Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 14 special: Bastille Day memories

Last year, on Bastille Day, we were in Paris, watching(for the first time ever) the traditional, massive military parade that on July 14 goes up the Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. It started out as a grey and overcast day that soon turned into tipping rain but nothing deterred, the military and para-military forces(such as the police and fire services, which in France have para-military status) in their array of spectacularly traditional or modern businesslike uniforms, some on foot, some on motorbikes, some in tanks and armoured cars, and some on horseback, went slowly by the huge festive crowds that were taking shelter under trees and eaves and cafe umbrellas and trying to bag photos over the thousands of heads by standing on signs or on top of bus-stops or perched on each other's shoulders.
We sat for hours over a succession of coffees and hot chocolates at the table we'd bagged in a plush velvet cafe just off the Champs Elysees, from which we could see not only the parade on the ground, but the flyover of speedy fighter jets and lumbering transport planes above our heads. It wasn't a ringside seat exactly but not a bad vantage point to catch a glimpse of the splendid mounted Garde Republicaine soldiers going by in their braided tunics with gold epaulets and beautiful feathered helmets; the Foreign Legionaires with their pure white hats, the Navy men in perfect sailor suits and white gloves, the top brass of the police with their red white and blue sashes and many many others, including tanker crews in their big lumbering vehicles, smartly-turned out military bandsmen playing trumpets and drums, and a whole contingent of that year's invited guest paraders, soldiers from various countries in French-speaking Africa. The French are real sons and daughters of Mars still and this big display of France's military might is is unblushingly accepted as the right and proper centrepiece of Bastille Day, along with the traditional firemen's balls that proliferate all over Paris in every district fire station the night before. Tickets to those Bastille Eve balls are hotly contested and crowds queue up for hours and hours before to get into the fire stations where they'll eat and dance till dawn. That Bastille Eve after dinner in the flat(a traditional Parisian meal of grated carrot and celeriac salad as entree, bavette et frites –skirt steak and chips--for main course, followed by cheese and then eclairs from the local patisserie for dessert)we moseyed along to the fire-station in the district where we'd been living, the 4th arrondissement, and saw the fire station decorated with pulsating pink and blue and yellow and green lights, and featuring a big video screen showing the firemen at their jobs. But the massive queues and the huge pounding electronic music put us off and instead we went for a long walk first up to the Bastille area itself where a big free loud rock concert was going on, and then along the Seine watching all the impromptu parties that were going on along its banks(which we'd nicknamed the 'penguin rookeries' because they were so popular as picnic spots in the warm months) for kilometres on end. Picnic tableclothes were spread with feasts of all kinds of goodies, and with bottles of wine and champagne and beer, and the smell and smoke from several barbecues tantalised your nose. The river sparkled under the lights, the boats passed on their stately way, the road traffic was halted and people, locals and tourists, were spilling out all over the roads as well as the footpaths, shouting, singing, enjoying themselves, making pests of themselves! and at one bridge at nearly midnight, we found two old guys on accordeon and fiddle playing traditional Parisian tunes, and mingled locals and tourists dancing, some awkwardly, some drunkenly, some gracefully, but all with great good cheer. Pure magic!
When I was a kid my parents used to go sometimes to the big Bastille Day ball in Sydney, held at one of the big posh hotels in the centre, and organised by the French Consulate. It's a funny thing because firstly in fact my parents are royalists at heart, but also because normally they wouldn't go near the official jollifications run by the Consulate, and found the crowd that hung about it to be 'perfect snobs' best avoided, but they still went to the Bastille Day ball several years in a row. We kids had to stay at home with a baby-sitter because it was only for adults, and I used to love watching my mother getting ready, doing her makeup and setting her hair and putting on her beautiful evening dress of elegant deep blue chiffon with the top panels encrusted with sequins as thickly as stars in the Milky Way. With shiny evening shoes and her shimmering green and gold gauze wrap over the dress, and sparkly earrings at her ears, she looked to me like a queen out of a fairytale or a film. My father in his elegant 'smoking', as that style of evening dress is known in French: (an elegant white jacket with black bow tie and black trousers)and his hair brushed smartly back, looked like he could also have stepped out of a film or out of one of my very glamorous grandfather's photographic portfolio from the 1920's and 30's. I imagined the glamorous acene in the posh hotel ballroom, a shimmering, giddy whirl of beautiful ladies and elegant men and an orchestra playing and flowers and tables laid with white tablecloths and silver cutlery. I fell asleep dreaming of such scenes even though every year my parents talked of how bored they'd been hobnobbing with the huiles ('oils') as my father sarcastically called them(the 'anointed ones' if you like, or the 'upper crust'). And in the morning we would mill around my sleepy-eyed parents, hoping they'd remembered the thing we all looked forward to.
For every year the centrepiece of the tables at the ball was a big spun-sugar model of the Bastille fortress, complete with iced turrets and windows and long high caramel walls. And every year, my parents(and other kids' parents, no doubt) would bravely storm the sugar Bastille and bring back the teeth-grindingly sweet trophies of slab of wall or point of turret or pane of sugar glass, to be shared out and devoured by their excited brood.

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