Vans – Reality Breakdown

Photography by Clément Le Gall
Words by Ted Barrow

Demi Pêche

Où est la très sage Héloise,
Pour qui chastré fut et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillant à Sainct-Denis?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust gecté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Not to sound too cynical, but I no longer believe in magic, happenstance, or good luck. Miracles simply do not happen randomly anymore. When things happen to us now, they usually do so as part of a plan, they are programmed into algorithms, occurring at moments of acute vulnerability and strategically released by the Internet complex in order to extract the most profit from us. That’s how it goes now, and it’s ok – again, I’m not a pessimist – but I’ve been in this game far too long to be fooled into thinking that things just happen by fate.

Tom Belot, ollie in, Rennes

So therefore, in January of 2020, when Netflix aired ‘Monty Don’s French Gardens’, I simply assumed that this show was manufactured by the semi-invisible hands and ever-present eyes who have monitored my every preference and proclivity as expressed by what I have liked, searched for, shared, and dreamed about on my indispensable shiny device. How else could you explain how a show about a middle-aged British fop toodling around the French countryside in a puttering Citroën 2CV, waxing philosophical about topiary in stupendously loose indigo twill in an arid Provencal landscape, would be so on the nose for someone like me? His chore coats? France?!? How could this possibly happen without some diabolical mining from some hidden internet cabal producing my exact wants, needs, and desires? How else would you explain my buying another blue chore coat?

Nico Gisonno, backside bluntslide gap-out, Montpellier

Like Monty Don, I too have had formative experiences in France, although my memories of the country do not conjure beautiful houses and gardens, glorious markets and street cafes. Instead, I recall perfect natural flat bars, smooth paving stones, and low-impact ledges galore; they are equally as haunting and, for some, perhaps even as trite as those of Mr Don. My first trip to France happened by happenstance: I never meant to go. In the summer of 1997, I was twenty years old, and backpacking across Europe on a Eurorail pass with a friend. Our itinerary was London (where I sprained my ankle the first day), five cities in Italy, and then Spain, but I never made it to Spain: a train strike in the south of France, where we had to transfer from our train from Italy to our train to Spain, meant that we ended up in Paris. And it was in Paris that I at last felt comfortable, excited and curious. Put shortly, I could finally skate again in France, so against all of the cultural conditioning and prejudice with which I was raised — miraculously — France was my favourite part of the trip.

Mika Germond, frontside 180 to fakie 50-50, Bordeaux

Within a few days, I met a crew of skaters from the Bastille who showed me around Paris. Over the next few summers, we toured through France, Switzerland, and Spain, sleeping where we could and skating whatever bountiful and, to my mind, amazing skate spots France had to offer. France is kind of like a sponge, absorbing the cultures of its bordering countries: it looks British in Brittany, Norman in Normandy, a little Swiss near Switzerland, Italian in Nice, suspiciously German in Strasbourg, and somewhat Spanish in Nîmes, where they have bullfights in the Roman arena, say ‘tranquilo’ instead of ‘tranquille’, and take siestas to avoid the punishing glare of the midday sun as it bakes its pink stone plazas that were, for a time, our secret skate mecca, like a mini Barcelona that only we knew about.

Hugo Westrelin, drop in 50-50, Geneva

This is also just before plazas became codified skate destinations, before the worldwide rush to places like Barcelona was spearheaded by yanks like me, and when, at least for our crew, endless summer days of skating and chilling could pass by without any need to document them. All I have as proof of this time are the few fuzzy memories of skating smooth stones in clunky late ‘90s footwear, perhaps sparked by the syrupy effervescence of a demi-pêche at mid-afternoon and, I guess now, these photos of the French Vans team working on their next video at home.

Antoine Laurent, gap to backside lipslide, Montpellier

Consider Antoine Laurent’s gap to back lip in Montpellier, for example. Parts of that city are paved in this perfect pink stone, porous but polished, grind and slide-able without wax. In that summer of 1997, we stopped in Montpellier to watch a contest, where I first saw a tiny, 12-year-old Bastien Salabanzi showing preternatural promise: skating like an adult on the street course while still pushing with his front foot like a child. Other highlights: having my fart being described as ‘your ass-spirit’ in what I can only imagine to have been a literal translation from the idiomatic French phrase to English. Enlightening!

William Moneris, frontside nosegrind, Bordeaux

It was in a car, on the outskirts of Montpellier, sometime after farting, that I had first considered the axiom that skateboarding is an extension of one’s self: that how people skate reflects how they think. This may seem obvious now, as the gap between reactive thought and reactionary action has been obliterated in the subjectivity-driven eternal present of life online today, but this was pretty heady stuff back then. French existentialism illustrated through an interpretation of the Gonz, conveyed haltingly through my friend Raphael’s heavily-accented English. Such conversations also taught me to shut up and listen, to appreciate what was being said to me, as the speaker was not speaking their native language and I should honour their effort through paying attention.
With that in mind, I hazard that Uryann Raudet is a true skateboarder, of the GT and (post-2016) Reynolds mould, unconcerned with fashion. Fashion is dead, vive la fonction! clearly, because that backside nosegrind on the bar has such panache that I almost didn’t notice his black socks in his blue and white slip-ons, a faux-pas for any other skater’s ensemble. Raudet’s nimble footwear and insouciant devil-may-care approach towards sock colour, combined with the exquisite delicacy of that trick, signals a person more concerned with the principles of physics than theories of colour and matching.

Uryann Raudet, backside nosegrind, Geneva

Our words, how we use them to express ourselves, determine our world view. Not a native French speaker, I was taught a very useful phrase that first summer: ‘je m’en bats les couilles’, which basically translates to ‘I beat my balls about it’ or ‘I could give a fuck.’ This phrase was helpfully fed to me for my friend’s amusement, and I repeated it at almost any and every opportunity. That phrase, balls aside, became my indispensable mantra, inflecting every thought and action I had that summer. It’s affirming to see that, at least as far as black socks with blue shoes goes, Uryann aussi s’en bat les couilles.

Mika Germond, crooked grind, Le Grau-du-Roi

Another Raphael story: a few years later, after a disastrous attempt at camping sauvage in the Ardèche, Raphael and I found ourselves poolside at his parents’ country home, not far from the Canal du Midi. It was beautiful countryside, though battered by the relentless mistral winds, and we were joined by his Chilean sister-in-law, looking up at the stars that resembled Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’ We were, of course, all speaking English, and thus, for the most part, speaking in aleatory generalities: big ideas, broad strokes. Raphael had just finished dispensing some platitudinous wisdom, which I will present verbatim below:
‘In zis life, ze best thing is to do what you can do in the best way possible, hein?’
We sat silently, pondering this truism for a beat, and then Raphael let out a delicate fart.
‘Ouf…’ he sighed, in a tone of graceful defeat, perfectly illustrating his philosophy, as we absolutely died of laughter beside him. It was the most French thing I’ve ever experienced.

Hugo Westrelin, backside lipslide, Lyon

Speaking of back lips, not ass-spirit, Hugo Westrelin’s bump to back lip on an unthinkably tall and round ledge seems like it wasn’t too far from the spot where, when France won the Coup du Monde in 1998, I jumped repeatedly into the Saône as a means to either celebrate France’s victory, or to pass the time while the entire country seemed gripped in riotous celebration over a victory whose consequence seemed, to my American mind, negligible. I either jumped in that river because I was bored, or excited, I can’t recall which. But I do remember being sick for the next few days, as the riverbanks stunk of the piss of hundreds of jubilant fans of Les Bleus.

Quentin Boillon, wallride in, Marseille

At this point, you are permitted to wonder just what, if anything, that jumble of Renaissance-era French stanzas has to do with Hugo Westrelin’s riverine back lip, or Oscar Candon’s almost Cubist front wall carve, or Quentin Boillon’s cobbled wallride in Marseille, and rightly so. The verses come from a poem by Francois Villon, ‘Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By’, made famous by its refrain ‘mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ (where are the snows of yesteryear?). To me, that refrain, and the song, is about noting the passage of time, of recognising how different the world we live in is compared to the romanticised days of yore. On my last trip back to France, I returned to Nîmes, to find that most of the spots that I loved to skate in the late ‘90s were either so gussied up and gentrified that to skate them would be an act of unpardonable effrontery, or completely gone altogether. As I was watching cheesy tourists dine at the Place d’Assas, where, in the snows of yesteryear, Nicolas Caron did the first switch backside noseblunt I ever saw across an entire bench (I’m sure it ran as a photo in Sugar). A guitarist was warming up, and, strumming softly, he sang the verses quoted at the beginning of this piece. Already knowing the song, but not really until then thinking much about its arcane meaning, I turned a corner hearing this rendition. The song pays tribute to the legendary beauty and brutality of famous French women, celebrating their selfish cruelty and selfless martyrdom in equal measure. Perhaps the overall message is that the past was no better or no worse than the present, and that the ‘snows of yesteryear’ can always be found within our own minds, where songs like this rest.

Ben Reitano, backside nosegrind revert, Rennes

The tricks seen in this article, save for maybe Ben Reitano’s nosegrind back 180 in Rennes, are all somewhat retardataire, harkening back to an earlier era of skateboarding. Put it this way: few skaters were filming wallrides in France in 1999, not even Jérémie Daclin. The ‘90s were a time, especially in Europe, when we were gripped by the spirit of technical progress, careening towards flipping in and/or out of ledge tricks on one end and longer rails with more stairs on the other. It’s refreshing to see skateboarders draw back and push into different directions via classical tricks: wallrides, nosegrinds, bluntslides, ollies. There has always been a strong Classical strain in French culture, but one informed by the specifics of place and desire rooted in France itself. ‘The beautiful girls you will have seen at Nîmes,’ wrote famed French Classicist Nicholas Poussin to a friend in 1642, ‘will not, I am certain, delight your spirits less than the sight of the beautiful columns of the Maison Carré, since the latter are only ancient copies of the former’, suggesting that the voluptuous forms of classical ruins live on in the earthy experience of contemporary life.

As I admire these images of youthful skating in France from the ruins of my own life of skate tourism, perhaps my cynicism is misdirected. These photos testify to those miraculous instances only possible in skateboarding when things align and a consonant harmony is momentarily struck between the departure and the landing (I’m thinking of Tom Belot’s ollie photo right here). Maybe too much nostalgia breeds cynicism, and perhaps I shouldn’t begrudge these kids for having more fun in France than I ever had.

Tom Belot, frontside ollie, Miranda de Ebro

Returning to Monty Don, his ramble through French Gardens ranges from the abstract geometries of Vaux le Vicomte and totalising order of Versailles, where the planting, fountains, and landscaping worked in tandem to convey the over-arching power of Le Roi Soleil. There is one tradition of formal French gardens that is about exacting order, control, and carefully-choreographed movement through these spaces that seem manicured by a divine power who we can only understand symbolically. This corresponds to that fruitless march towards tech progress of late ‘90s French skateboarding: perfect ledge spots begat perfect ledge skating. Vestiges of that style still survive today, but they are not on display in this tour article.

Sam Partaix, ollie to frontside smith grind, Marseille

Another strain of French gardening bucks against that ancien régime tradition: Monet’s Japonesque follies at Giverny, Cezanne’s scrappy garden in Provence: where colour not line, nature rather than abstract formula, determines the experience. These are a more romantic, earthy, and subjective understanding of what one’s experience in a garden could be. Without over-determining the tastes and intentions of the Vans France team seen here, this second strain of French gardening seems more in line with what these guys are doing. Gardening, like skateboarding, is about appropriating the landscape and applying abstract ideas to pre-existing nature. It’s about traces and transformation, ideas made manifest through action. It is an aesthetic approach to the world, and perhaps that aesthetic approach is what I first noticed, along with delicate farts and perfect flatbars, about skating in France.

Mika Germond, early grab to 5-0, Nantes