As I sat in Place de la Contrescarpe one September afternoon, a group of young people, all dressed in pink, streamed purposefully up the street past me. I seemed to be the only person in the café who paid attention to them – had the locals seen this before?
Nearly every day, Paris presents me with a new mystery. I love encountering events I don’t understand – each one is a puzzle to be solved, another chance to master a new fact or an old tradition. Ah-ha! I thought. I want to figure out what these pink-clad people are up to. The Place de la Contrescarpe is near the Sorbonne, so I assumed that the roving band must be students. When they stopped in the middle of the square, I walked to the front of the café for a better view. A waiter and waitress stood nearby, one eye on the group and one eye on their customers. “What’s going on?” I asked. “It’s bizutage,” said the waitress with a frown, nodding in the direction of the students. “This is the first week of university. They do this every year.” Then she peeled off to attend to a new customer. Beezootage? Bisoutage? Bizutage? What’s that? How do you spell it? Why did the waitress seem disapproving?
Getting closer to the students, I saw that they had launched a strange relay race, with participants wearing outlandish animal heads. The race involved crutches, water guns, a makeshift obstacle course and enthusiastic teasing from the rest of the team. Before I could ask about the rules – if there were any – the game ended. The pink troop took a group picture and walked briskly out of the square.
Other color-coordinated teams in white, black and green took their place in front of the cafés. Good-natured taunts ensued, and skirmishes with buckets of water.
The adventure continued: All afternoon, around the neighborhood, I ran into more roving bands. Their shenanigans seemed to be innocent back-to-school hijinks.
But later, when I told our building gardienne that I had watched bizutage, her reaction was unsmiling and solemn. I thought I must have been unclear, so I laughingly described the dress and activities. She looked puzzled, and said, “These activities have been a big problem.” Now, I was confused.
My American friends were also clueless. “Bizutage sounds like bisous (kisses),” Eliza said. “Does it have something to do with love?” Finally my French friend Marie-Claude explained the negative reactions. Bizutage means hazing.* Some French schools and professional organizations have a history of degrading, dangerous initiation rites. Acknowledgement of these practices has come slowly. Despite a law making hazing illegal, scandals and deaths have continued, involving medical schools, secondary schools, firemen and the national aviation school. Many organizations now have formal campaigns against hazing.
The exploits that I saw were a non-toxic version of bizutage, substituting humorous pranks or athletic challenges for more poisonous activities. But some hazing has just moved to off-site “integration weekends” or gone underground.
So, I’ve solved the mystery of why colorful student teams were roaming the neighborhood, and the explanation is complex. What I first saw as a simple, fun experience is really the evolution of a nuanced cultural practice. My experience in Paris keeps reminding me how important it is to keep digging, to stay curious, to understand the complexities behind what I see. That’s a good lesson – no matter what country I’m in. **************************
* Bizutage comes from the slang word bizut, for freshman or novice.
Place de la Contrescarpe is a leafy square, surrounded by cafés, at the north end of rue Mouffetard in the Fifth arrondissement. Lingering over coffee or wine, you may see street performers, neighborhood fairs or even masseurs and masseuses, who give back rubs on chairs under the trees.