La Fête nationale

July 22, 2010
“My “14 juillet” souvenirs

la fête nationale – national celebration
le 14 juillet – the 14th of July
le bal des pompiers – fireman’s ball
un pompier – fireman
un defilé – parade
le parfum
– flavour
une gueule de bois
– hangover (familiar)
un bonnet – bonnet, cap, head covering
une bavette – flank (steak)
papoter – to chatter
le feu d’artifice
– fireworks


A mere four hours after getting home from the July 13 pre-fête nationale Bal des pompiers, just as I was finally drifting off to sleep, my phone rang. It was my friend Floriane, with the wake-up call I had requested. She had received a V.I.P. invitation to watch the big defilé along the Champs-Elysées at a very special reception being held in one of the offices above the grand boulevard, and she had invited me to be her guest. “Coucou Darlene, tu viens de te reveiller ? ” (“Hi Darlene, did you just wake up?”) she asked me sweetly, obviously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, having had the good sense to skip the bal the night before. “Euh… non…” I fibbed. “J’arrive…” (“I’m coming.”)

I dragged myself, slowly, painfully, out of bed, cursing military parades and their early start times. Why? Why start a parade at 9:00 a.m.? What was wrong with a 1:00 p.m. parade? Or even better, a 4:00 p.m. parade?

Thirty minutes and two large cups of caffeine later, I left to meet Floriane. Having consulted Google Maps the night before, I knew that the address was a fifteen-minute walk or a mere five-minute Métro ride away. I had also checked the RATP (the Paris métro) site the night before and knew that my nearest subway station wasn’t closed, so I was all good. Or so I thought.

Now, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned yet, but at the moment I happen to be, well, living next door to the president of France. I’m actually not kidding. I live in one of the three small residential buildings located in between the Palais de l’Elysée and the American embassy. This has both its advantages and its disadvantages. Coming home late at night, for example, is generally pretty safe, since the avenue is always well staffed with palace guards and policemen. Trying to go out during la fête nationale when the entire street has been blockaded by the French military, however, is not so convenient. Even on regular days, nobody is allowed to walk on my side of the street (to get into the building, I have to walk in the garden on the other side of the road, then cross when I am directly opposite the entrance.) And, as I have now discovered, on le 14 juillet, nobody is allowed on this stretch of road as a matter of national security. Only a very privileged few are even allowed in the garden across the street that borders the Champs-Elysées.

I got stopped a total of four times by four different armed guards in what should have been a two-minute walk between the gate in front of my building and the intersection where I cross to catch the métro at Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau. They were both confused and a little alarmed that an errant pedestrian had managed to get onto a street that was heavily blockaded on all sides (the front gate of my building actually lets me out in the middle of the street). “Mademoiselle – vous êtes venue d’où?” (“Where did you come from?”), one asked me, concerned. I could see him trying to figure out how he was going to explain this one to his boss. Each time I got stopped, I had to launch into a long, five-minute explanation (all while smiling winsomely and trying to look as harmless and un-terrorist-like as possible) before the guard would let me pass. They were actually pleasant enough once I explained the situation – in typical French fashion, one even flirted with me a little – but with every subsequent intervention, I could feel the seconds ticking away. The guards also informed me regretfully that my original plan – to cross the road and take the métro – wasn’t going to work. While my station might not be closed, I couldn’t actually get into it, since nobody was allowed to cross the street. Egads.

I did my best to “hurry” up the Champs-Elysées, fighting my way upstream through the molasses-slow hordes of people out to take part in the celebrations and crossing my fingers that I would find some passageway to get across the road. I didn’t. Eventually, I found myself right across the road from exactly where I was supposed to meet Floriane. The building taunted me, sitting there both a scant 20 seconds away and yet impossible to reach. I asked another nearby policeman if there were anywhere at all to cross, or if I could descend into one of the métro stations and cross underground, but he shook his head. “Mais non, mademoiselle. Tout est fermé. Vous aurez besoin d’aller à Étoile et faites le grand tour.” (“Everything is closed. You’ll have to go up to Étoile and take a big tour around.”) He pointed to the Arc de Triomphe off in the distance. I sighed and texted Floriane, telling her to go on up ahead and that I’d get there when I could.

Trying to push through the throngs of people on the ground was pretty much like
trying to swim upstream in a river of molasses.

Forty minutes and a good portion of the parade later, I finally made it to the other side of the street. Not only was the Champs-Elysées closed, so were all the streets surrounding it, so what should have been a simple matter of walking up, around the Arc de Triomphe, and back down the other side of the street became a labyrinthian milk-run up and down little side streets, weaving in and out of pedestrians, barricades, military personnel and even large army tanks, trying to find a way through. At one point, three screaming jets flew overhead, streaming blue, white and red smoke in their wake and I stopped for a moment to look up in amazement with all the spectators on the ground. Then the heavens opened up and two straight weeks of unseasonably hot, humid weather suddenly broke into a typhoon-like downpour that sent pedestrians scurrying for cover, leaving no one unscathed. By the time I reached Floriane, who had descended to wait for me outside the building entrance, I was a sad, bedraggled mess and soaked from head to foot. She tut-tutted at my disheveled appearance. “Come on, let’s get you inside.”

