You can pretty much count on the French to go all out for their beloved quatorze juillet festivities in an average year, but this year it seems likes efforts have been twice doubled as the world marks the centennial of the First World War. It has been a day of huge and meaningful celebrations in the capital and around France. It has also been a lot of fun.
But before I get to the five things that I love about this day, let’s clear up a significant vocabulary inconsistency between us Anglophones and the Francophones. Chiefly: this day is NEVER called Bastille Day in France. It is ALWAYS called le Quatorze Juillet (the fourteenth of July) or la Fête Nationale (literally, National Day). Even though le Quatorze Juillet does commemorate the storming of the Bastille Prison—the beginning of the French Revolution (1789) and the end of the monarchy in France, please don’t wish a French person a “Happy Bastille Day” today. Such a greeting will unquestionably confirm to them that you are indeed one strange (and misguided) étranger, clearly a few clowns short of a circus. When in doubt, please stick to bonne fête, mais no more “Happy Bastille Day” s’il vous plaît.
With that common mistake cleared up, let’s move on to the Five Things I Love about le Quartorze Juillet à Paris:
The Parade: The French know how to put on a parade, that’s for darn sure. This year 76 countries who were all involved in the conflict, regardless of which side they fought on, were invited to march down the Champs-Elysées from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde. Although I didn’t actually count, there were supposed to be 53 planes, 203 vehicles, 82 motorbikes, 36 helicopters, 3,752 soldiers, the President of the Republic, François Hollande, hundreds of horses, numerous WWI wheeled cannons, a WWI American ambulance, the surviving ‘Marne taxis’ used to transport reinforcements to the Marne battlefields during the war, and a partridge in a pear tree. Of course, as always, there were the impressive and tricolor military flyovers. (Major props to demotix photos for their excellent photos of the parade. Something is up with my camera. Vive mon iPhone!)
The Dorky but Sincere Interpretive Dance: As this was an extra special quartorze juillet, those adorable and sincere Frenchies added an unique centennial flourish on the Place de la Concorde at the parade’s end. Choreographer José Montalvo set a dance performed by young couples dressed in black and white, each with a dove in hand, to “deliver a message of universal peace”. Its necessary seriousness made me giggle, I must admit. (Is that bad?) The best way to describe this dance was to listen to the squeals of certain expats which sounded something like this: “Oh, my gosh. That’s SOOOOOOO…. French!” Enough said. (Please check back to watch the video once it is released.)
Le Fête des Tuileries and the Poilu Bivouac: On this exceptional fourteenth of July, a fascinating WWI infantry camp was setup in the Tuileries Gardens just across from Place de la Concorde along side the annual family friendly Fête des Tuileries, a fair with the customary sketchy carnival rides, French themed food vendors, and the same lovely (but way over-priced) ferris wheel that graces that space during the Christmas holidays. It all felt a little like “home” —wherever that is for me these days.
The Firemen’s Ball: The fetching French fire brigade throw two huge parties to mark this day of independence from the monarchy: one on the night of July 13, and one the night of July 14. Each night the young and the old, and everyone in between, start to gather around 9:00 pm and keep on partying until the wee hours of the morning. In Paris le Bal des Pompiers are held in firehouses in each arrondissements. Le ball features live entertainment, crazy costumes, wild wigs, fairy lights, beer and champagne, and street dancing, but meeting the dishy pompiers up-close-and-personally is the real draw for many merrymakers. If you like Michael Jackson, and the Village People (think “YMCA”), and/or have a Chippendale dancers fetish, this is the place for you…bring your five Euro notes. An old-style drum is left at the entrance for revelers to donate funds for improvements to the firehouses and to increased staffing.
The Fireworks: On the eve of la Fête Nationale, firework displays are everywhere in France. In Paris les feux d’artifice light up the skies behind the Eiffel Tower and this year it was too spectacular for words. I will never see a fireworks show like this again. In fact, I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary to describe the wonders on the Champ de Mars tonight. It was, as the rest of the day was, a remembrance of those who fought and died in WWI. Mostly classical music was used to tell the story of the last 100 years, with John Lennon’s Imagine to remind us of what is possible. Chapeau to the fabulous French and their ability to express themselves through art. I so love this aspect of France and the French. Simply stunning. Incroyable!
Chapeau: a tip of the hat
étranger: foreigner, stranger, alien, outsider, intruder
le Bal des Pompiers: Firemen’s Ball
les feux d’artifice: fireworks