Exposition Universelle And Summer Olympics (Paris, 1900)


Exposition Universelle and Summer Olympics (Paris, 1900)

One likes to imagine
crepes, jam seeping through thin
lace crusts onto delicately curved
fingers, then into those moued-mouth lips
that are somehow
formed by speaking French, as
couples stroll the Tuileries, all of
Paris bobbing with fair.

Though the truth is eating was not for
streets in 1900 and what the delicate fingers
gripped were skirts, scooped slightly
to avoid the underslog, parasols truly
parapluies (umbrellas)–ribbed armor against
sun’s slay, walking sticks (if the fingers men’s),
and chapeaus (hats), even more omnipresent than
the chevaux (horses) that pulled the black-boxed carriages, pleated
hansoms, dusty carts, through the zig-zagging throng
of boulevard and rue, where too,
the marathoners dodged that summer, mis-chased (the favorite forfeiting,
after darting into a cafe for a few beers
against the heat), as much an obstacle course, if
random, as that arranged for the swimmers across the
Seine (up slippery iron poles and across ships’ decks).
Somewhere to the side of the obstacled route submerged
the underwater swim, a questionable treat
for spectators, though relief perhaps
from the pigeon shoot, where bursts of gut-clotted
plumage turned out not to amuser.
In some stray field, far
even from the Left Bank,
the first event for women (croquet)
unfolded, with one lone ticket sold
to a (presumably nice) man
who had just come up from Nice.

Oh, the wonders!  Balloons pumped up and
down on heated air, a competition
in firefighting, and below the
copper-blue roofs of Paris, that filigreed arc
of sky, a moving sidewalk
where people could step up and just
glide by.

Old footage
shows them: some men and boys
greeting the camera with proud smirks, doffed
hats, backtracking
to stay within its frames, a woman
who also jumps in, then shyly lowers
eyes beneath the shade of her
perched brim.

All gone now, gone maybe just a few years
later, World War I – the boy with
the shiny glasses whose shiny smile only half makes
the camera’s view, the lady with the
big plaid umbrella whose bright squares
nearly upstage the curved iron swoop
of the Eiffel Tower overhead,
the light-eyed man who mockingly
holds his arms out to his sides
not to bow to the camera, but to pretend
a charge as one might a bull, gander
or barn-proud cock.

All gone, remaining perhaps only
in that faded flickering, their
caught snickers and downcast
eyes, or, like the man
from Nice, in the records of
a ticket stub.

Who knows why we are
here and what
we will leave
behind, the bold plaid
that we carry overhead
to shield us from
too much


I wrote the above draft poem for dVerse Poets Pub’s “Poetics” prompt, hosted by the indefatigable Brian Miller.  The prompt asks for a poem that somehow goes back in time.

The Paris 1900 Summer Olympics (called the Games of II Olympiad) were held in conjunction with the Paris World’s Fair.  It appears to have been rather a wild Olympics with new (and one-time only) events such as obstacle swimming, pigeon shooting with 300 live (soon-to-be-dead) pigeons, live game shooting (only this was done with cardboard cut-outs), and non-official sports such as firefighting, delivery van racing, and, allegedly, poodle hair-cutting.  The first women’s only event was inaugurated there, croquet, with one ticket sold.  However, in a mixed (i.e. “co-ed”) event–two person sailing–Helene de Portalèse won the first gold medal ever won by a woman.

Have a nice weekend!  And if you have time, check out my books – poetry, GOING ON SOMEWHERE,  (by Karin Gustafson, illustrated by Diana Barco).  Or if you have time, check out  1 Mississippi -counting book for lovers of rivers, light and pachyderms, or Nose Dive, a very fun novel that is perfect for a pool or beachside escape.

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41 Comments on “Exposition Universelle And Summer Olympics (Paris, 1900)”

  1. Something so decadent and delicate about this, so sophisticated, so…. French!

  2. Yes. the time of World Fairs and Olympics not yet assessed with sport and sponsors. Vivid timepiece

  3. Claudia Says:

    karin this is way cool…how different from today…and hey..have you been there..? admit it…you have been traveling that time machine and the scent of 1900 paris is still hanging in your hair…could you take me with you next time…? please…smiles

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      I wish! Wouldn’t that be fun? I’m not so good at croquet but would enjoy the obstacle swimming I think. Or poodle cutting! Now there I’d have some experience. k.

  4. That was a nice picture in words. (。◕‿◕。)

  5. Laurie Kolp Says:

    Poodle hair cutting! Geez we’ve come a long way. Thanks so much for this.

  6. Susan Says:

    I love the details that enrich the poem–the ones made up for tourists and the ones that are true:
    “Though the truth is eating was not for
    streets in 1900 and what the delicate fingers
    gripped were skirts, scooped slightly to
    to avoid the underslog, ”

    You PUNCTURE romance with history and its material culture which tells its own story!! And then back to the wonders, inventions, un-attended event for women, and film documentary. We’ve got to call up Woody Allen! There is a film to make here, it just needs us to name a few characters.