The reception upstairs was an oasis of elegant calm, a sharp contrast to the first half of my morning. A handful of chic, stylishly-dressed people mixed and mingled near the entrance and a lovely woman approached us immediately, taking my soaking wet cardigan and hanging it up to dry. Another woman handed me a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice and gestured at a silver three-tiered tray of fresh croissants and pain au chocolat. “Take one, they’re very good,” she urged. I didn’t mind if I did. Floriane steered me gently away from the distracting treats table and onto the balcony, where I marvelled at the fantastic birds-eye view we had of (what remained of) the parade.

From our perch high above, we had a pretty sweet view of both the parade and the bystanders below.

The tanks I had darted around just moments before started rolling on through. The falling rain continued to soak the bystanders on the ground, but I now enjoyed a privileged viewing spot, smug and comfortable from the safety of the overlooking balcony above.

In spite of the rain, thousands of people turned up to watch the Bastille Day parade, lining both sides of the Champs-Elysées all the way from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde.

Okay, I confess – when the marines started rolling through, I might have hummed “In The Navy”
silently in my head. Maybe I have a Village People problem.

At noon, the party hosts cracked open the champagne and started passing around a tray of luscious-looking petit-fours from Ladurée, one of the best patisseries in Paris. They were almost too beautiful to eat. Almost, but not quite. I picked what had already become my favourite Paris confection – a rose-flavoured macaron – and savoured it as long as I could. Paired with the champagne, it was heavenly.

It was my friend Floriane who was able to get us special invitations to watch the parade from a
swish reception high above the plebeian masses.
Macarons have quickly become my favourite Paris confection. They come in all sorts of flavours, but so far
my favourite kind is rose from the famous patisserie Ladurée. Photo courtesy Alicia Griffin.
A little bit soggy, but otherwise none too worse for the wear, I was pretty happy
to be safely installed on the balcony and watching the parade with a glass of
champagne in my hand. I love how excited the guy behind me is about those
petit-fours.  Really, it kind of says it all.

A squadron of helicopters flew overhead and the parade started drawing to a close. In accordance with tradition, a brigade of pompiers brought up the rear, looking miraculously dignified and none too worse for the wear from the previous night’s shenanigans. Paratroopers jumped from planes at Place de la Concorde as part of the big finale, drifting grandly through the sky with their parachutes.

This time the music in my head was “Flight of the Valkyries.

I’m told that “les pompiers” always traditionally close out the 14 juillet military parade. I wonder if it’s so they can sleep in a little longer after the July 13 festivities… Between you and me, I think odds are pretty good that more than a few of the pompiers in the parade were suffering from “la gueule de bois.”

The party organizers poured another round of champagne and everybody toasted a successful 14 juillet parade. The woman who had taken my sweater gifted me with a brightly-coloured red, white and blue bonnet, the hat traditionally worn by Marianne, a national emblem of France who symbolizes the French republic. Photo op!

La p’tite canadienne fête le 14 juillet !

Floriane and I left to brave the typhoon outdoors briefly before taking shelter in the safety of a local bistro, where we fell ravenously upon bavette steak and frites. We were joined by my friend Brian, whereupon we all retired to my place to dry off a little and papoter. Eventually, Floriane went home to crawl under the covers and take a much-needed nap, while Brian and I scrounged up some dinner from what I had sitting in the cupboard – namely, cassoulet in a can, which I had bought in a fit of curiosity ages ago, but hadn’t yet had the guts to try. Suffice to say, it was… an experience. There was much giggling and hilarity, and the meal filled us up, but the leftovers went straight into the trash bin.

Later on that evening, I brought together several friends on the Champ de Mars to catch the feu d’artifice at the Eiffel Tower. Aiko, Morgan, Khaled and Julien all arrived separately from their respective corners of Paris, squeezing one by one onto the tiny square of grass that Brian and I had managed to save from eagle-eyed scavenging spectators by spreading out and trying to look as large as humanly possible. We chattered happily amongst ourselves on the still-damp grass for an hour and a half until eleven o’clock, when the music started, the sky lit up and everybody rose to their feet to watch the spectacular light display. I swayed with the rest of the crowd to the grand orchestral score, watching in awed wonder as the multi-coloured lights exploded, whizzed, popped, twirled and danced through the air in time to music, reflecting off the luminous faces of the enraptured spectators. It was something of a surreal experience. I mean, on the one hand, I of course knew I had come here to watch the fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower, but… wow… I was actually watching the fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower! My long-dreamed-of summer in Paris was in fact a concrete reality. I wanted to stop time or somehow bottle up this moment and put it in a keepsake box so that I could take it out and savour it in years to come.

This theme of this year’s July 14 fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower was a celebration of 40 years of La Francophonie, an organization that promotes the French language.

And as the music played on and the light show continued, I looked around at the smiling faces of the friends I had made in my short time here, and sighed contentedly. I couldn’t have asked for a better first 14 juillet.

2 Responses to “La Fête nationale”

  1. Alia Says:

    Cassoulet in a CAN???

    Fantastic photos.


    • Darlene Says:

      You’d be amazed at what you can get in a can over here – cassoulet is only the tip of the iceberg. Watch for a future blog post on a trip to the supermarché! ;)

      And thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: