The Party’s Over, at Least for This Year
The holiday weekend started off with the annual Bals des Pompiers, but I got lazy and opted for the “Bal Populaire” held in front of the Mairie of the 3rd arrondissement. No queues to enter security…just walk in and find your spot. There are no handsome firemen to kiss the girls, but it’s easy and its next door. It’s always the same — there’s a band (this time not a great one), and the neighborhood denizens come out to dance…as they always do. The Mairie was lit in blue, white and red, beer was sold in the courtyard and on the street where everyone was dancing, about 11:45 p.m. confetti was thrown from the upper windows of the Mairie to rain down and turn us all into speckled revelers.
The mood is always happy and the comportment always good like the French are in public situations…polite and reserved. It’s one thing that makes public events so pleasant, if not hilariously fun…or negatively eventful. It’s something I notice at every occasion in France; how different they “come out to play” than their American friends. We walked home with the tiny specks of paper in every crevice and with the memories that build on one another, year after year of following the same traditions.
The next morning, I was happy to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of my favorite world leaders, sitting next to French President Emmanuel Macron at the annual military parade along the Champs Elysées instead of you know who (?) from 2017. Other EU leaders were among the illustrious spectators, including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, but the best seat in the house was on my screen at home with live coverage by TFI and France 24.
Of the 4,300 members of the armed forces who came down the famous avenue yesterday morning was a myriad of military personnel, but also 196 vehicles and yes, even dogs — German Shepherds on leads paraded as proudly as did the Foreign Legion, the cavalry on horseback (237 horses), and a whole lot of big scary tanks. Overhead, fleets of aircraft to the tune of 69 planes and 39 helicopters flew over in formation. It’s just the usual pomp and circumstance, but the French love it and I am in awe of it. They are so good at their ritualistic ceremonies that bind them together as a nation with tremendous honor. I noticed though, that the celebrities on the grandstand were seated a bit apart, making it tough for them to whisper sweet nothings or gossip between them…or pat each other on the back or hold hands like in 2017. In fact, they almost seemed bored by it all.
Mid afternoon I set off to stake out a spot on the Champ de Mars for the fireworks. They were supposed to open the gates to the grassy plane at 4 p.m., but it was well after 4:30 p.m. that security checked our bags for arms and alcohol. As we were motioned in, everyone waiting to enter ran for their favorite spots. Mine is just south of the center mark of the field for a perfect juxtaposition of the tower, the crowd and a view of the fireworks. We found a perfect big hole and spread three large blankets taking up a lot of territory not knowing how many of our friends would brave the all-day-long picnic that culminates with the greatest fireworks display on the planet.
The naysayers are those who aren’t game for hanging out all day, or aren’t comfortable sitting on the ground or don’t want the hassle of finding a way home…but it’s their loss and a gain for the adventuresome. We settled in, grazed on picnic goodies till we were stuffed, played cards, discussed whatever, and watched the crowds file in while the sun and clouds played games with the landscape. It’s like settling into a long flight on a plane to take you to your destination, except you have a lot more physical freedom and it’s a beautiful sight to behold.
This year, the weather was perfect: partly cloudy and in the low 70s. Our sweaters came on and off, the sunglasses came out and went in, we never could stay in one mode for very long. The orchestra and the opera singers practiced for a long time before the concert, so we got to hear it all before the actual concert began…but this year, there were no big screens along the sides of the field to give us the show. We could only hear it, but not see the orchestra or singers. That was mildly disappointing, but we considered that perhaps it was a budget cut that led to their disappearance.
As the sun went down, the grassy plane had not a blade left exposed. Crossing the sea of humanity by stepping over their legs and belongings was no easy task to get to the portable toilets set up along the side, at which the lines were long and slow. There’s not much you can do but have patience, wait your turn and do your thing so that when the time comes for the fire in the sky, you can be really ready. Upon return to our blankets, I noticed that our group had managed to stake out a huge amount of territory, way more than most, and no one had encroached on it, surprisingly.
The sun went down and the excitement started to mount in anticipation of the big event. Every year we say the show was better than the year before. It’s hard to believe they can outdo themselves, but the powers that plan and program the works seem to do just that. The light, sound and fireworks show started off with the singing of the Marseillaise and the Eiffel Tower lit in the blue, white and red. Just when we thought the real show of fireworks would begin, it all started over again, almost like a “reboot” of the system. How many times do we need to sing the national anthem? I hate to admit I’ve never managed the learn the words.
Then, the real spectacle began…a bit more than 30 minutes of the most incredible display of pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen silhouetted by La Grande Dame herself is simply the most eye sparkling visual one can encounter. Some newcomer in our group asked, “What’s so great about fireworks at the Eiffel Tower?” To which I couldn’t bring myself to answer. I just let him see it for himself and form his own opinion. Everyone who comes says the wait is worth it and of course is appreciative of our having gone early to stake out such a large area in such a perfect spot. That’s just what it takes…arriving early.When it was over, after a lot of screams of joy and applause, we gathered our bags and blankets and headed slowly off the field, like a herd of cattle, toward the street and the Métro stations. We did a smart thing and hired a driver to pick us up at Invalides to whisk us home from there instead of battling the crowds in the stations. It was well worth the 30€!
Three years ago, as we were leaving our picnics after having witnessed the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, but from the Esplanade des Invalides (security was so tight at the Champ de Mars that we decided to find another picnic spot), I got a call from a friend that the fireworks seen from the Promenade des Anglais in Nice had turned into a massacre when Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, on behalf of the Islamic State organization, drove a massive truck down the seaside walkway killing 86 people, wounding 206 and another 1,360 people. I was scheduled to go to Nice two days later (as I will do tomorrow) to spend the rest of the summer.
Now, three years since the attack, the city once again celebrated the national holiday by shooting off fireworks from the quai des Etats Unis Saturday night, under the theme “Renaissance.” A tribute to the victims took place yesterday with a morning ceremony a the Villa Masséna and a free concert by the Nice Philharmonic Orchestra in the Albert 1er Gardens, on the stage of the Nice Jazz Festival. I wish I had been there to report on it, but chose to spend the national holiday here in Paris, as is tradition.
One reason to be in Nice this week, besides the fact that Nice is awfully nice this time of year, is the annual Jazz Festival that starts tomorrow night. My train arrives just in time to hear and see a few acts. This was the world’s first jazz festival, believe it or not, having first taken place in February of 1948, at the end of the Nice Carnival. The concerts were the Opera House and at what existed then, but not now, the municipal casino on Place Masséna. Guess who was there?: Louis Armstrong, Claude Lutter, Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt! As it is told, closing night, the party went on until dawn at the Hôtel Negresco, ending with a jam session and song recitals by Suzy Delair and Yves Montand. Pretty impressive, huh?
Guess the party is over, but now the real fun begins…sun and surf for the rest of the summer.
A la prochaine…from Nice!
Adrian Leeds Group
(On the Champs de Mars)
P.S. Hear the sounds…”Score Exploratorium” with the Renée Baker Ensemble at Berkeley Books of Paris, three upcoming dates:
Friday, Jul 26, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.: Michèle Véronique – violin/violon, Vlatko Kucan – saxophone, clarinet/saxophone, clarinette, Leila Soldevila – acoustic bass/contrebasse
Saturday, Jul 27, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.: Leila Soldevila – acoustic bass/contrebasse
Rasul Siddik – trumpet, flugelhorn/trompette, bugle, Aldridge Hansberry – flûtes
Sunday, Jul 28, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.: Renée Baker – assorted sounds, Rasul Siddik – trumpet, flugelhorn/trompette, bugle, Aldridge Hansberry – flûtes
Berkeley Books of Paris
8, rue Casimir Delavigne, 75006 Paris, France