  7. hiroshimem Says:

    What an enjoyable read! I love how you described, in a very vivid way, the different activities, and how I saw them in an accelerated movie, very Chaplin-like… Thank you for giving us details after your poem!
    I really liked this expression: ” moued-mouth lips”; I could definitely imagine them! I speak French as a 1st language too, but I can say that the way our mouth is shaped in Quebec is different (more relaxed?) than the French’s, especially the Parisians 🙂 So I had to laugh out loud on that one!

  8. Phew..that was quite an Olympics wasn’t it! Shame about the 300 real pigeons, thank goodness they don’t do that anymore. I loved the detailed descriptions of what the men and women would be wearing back then, also smiled at:
    the first event for women (croquet)
    unfolded, with one lone ticket sold
    to a (presumably nice) man
    who had just come up from Nice.
    My, my, how we women have had to fight for our rights eh!…lol
    Loved all of this K 🙂

  9. Mary Says:

    Fascinating! I enjoyed reading about the 1900 Olympics. So different from the games of today.

  10. brian miller Says:

    very nice k…you really slayed this prompt and loved your story so full of life…and how all that changes so quick as well…with the advent of war or whatever may shake our lives up…really well told and engaging….

  11. Oh, I do like the quirky details in this! Firefighting and pigeon shooting? Now, I think some van drivers still think it’s an Olympic sport… 😉

  12. hedgewitch Says:

    You did the time machine angle–a compelling one–and just excelled here–I love the interweaving of French and English and this line:
    “into those moued-mouth lips
    that are somehow
    formed by speaking French…”
    how we used to practice that in fifth grade, and crack ourselves up. But this is not just for tourists, or purists, for that matter. The last few stanzas are a hit to the solar plexus, and of course, we too will soon enough be all gone, nothing but some quaint and no doubt distorted apocalyptic tales for re-telling–if there is anyone left to do that. Very fine work, Karin. And I do see where this might be a draft, and perhaps get a bit of a tweak and swivel here and there, but it’s really awfully good as is.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Tbanks so much, Joy. There is a wonderful movie on youtube–I should probably have posted the link–that has film from way back when. All pretty quickly and distractedly done, so I am sure there are plenty of “tweaks and swivels” as you said, but glad to get something up. I just loved the E. Dickinson as you must know. k.

  13. marousia Says:

    delicate, decadent and delicious – I really loved the opening stanza

  14. Grace Says:

    How well you captured that time and place K ~ Very interesting to note the eccentric (compared to now) scenes of everyday life ~ How things have changed since then ~

  15. lucychili Says:

    my nana and mother played croquet. i should learn =)
    interesting journey.

  16. Great job on that history prompt. I’m awful at history and ended up giving up on that prompt.

  17. hobgoblin2011 Says:

    love how you painted the setting, the event itself and the parts that comprise the event, along with the fantastic write up after the piece. Great write. Thanks

  18. dfb Says:

    Fascinating and fantastic.

  19. beckykilsby Says:

    Karin – a fantastic panorama and social commentary – all in a beautiful tongue in cheek tone. Love the details and the lean into French mores.

    The opening stanza is my favourite – ‘moued mouth lips’ and Paris bobbing with fair – just brilliant.

  20. janehewey Says:

    delicious! description, detail, and way you wind the story out. photos from this era always look gloomy to me. you’ve brought immense light and color to this scene. very nicely done.

  21. kaykuala Says:

    Just amazing on the scenario surrounding the events of 1900.. We are now into the 2012 Olympics with ‘live’ coverage. We can see the contrast of the 2 periods. Great write K!


  22. yoga-adan Says:

    wow k.! what an interesting write! really enjoyed it 😉

    paris has been on my mind of late, and reading this bit of history, told with such an eye for the images then, and our thoughts and wonderings now, made for a powerful read for me –

    where are they all now? right there w/you as you wrote it, right there w/me as i read it

    maybe we live our lives and hopefully leave a trace for someone else like us to think of theirs, i don’t know, but this made me think anew

    thanks k. 😉

  23. cloudfactor5 Says:

    An epic journey back in time, interesting and fascinating !!
    wow,pigeon- shooting really ? ah I miss croquet…smiling!

  24. Mama Zen Says:

    This is just marvelous! I love all of the details. This feels incredibly alive.

  25. zongrik Says:

    you captured the essence of that time so well. this was lovely. i liked the part about the women holding their skirts and not eating on the streets. people actually waited for their meals and didn’t just snack when the idea fell upon them. amazing.

    events cocatenated

  26. ds Says:

    I love this. The details, the sneaky puns, the whiff of Paris in her copper-blue (!) roofs. Thank you.

  27. […]  The Urban Observer(s) -Exposition Universelle and Summer Olympics (Paris, 1900) […]

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