By Kathleen Davis, associate editor
When I was a kid, I really liked Fred Astaire movies. I know that’s odd for an ’80s child, but it’s true. I’m revealing my secret here and now. “Shall We Dance” was my very favorite, probably for that scene where he and Ginger Rogers hoof it on roller skates, but “Silk Stockings” was also high on my hit list–sometimes silver, sometimes bronze, depending on my mood.
“Stockings” is the one where Astaire woos stalwart, cold, incredibly tall, falsely Russian Cyd Charisse with all the warmth and light of Paris. I’ve always enjoyed his slightly cheesy, slightly sarcastic take on that bizarre seduction and the songs of that film, especially “Paris Loves Lovers.”
When I knew I would be attending French electric association CIGRE’s 42nd conference in Paris this summer, the first thing I did was download that song from iTunes to my iPod.
And Paris, by the way, does love lovers. Not just the literal lovers you see in soft corners of the warm, pink Paris sunset snuggling and kissing, but lovers of food, lovers of art, lovers of a good, wet walk on cobblestone–lovers of the more figurative sort.
And lovers of electricity, too.
CIGRE’s sessions are an odd mix. They seem strangely French in execution: It really shouldn’t work, but it does.
Honestly, it doesn’t seem all that professional. As someone who works with a lot of conferences, you start to see the faults prettily easily. CIGRE wasn’t short on them. Good directional signs were lacking. I had trouble registering, even though I had spent months clearing my press attendance with their PR person. There weren’t enough seats in open lounge areas. The expo floor was so crammed it make me feel claustrophobic, even though I don’t really have that particular psych quirk. On the opposite end, the conference rooms were too large–they used auditoriums–letting large crowds space themselves out so much that the sessions looked poorly attended, even though they weren’t. It all reminded me of other old musicals, the sort where a rambunctious, dedicated group of young people “put on a show,” as it were (think Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, “Summer Stock”), but where it was all sort of slapped together with laughter, spit and nails pulled from the old barn out back.
But, with all it faults, CIGRE has soul that few other shows possess. When you sit down in a session, the people presenting are passionate. They are dedicated. They are interested in dissecting and solving the problems before them. This isn’t a show of “my company made me do it” or “this will look good on my resume.” This is a show of true and honest heart. These men and women are lovers of their industry to the point where the industry becomes an art. You’d have to be. This session takes time to prep for. You must read the papers beforehand. What’s discussed in the meetings isn’t the papers themselves but answers to questions that the papers brought up in readers ” think about that. The papers must be read. Questions must be formed, written, sent, distributed and then answers sought, sorted, compiled, organized and finally presented at the session itself.
As someone commented when I explained this unusual conference process, “Who has that kind of time?” But, when you love something desperately, passionately, wholeheartedly–as these people obviously do–you make time. I always made time for the boyfriend I was in love with, and CIGRE members make time for their first love as well: power.
It seems incredibly appropriate to set CIGRE in Paris, as it has been every two years for nearly a century. The heart of the show matches the French heart for passion. And it’s a rare delight to see such passion unfold in an industry known mostly for mirroring another musical character, the tin man–mechanics without heart