shopping precinct, one of a number on the west of Paris. To others it is privately known as 'Enfer'. My wife knows her way there perfectly. She asks me if I would be able to retrace the route? No, I say. I rely on her atlas-like brain.

Eventually we are driving through green fields and hamlets with carefully pointed brickwork. We arrive in Thoiry and pass straight through the the village without seeing a sign for the safari park. When we turn around and go back, we realise that in fact they are everywhere, but we have arrived from the wrong direction.

The safari park is behind an imposing château on top of a hill. We pay and start our meander around the reserve. Our youngest has been asleep and so it is a surprise for her to wake up and see an ostrich outside, rolling its egg around. The animals roam around in the warm sunshine: camels, zebras, antelopes, gnus. Elephants head-butt trees scraped of all their bark. Rhinoceroses stand still as sculptures with flanks like weathered stone. Despite the signs: "Attention: Animaux Dangereux" almost every car has its windows wound down. Zebras patrol the rows of parked cars, looking for tidbits. One even puts its head right inside a car window looking for snacks. Three hippos bathe in the distance in a large lake. Giraffes move at speed across rolling grassland.

The lions apparently are not of the aggressive variety as the keepers don't bother to close the gates that connect them to the herbivores. The bear enclosure is unexciting, apart from the moment when the family in the car in front dangle their small child out of the window à la Michael Jackson. The bears aren't interested though. They doze on in the warm sun.

The French have a long history of keeping animals in captivity. Off the coast of Marseille lies a small island which is now home to the picturesque château d'If. This little island entered history with the arrival in 1515 of the first rhinoceros brought to Europe since Roman times. This beast was sent from India to Emmanuel, king of Portugal, in 1513. From a sketch taken in Lisbon of this animal, Albrecht Dürer composed his celebrated engraving, which was reproduced in many old books on natural history. I'm not sure how the beast came to end up on French soil. Perhaps a gift between monarchs. Dürer's image is said to be fanciful, but in fact it is not very far from the truth. His animal gives the impression of wearing clanking armour that stops above the knee with scaly legs protruding. On a real rhinoceros, you see that this interpretation comes from the folds of skin which hang down from the body. No doubt the Rennaissance imagination had some military application in mind. V tells me of a computer programme which can model the anatomical changes associated with an increase in body weight. When you increase the body weight of a gazelle, the program thickens its legs until eventually it looks like a rhinoceros. All makes sense doesn't it?

We have an icecream at the exit, accompanied by the smell of bear poo coming from the woods on the other side of the fence. Should have known...

The rest of the tour of the animal kingdom is on foot. We park up and stroll around the zoological gardens behind the château. All the usual creatures are there: tiny marmosets cling to their mother's back, their little black eyes gazing anxiously at the big white faces hungrily (they think) gazing in at them; capebaras, normally splashing through amazon swamps, gnaw artichoke heads in a concrete pen or swim languidly underwater in their brown pool. The kids love it. At the monkey cage, behind a plate glass window, they go into a fit of hysterical laughter as troop of macaque monkeys rush past. Our eldest is disgusted by their bottoms which have intricate patterns and, in some cases, glow pink.

My wife guides me home by the same route with slight complications caused by the numerous one way sections. French roads are too much for me. Sometimes they break down into complex patterns of white lines. Luckily the roads are not too busy as I am incapable of arriving at an understanding in time to react. We buy some 'droppies' (croissants with chocolate drops) and a pain au cereal at a boulanger. The bread is by far the nicer. My wife says it would be even better with some President butter, and I am inclined to agree.

No comments: