“Bastille Day Celebrations”

At roughly the same time a young Neo Nazi took a pop shot at French President Jacques Chirac (the first Presidential assassination attempt here in 40 years), our good friends and house guests from Santa Barbara – Pamela, Garret, and John Tesman – and I were finishing up our coffee and croissants in a café blocks away on avenue George V. We had no clue as to what had just happened nor did we find out until the next morning’s headlines. We were on our way to the Champs Elysèes to watch the Bastille Day parade – exactly what Chirac was doing at the time of the failed attempt. Spectators and police wrestled the young man to the ground and he was hauled off to a psychiatric ward somewhere. Had it been in the USA, the parade would have been shut down immediately. There were neither screaming sirens nor mobilized swat teams. In fact, the story took a backseat to the falling Paris stock prices in the next day’s headlines. When told later in the day about the attempt on his life, President Chirac responded nonchalantly (in true John Wayne fashion), “Oh yeah?” George Bush would have been proud of ‘ol Jacques, yes siree! The show must go on! And it certainly did…

There was a lot of excitement building up by other people who also had no idea what had just happened. People were lined on both sides of the Champs Elysèes as far as you could see. There were French flags everywhere including a very large one dramatically swaying in the breeze under the Arc de Triomphe. The French did a fine job of displaying their military power – from impressive jet fly bys and parading tanks to what appeared to be a line of army Port-A-Pottys in tow.

At one point a group of guys in large floppy white berets and solid white uniforms rode by on large assault vehicles. Obviously some elite, special division that we had no idea of who they were. “Ahh,” said John, “they must be the bakers who make all of those wonderful baguettes for the army.” Their shirt sleeves were rolled up and their arms were unnaturally stretched out before them as if they had been posed by a K-Mart portrait photographer. Their chins were aimed up and they gave frozen gazes down their Gaulic noses. They looked a bit like human Sphinxes. “Assume the perfect suntan position, men!” John yelled with a chuckle. He was on a roll (and probably too much French caffeine.) “Be quiet,” snapped Pamela, “These guys behind us can understand everything you’re saying!”

Everything in the military line up was in order of importance. When we saw the camouflaged bulldozers and Port-A-Pottys, we knew the end of the military display was near. Next on the billing were the French firemen – les pompiers. Even the name sounds classier. I envisioned French firemen with Yorkys for mascots and foie gras for fare – instead of Dalmatians and Dinty Moore Beef Stew. As their trucks were filing by, the crowd loudly applauded and cheered. I couldn’t believe they didn’t even clap for the military now they are going wild for the firemen. Then I saw why:

A few trucks back was a single New York City fire truck and its crew. It proudly rolled by and the crowd noise got louder and louder. The American firefighters smiled and waved back to all of the cheering French. It truly was an emotional moment to witness such a response. After the parade was over we headed back down George V towards the apartment; the NYC fire truck passed by and we cheered them once again. “WAY TO GO, NEW YORK!” , we yelled with thumbs and fists up. John darted out into the street and shook hands with several of them. It was definitely the highlight of the parade!

I later learned that Chirac had invited the firefighters and seventy five family members of the victims of September 11th for a twelve day VIP tour of France. One of the planned stop-offs was the American cemetery at Omaha Beach. They all had front row seats at the parade. One NYC firefighter present was even awarded France’s highest honor – La Mèdaille de la Legion d’ Honneur.

We then met up with Vicky and our other good friends and house guests – Luis & Daly de la Cruz, who were visiting from Evansville. The three of them slept in on this quiet Sunday morning and leisurely watched the parade on TV while the Tesmans and I braved the crowds. Later, we all met back down at the Champs Elysèes and had a delightful outdoor lunch at Fouquet’s and watched all of the people strolling by.

We knew there were going to be serious fireworks in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower at 10:30 pm that night but we weren’t so sure of where the best place to view them would be. My plan was to ask the gardienne of our building to let us up onto the rooftop where we would most likely have an excellent vantage point. She told me there was no flat area of the roof but assured me that our fifth floor living room window was one of the best viewing positions in the city. Boy, was she ever right…

After lunch, we sought out provisions for our grand Bastille Day fireworks living room picnic. Between Monoprix and Hediard, we bought bread, wine, cheese, paté, olives, sausages and ham. That evening, we had a lively feast in the kitchen and were all anticipating a night of a fantastic fireworks display. We could see the traffic clogging up and hundreds of people passing by on the street below. Although the night ahead was a lot more than just fireworks, I believe all of us were glad we were out of the crowds of people gathering at Trocadero and on the Champs de Mars beneath the Eiffel Tower.

The planned event was actually – in addition to a Bastille Day fete – a staged, musical narrative and homage to Victor Hugo. No one does these spectacles better than the French and I am sorry we were not there to witness it. But the fireworks display was honestly better than I have ever seen before and whoever planned and produced it deserves a standing ovation.

We couldn’t hear the music very well and we definitely couldn’t hear the narrative but from the living room windows, we all oohed and ahhed as the laser lights, fire bombs and fireworks entertained us well beyond what we expected. It was a beautiful evening and the idea that a bright crescent moon framed the whole presentation made it all even more magical.

The fireworks went on and on and on. What we thought was a grand finale was only a half way point. Every time we left the windows, a more spectacular barrage of fireworks was sent into action…

Our living room was certainly THE ideal viewing station! [see photo below]

As an expat in Paris, I missed the Fourth Of July celebrations earlier this month. There was a planned American dinner at a popular American restaurant here but I felt it was too much of a target and never even considered it. I didn’t cook out in my backyard, I didn’t go to the beach, I didn’t play softball in the park, I didn’t watch American parades, I didn’t grab cold beers out of an Igloo cooler nor did I spit watermelon seeds on freshly mown grass. In fact, it was three o’ clock in the afternoon here before I even realized that it was my country’s birthday…

I felt really bad about that.

This very special Bastille Day celebration ten days later gave me time to reflect upon my own country. France was an important ally in our struggle for independence; and later on, our democratic philosophies and ideas were a strong motivation for France’s own fight for independence. OK, set the occasional rude restaurant waiter aside… When I saw the French cheering American firefighters on July 14th, I felt like I was celebrating two Independence Days. It really felt good.

And thanks to my very special American friends who were here in Paris to help us celebrate!

“Bastille Day, July 14, 2002 - Paris, France”, photograph by Robert Leedy, 2002

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