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Tour de France 

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The French Travel Showcase came to town on Saint Patrick's Day, not an ideal day for concentrating on things French: somehow the peculiar poisonous color of the river kept coming to mind, and even some of the most avid Gallophiles--the kind who were wont to burst out practically unsolicited, "Oh, I just love France"--were wearing green ties and blouses and sweaters.

"It was hard to find a place where the beer was not flowing green," admitted Pascal Lepetre, who runs the French tourist office in Chicago. But he noted that the city's festivities were a fringe benefit for the travel agents who'd ostensibly come to town to learn about France; if they were not also learning something about Ireland, they were certainly learning something about Chicago.

Around us, in a meeting room in the basement of the Holiday Inn on East Ohio, exhibitors stood behind tables covered with maps and brochures and pamphlets. The travel agents moved among them, lugging reams of advertising in plastic shopping bags emblazoned "France" and "Printemps--Le Plus Parisien des Grands Magasins" and "Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie." They circulated purposefully in what seemed like a sort of ritualized mating dance: "Do you do groups or individuals?" the exhibitor would ask. "Mainly individuals, and you?" the agent would respond. "Oh, we do everything."

Among the exhibits were about a half dozen regions of France; I headed for Brittany, and began flipping through an oversize photo album filled with city and country scenes. There were several shots of verdant landscapes flecked with rocks that looked like prehistoric monuments. "It is quite beautiful," I said, adopting the basic, well-enunciated English that I use, against my will, when talking with normative speakers of English.

"It looks like Ireland," said Francois Vertadier, who was manning the table and wearing a bright green tie. His name, I thought, seemed to mean something like "greener."

"And Ireland looks like Wisconsin," said a woman next to me who was wearing a green sweater. Upon hearing that M. Vertadier had not been to Wisconsin, she assumed a rather self-satisfied air and moved away.

A voice on the PA announced that the "typically French buffet" would begin in a half hour; in the meantime, we were to continue browsing and listen to "music brought over from France," from a chanteuse in a long, slinky gown and a sharp-faced, foxlike accordionist.

I went to Burgundy, where Philippe Audoin, wearing a rich red tie, was standing before a set of purplish drapes. "We call our brochure 'The Four Keys to Burgundy,'" he said. "Here is the Key to the Wine Cellars, and the Key to the Attic, because of our cultural artifacts, and the Key to the Kitchen, because of gastronomy, and the Key to the Garden, because of the National Park of Morvan and the barges and balloons. . . . Do you have bottles in your kitchen? Then I will give you this 'Pocket Guide for Burgundy Lovers.'"

Intrigued by the barges and balloons, I went to the end of the Burgundy table, where a bearded Australian was handing out brochures about his barge, which he called "the most luxurious vessel in Europe." This was Peter Evans, who left Australia to cruise the canals of Europe 20 years ago. He built the Rode de Champagne himself and called her "a lovely vessel--gourmet foods, wines . . ."

"That trip from Paris to Champagne is not much," said a travel agent with a crewcut and a green bow tie.

"It's a nice trip," said Evans.

"It's kind of dull."

"Oh, we like it. We go in the rivers. It's good fun," said Evans, smiling as the travel agent walked away.

Out in the lounge area, the chanteuse sang while the travel agents, waiting for the buffet, rustled their shopping bags or sipped on soft drinks. Somehow the accordionist managed to look both melancholy and defiant.

They stopped playing at 6:28. At 6:30 the wall panels separating the lounge from the buffet area were moved and the guests flooded in. I walked in behind a large man wearing a pastel green jacket and a bright green plastic hard hat that was several sizes too small.

The two long buffet tables were covered with trays of cheeses, rare meats, escargots, fruit, and petits fours; in the middle of each table was an illuminated fountain. The waiting lines quickly grew very long.

I grabbed a glass, of wine--not burgundy but a spunky white from the early 1980s--sat down on a flight of stairs, and thought of corned beef and cabbage. "I just love France," said an older woman next to me, munching on her escargots.

I drained my glass and left. Three men carrying briefcases were just leaving the hotel lobby as I did.

"I can't believe this town," said the first.

The second couldn't believe it either. "Dyeing the river green . . . shamrocks on the sidewalk . . . and the parade . . ."

"They really take it seriously in this town," the third concluded, as the trio walked off and disappeared into the night.

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