Letter from Paris: La Fête de la Tonte
First, let me answer the question that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue at the moment.
Yes, I am safe. No, Paris is neither burning nor buried in stinking trash. The demonstrations are large and loud, but they are not riots. The transit strikes mean double-checking before I head to the Métro station, and sometimes walking to my evening French class in Montmartre. On the whole, however, daily life continues more or less as usual, and life is good.
Enough of that. Now let me tell you about what I got up to this weekend.
Last May I wrote about visiting an exhibit at the National Archives about France’s national flock of prize merinos. Their history is wildly dramatic, beginning with the espionage and diplomacy that led to the importation of the first breeding stock from Spain. For more on that, you can read Carol Sulcoski’s A Sheep of One’s Own: A Brief History of the Rambouillet.
La Bergerie Nationale (National Sheepfold) that was established at Rambouillet under Louis XVI in 1783 is still there, and still cares for the direct descendants of that original flock. The merinos are considered a living treasure, and the Bergerie itself is no mere museum. It remains a working farm, as well as a center for agricultural research and training.
In addition, pains are taken to make sure that the French know about, and have access to, this important part of their heritage. The farm is regularly open to visitors, but last weekend it offered something extra special: La Fête de la Tonte–the sheep shearing festival.
I hadn’t visited Rambouillet before, so when I heard about the festival just two days in advance I rearranged my calendar to be there. There are hints of spring in the city, but we’re still mired in the grisaille (greyness) of March and I liked the idea of fresh air, green grass, and sheep.
Rambouillet is an easy trip from Paris. There are frequent regional trains from the Gare Montparnasse, and it takes about an hour (if you catch the train that stops a lot) to reach the town of Rambouillet. The town itself is well worth a look. It has a château set by a lake in a pretty park, and it’s a dead ringer for the quintessential ville française pictured in my high school French book.
You can take a local bus or taxi from the train station to the farm. Or, if you don’t mind walking, it’s a very pleasant thirty-minute stroll past the château, through the park, and across the fields.
The oldest parts of the farm–the original Cour Royale (Royal Court, built in the last days of the Bourbons) and Cour Imperiale (Imperial Court, an expansion under Napoleon), look decidedly regal.
The arched gateway into the Cour Royale bears an apt inscription lifted from Vergil’s Eclogues, CURAT OVES OVIUM QUE MAGISTROS: “He looks after the sheep and the teachers.”
And the original barns are kinda fancy. Suitable residences, I suppose, for the king’s own sheep.
Most of the farm’s animals now live in newer, more modern accommodations; but some of the prize rams (béliers) continue to occupy the Imperial Court, so they can greet you when you arrive.
They are handsome animals, awfully friendly for a bunch of pedigreed aristocrats. This fellow got up and strolled right over to investigate me and my camera.
“Bonjour. Et qui-êtes vous, monsieur?”
Feeding the sheep is, of course, strictly forbidden; but even the youngest visitors are permitted to get very close and offer a gentle pat, with the firm reminder that “Ce ne sont pas des peluches”—these are not stuffed animals.
Showers kept passing through, with brilliant bursts of warm sun in between. Some of the ewes (brébis) had taken advantage of this and were lolling outside on the grass.
The Real Housewives of LA Bergerie
They weren’t interested in chatting with me, so I walked a little further and spotted a barn labeled NURSERIE DES AGNEAUX. The lamb nursery.
I have to warn you, it’s about to get awfully cute in here. Brace yourself.
As advertised, this barn was chockablock with lambs and their moms doing the things lambs and moms do.
Like napping …
… and eating …
… and chatting with Americans visiting from Paris …
While the kids were otherwise engaged, this mother seemed especially delighted to have a chance to talk to me at length about the latest trends in the big city, and asked me to give her regards to a cousin who lives in the Jardin des Plantes.
And over in a very quiet corner, reserved for the newest of the new, was an itty bitty lamb enjoying sole use of the heat lamp. “Elle se bronze,” said one of the visiting children. “She’s getting a sun tan.”
It was so peaceful in the sheep barns.
Don’t try to count them or you’ll fall asleep.
But I had to drag myself away after about an hour, because it was time for the main event of the day
This took place in one of the barns on a temporary stage, so that the crowd could get a nice view of the process while a member of the Bergerie staff explained key points. For example, that sheep are no more harmed in shearing than you are harmed by a haircut …
… and that the order of shearing is not catch-as-catch-can, but a series of carefully arranged postures that help to keep both the shearer and the sheep calm and comfortable.
All parties involved certainly looked at peace with the process.
After the freshly shorn fleeces had been checked over on the sorting table to make sure they were safe to handle, bits and pieces were put right into the hands of the crowd.
The goal everywhere seemed to be to create direct connections between the people, the sheep, and the wool.
Lovely stuff it is, too. Even before it’s been washed, Rambouillet wool is gorgeous–long, buttery soft locks with a crimp that will help to make a bouncy, springy yarn.
The shearing was the centerpiece of the festival, but not the end of it. The Bergerie is well outfitted with classrooms devoted to teaching what happens to wool after it leaves the sheep, and on this weekend it was also hosting fiber artists demonstrating and teaching spinning …
… weaving …
… and weaving.
Even the littlest visitors were taught to make something with wool.
The Knitters and the Yarn
And there were knitters! Although my French still wobbles–especially when I am meeting new people–I was warmly welcomed into the circle of Rambouillet’s knitting group, Les Ramboulaines.
Of course, when you’re a knitter among knitters, language barriers don’t matter much because yarn is a universal language.
Chères Rambolaines, je vous remercie mille fois pour votre accueil gracieuse.
After a bit of convivial work on my traveling sock, it was time to head back to Paris. But not without a stop at the Bergerie’s gift shop. Because I know you’re wondering … do they sell yarn made from the merinos?
Yes. Oh my, yes.
Next time I’ll be visiting with a bigger shopping bag.
PS For more information on La Bergerie Nationale, visit here. Follow them on Instagram here and on YouTube here. Just don’t blame me if you get an attack of the cutes and make a spectacle of yourself.