Panem et circenses (Bread and cir­cuses)

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - ITALY - The Odyssey.

Anthony Peregrine

Ispend much time pre­tend­ing to be a per­son of in­tel­lect and taste. Then there are oc­ca­sions when I get to do what I re­ally, re­ally want. This hap­pened last Sun­day, on my step­mother’s birth­day. She’s crack­ing through her 80s, so can ask to do what she damned well likes. One of the things she likes is the cir­cus. Fan­tas­tic.

The Ar­lette Gruss com­pany, among France’s finest, had its big top pitched an hour up the road in Avi­gnon. There may also have been some dreary op­er­atic per­for­mance on at the city’s Pa­pal palace, but I’ll take a lion over a so­prano any time. So, more to the point, will she.

“One other thing,” she said. “I want to go to Mc­Don­ald’s first. I’ve never been.” For your birth­day lunch? You don’t want some­thing posh? Fel­low with a bow tie? Wine list? Plates?

“Dear, I said ‘Mc­Don­ald’s.’ ” Talk about strik­ing gold. Mc­Don­ald’s suits me fine, though guilt de­mands an ex­cuse.

So we pulled into the out­let in a com­mer­cial es­tate near Avi­gnon. “Happy birth­day!” I cried as we es­corted her into what looked like a con­cen­trated air­port de­par­tures area, screens, milling crowds and all. “I’ll choose for the three of us,” I said, full in the knowl­edge that if I gave the wom­en­folk all the Mc­Don­ald’s options, we’d be there through Thurs­day.

No one, though, had told me you now or­der on screens. Here, then, was a chimp loose in mis­sion con­trol, fear­ful of hit­ting the screen and or­der­ing burg­ers for 73.

So a pretty and charm­ing young lady em­ployee came and did it all for me, tap­ping im­ages as if born to the task. An­other equally charm­ing young fel­low then brought the or­der to the ta­ble. Ta­ble ser­vice! “Where do you find young peo­ple like that these days?” I asked. “Mc­Don­ald’s, ob­vi­ously,” said step­mother. The chips weren’t so great but then we whapped through the sal­ads and burg­ers – pep­pered beef, chicken – as if in the shadow of famine. As is manda­tory. They were as good as the gourmet burg­ers break­ing out ev­ery­where, but half the price and a tenth the pre­ten­sion. “Lovely,” said step­mother, wan­der­ing off to find a mem­ber of staff to thank and, for all I know, tip. “We shall do it again, for my 88th.”

To the cir­cus, with a chap tightrope­walk­ing above wild­cats, parachut­ing rats, ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­ro­bats, the world’s most volup­tuous jug­gler of foot­balls – and young men on mo­tor­bikes soar­ing over our heads. Chil­dren whooped with de­light. So did we. Later, I met a friend who’d spent her week­end at a non-stop, overnight read-through of That’s the sort of thing the French call en­ter­tain­ment. “No burg­ers? No fly­ing mo­tor­bikes?” I asked. “No. Just Homer. I dozed off a lit­tle,” she said. You pays your money...

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